Scandinavian Women and Emigration

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  • Topic: Sweden, Gender role, Emigration
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Quincy M Campbell
SCAN 353, Zuck
Final Paper
March 15, 2004
Scandinavian Women and Emigration

There have been many great exoduses in the history of mankind; men and women have traveled across deserts, mountains, and finally oceans. And the motivations behind this travel have ranged from economic to social to political in nature, often reflecting an overall attitude of change. Scandinavian emigration since the early 19th century has demonstrated a transitition toward women’s independence and a more prominent role in the economy. Initially, emigrants consisted of rural families, headed by a patriarch, seeking arable lands and better agricultural opportunities. Later, with industrialization and urbanization, many women found equal opportunity for employment in urban areas, expanding their prospects for independence. Moreover, with a redefinition of women’s gender roles and social emancipation supported by literary and social debate, many young unmarried women, as well as mothers, demanded more from life and freely sought opportunity abroad. So, with the emigration precedent of the generations that traveled before, independent women and families escaped what was thought to be the social and economic deterioration of Scandinavia. Thus, through a diversity of employment niches and a transitioning attitude toward women’s gender roles, Scandinavian emigration created occasion for equality.

There is much speculation in the literature over the impetus for the different stages of emigration from Scandinavia, which possibilities included economic distress, population pressures, and an abundance of labor capital. First of all, there are conflicting resources on the subject of agricultural prosperity, and its possible effects on emigration. Janson discusses the period of 1836-1875 in Sweden as one of agricultural opulence due to increased prices on the world market for grains. However, one might make the observation that during this period the population of Sweden was largely rural, and not all of the agricultural communities could have contributed to this exportation due to simple geography, so many individuals were deprived of this prosperity. Moreover, most of the literature emphasizes that a great proportion of the emigration in the pre-industrial era came from rural areas and regions supported by agriculture. Janson discusses how tradition dictates that it is “necessary for the many sons and daughters of the Swedish peasant farmer to seek their fortune away from the home farm,” and perhaps even emigrate, which many did. This suggests that women and men were equally encouraged to leave home and be independent. However, it is almost certain, as demonstrated in “The Gotland Story,” that women had far fewer employment options, and often married into another farming family. So, even with agricultural prosperity, individuals did emigrate in unparalleled numbers, promoting speculation that emigration may have been due to competition and a scarcity of natural resources, such as land. A second major precedent for emigration and freedom for migration within Scandinavia was that the countries were mostly without the institution of serfdom, and in 1855 these peasant groups, including both men and women, accounted for over 65 percent of the Swedish population. This meant that Scandinavia had an abundance of human capital, but did not have enough arable land to provide for the population. Moreover, migration was encouraged by several policies, the most prominent being Thomas Malthus’ theory of emigration, which illustrated that the pressures of overpopulation and poverty could be lightened by emigration. Also, the proponents of economic laissez-faire, “in the same way as a free exchange of capital and goods was believed to lead to the highest possible effectivity and prosperity [,]…considered the free exchange of labor, i.e. populations, as a similarly expedient policy.” Thus, in the pre-industrial era, emigration was promoted by the...
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