Happy Birthday, Fredrika!

by Elder M. Lindahl

During this year, Swedes are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Fredrika Bremer’s birthday. Fredrika had a life-long interest in human development, especially of women, and in the moral and spiritual advancement of society. Her "everlasting sermon" was how much good there is in people, and how much care each must take to call it forth. "Self-improvement must never stand still," she wrote in her diary. Its an on-going process.

Ms. Bremer was born in Åbo (Turku), Finland in 1801. Her father, a successful businessman, moved with the family of six children to south of Stockholm when Fredrika was three. In the summers, the family lived in Årsta Castle which her gloomy, despotic father had purchased. From an unhappy and lonely childhood she wrote her first novel, Teckningar utur hvardagslifvet (Scenes from Everyday Life) in 1828. The following year, she wrote The H. Family which was even more successful. With The Presidents Daughter, 1834, and The Home, 1939, she became a famous author in both Europe and America. Mary Howitt (1799-1888), the British poet, was her translator.

Fredrika Bremer

Fredrika, though she herself came from the upper class, became increasingly aware of the problems of all women in 19th century Swedish society. Girls and women generally were considered inferior to men. They had few educational opportunities, vocational choices, and had marginal quality in their lives. Servitude was not uncommon. Women could suggest, but men made the important decisions. Domestic life, the woman’s area, was difficult. Long hours left little time for personal improvement and advancement, leisure, sports, and culture. Women worked hard, but men had the commanding social power and influence. Gender inequality was the norm in working conditions, salaries, and benefits. Emancipation of women, in Fredrika’s eyes, was the only solution.

Fredrika herself studied languages, music, and art at home under governesses and private teachers. She read, beginning in 1836, the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel (1770-1831). His works, she said, awakened her spirit. She calls Hegel the "Heavenly gold-digging boar." (De herrliga Guldgrufvorne) Unlike Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose categories are aloft in a transcendental sphere, Hegel works with the immanent, with Spirit making its way in this very world. She was confident that, with better laws and educational opportunities, women could and would rise to higher levels of freedom and equality with men.

In her diary, Fredrika envisions the problems she would face had she married. She writes that it would have meant being dominated and prevented from achieving her potential. "I am become afraid of it (domestic life), and for my part have determined not to let myself be bound by it, but to live independently, certain of this, that I in this manner can best accomplish my human mission."

I have seen many a young girl, with a rich soul, with a mind open to all that is good and beautiful in humanity, and full of will to work for it; have I not seen how this same girl, some years after her marriage, is shrunk together into a narrow circle of cares and joys the sense for the general and the whole lost for ever, and more and more compressed into the single and the individual, till she at last had lost sight of her higher goal, and scarcely could lift her eyes above the sill of her own house.1

In another passage from her diary Fredrika contrasts her view of women with a popular view. Flora, a friend, seemed to be making a play for a certain man, St. Orme, but when confronted she claimed that appearances are often deceitful. Women have to be tricky. "One must often appear that which one is not, in order to obtain that which one wishes. Craft and cunning were given to woman, in order to govern those who would rule her. They are her rightful weapons." But, Fredrika counters, "So people often say, but I have not found it so. I have found the force of truth and of earnestness if they be used with prudence and love alone right powerful, and that in men as in women." (Diary, 16) The context is playful, but her response focuses on integrity rather than duplicity in character.

Fredrika’s best friend, Wilhelm Brenner, whom she calls "The Viking," was madly in love with her. He had five children from a previous marriage. Fredrika who had lived in constant tension with her own stepmother had no interest in becoming one herself. The Viking would propose, and she would refuse, though always with a certain sadness and regret. It was very hard for her, especially when her dear Wilhelm yielded to the aggressive tactics of another woman who Fredrika refers to as "Z," an almost unused letter in the Swedish alphabet. They do continue to be friends.

From 1849 to 1851, Fredrika traveled extensively in the North East, the South, and around the Twin cities. She came to know some of the great New England authors, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she visited in Concord, Massachusetts. However, it was on the Midwest and the West that Fredrika focused her attention:

What a glorious new Scandinavia might not Minnesota become! Here the Swede would find again his clear, romantic lakes, the plains of Skåne rich in corn, and the valleys of Norrland; here the Norwegian would find his rapid rivers, his lofty mountains, for I include the Rocky Mountains and Oregon in the new kingdom; and both nations their hunting-fields and their fisheries. The Danes might here pasture their flocks and herds, and lay out their farms on richer and less misty coasts than those of Denmark. The Rocky Mountains are a new Seveberg....2

She was impressed also with the American democratic form of government, our educational standards, social-welfare work, science, and technology. Still, "the aristocracy of wealth" disturbed her Christian view of society. Even more disturbing for her was the presence of slavery here and elsewhere. She was a social critic, both of the conditions in Sweden and in America. Her pacifist view, that gradual movement toward abolition of slavery was better than outright war, was criticized both in Europe and America. Near the end of the Civil War, she wrote in a letter to America:

One of the greatest and most important problems which your people from now will be expected to solve, not only for itself, but theoretically for the whole world, is how to turn the Negro population into a free and industrious people, capable of self-government....North America is at this time the only truly interesting scene on the globe....Next to my own country none is dearer to me than yours.3

On returning to Sweden, Bremer spoke and wrote much about the problems of women in society. Her stress was not so much on women’s rights as it was on the special spiritual qualities women possessed. When society limits the personal, educational and vocational opportunities for women, these special qualities fail to emerge and we all are impoverished. Therefore, women, the virtual saviors of a society, must be given equality with men. Emancipation meant freedom from having men speak "dictatorially" (Fredrika’s term) to women. It also meant an enriched, close, sibling-like relationship with the entire human family.

O freedom! how charming is the enjoyment of thee after long years of captivity....I feel that I am come into an ever-improving, a more and more harmonious relationship to my fellow creatures....I have towards mankind, and mankind has towards me a certain thou affinity of feelings, a certain relationship, as of the children of one parent, which has opened our souls to each other, and has beautified life. In one word, I acknowledge ever more intelligibly that human love is my proposition. (Diary, 38)

In 1854, she and other Swedish women philanthropists proposed an international federation of women’s groups. In Fredrika’s words: "We proposed to consider ourselves as having the same native country, as belonging to the same family, and, whatever diversity of opinion there may be among us, yet to join hands (as) sisters." She envisioned a universal sisterhood around the world, a commonality beyond all the diversities, a chain of healing, loving energies. "True moral education effaces every distinction, even in the greatest differences of rank." The plan, published in the Times (London), was based on the Christian responsibility of women. In her most well-known novel, Hertha or the Three Sisters, published two years later, Bremer continues to express her views about the present women’s situation and the new possibilities she envisions.

In 1884, 19 years after her death, a women’s society, Fredrika Bremer förbundet, was formed in her name and continues to this day. The Society has these five theses:

(1) Power and influence to be distributed equally between women and men, (2) Health and medical care shall be provided to women and men on the same conditions, (3) Equivalent work shall bring the same pay, benefits, and pension for men and women, (4) Schools shall be established the same regardless of gender, and (5) Women’s liberation. (kvinnofrid)

And there are still some traces of Ms. Bremer in the United States as well as in Sweden. An elementary school, The Bremer School, at 1214 Lowry Avenue, North, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was erected in her honor in 1887. Additions to the school were made in 1897, 1910, and 1916. Classes there, in 1912-13 for example, were held in Departmental Work, Manual Training, Domestic Science, Domestic Art, Sloyd (Swedish, Slöjd or handicraft), Kindergarten, and Gymnasium. There were 28 classrooms and three recitation rooms. On the site were also gardens, a free public library, and social activities.

The Bremer School building, since 1978 on the National registry of Historic Places, was remodeled into 24 HUD apartments at its closing. I recently met retired educator, George Lillquist, Sr., who was principal of Bremer school from 1955-67, and who now lives in one of the lovely Bremer apartments. On a visit to his apartment, he told me that when he retired from another school in 1977, he and his wife heard about the Bremer School apartments and decided to move in. Principal Lillquist, whose wife died several years ago, gave me a tour of the impressive brick and stone building and told me about his 12 years there as principal. As one enters the lobby, there are pictures of Fredrika, students from former days, and various Scandinavian scenes. All three floors are carpeted, have high ceilings, are decorated attractively, and well-maintained.

A county in NE Iowa, organized in 1851, was named "Bremer" following a suggestion by Governor Hempstead, an admirer. In Warren Township of that county, a small community and a post office, were also named "Bremer." In 1858, another township and post office of Bremer couny, were named "Frederica," an Americanized version of her name, and were later changed to "Frederika."4

In Sweden there are several schools named after Fredrika. The Fredrika Bremergymnasiet in Haninge is a large upper secondary school with some 2,000 students, ages 16-19. In Humlegården, a Folk School named after her just south of Stockholm, there is a bronze statue of her. In the sculpture, Fredrika’s full visage is frozen in a dynamic pose, as though she is taking a step forward; the base of the sculpture is low, close to the earth. The pose and placement symbolize the important steps she took to advance the causes of righteousness and human equality in this world.

Fredrika was also well aware of the profound ambiguities of life. In a passage from Strife and Peace, she writes:

There is on earth much sorrow and much darkness; there is crime and sickness, the shriek of despair, and the deep, long, silent torture. Ah! who can name them all the sufferings of humanity, in their manifold, pale dispensations?! But, God be praised! there is also an affluence of goodness and joy; there are noble deeds, fulfilled hopes, moments of rapture, decades of blissful peace, bright marriage-days...when the suns of nature and of men’s hearts combined to call forth on earth a paradise, which is always to be found there, though frequently hidden, fettered, deeply bound by the subterranean powers. (Diary, 131-32)

During this 200th anniversary of her birth, seminars, study programs, a church service, and pilgrimage trips will be held in Sweden. One can find the details at www.fredrikabremer.net. The Högmässa and Seminar will be held Sunday, August 26, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in Österhaninge Church in Sweden. Bishop Krister and Brita Stendahl are two of the participants. Pietisten joins in with the spirit of these remembrances. Ja, lång må hennes ande alltid förbli.