Ibsen and Feminism 3
The image below is from feminist and critical race theorist bell hooks (if you aren’t already, you should get familiar). It’s been making the rounds on Facebook and I share it here because it touches on the continued debate over whether Nora’s uniquely female position makes her a feminist figure and, by extension, Ibsen a “feminist” playwright and whether the label of “feminism” excludes men from identifying with and advocating for the character and her actions not to mention detracts from the playwright’s stated humanist mission and politics.
I think hooks is trying to disentangle some essentializing assumptions in her chart. One being that feminism means just one thing; it is multi-faceted, particularly if one defines it as a political movement based in progressive social theories that connect multiple aspects of individual identity (of which gender is only one) to the struggle for social, economic, and interpersonal equality.
And with that assertion, I’ve probably just outed myself as a feminist who attaches particular value and self-interest to this definition of the term. But like many terms that characterize politics and identity – e.g., conservative, liberal, independent to use the big three floating around the mainstream media today – once one pushes beyond the surface assumptions and impressions invoked by the terms themselves, one finds great variety in individual beliefs and actions within such groups. I think back to one of my very first slogan t-shirts; I think I bought it when I was a sophomore in college (back in the day). It read: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. I hear echoes of that slogan when Nora says, I am first and foremost a human being just as much a one as you are. It’s a simple, powerful line and one among many that makes A Doll’s House a “feminist” play.
Still another assumption challenged by hooks’ graphic is the idea that all women, by virtue of being women, are inclined towards feminist political interests. There are multiple examples of women in public and private life that benefit from opportunities that exist because of the influence of feminist theories, social movements, and political organizations but who eschew “feminism” because of the movement’s negative, essentializing connotations.
There are also women who reject “feminism” precisely because the policies and activities of feminist academics and activists do not benefit all women equally. They key in on the fact that while the chart below asserts feminism as a philosophy that sees gender as interrelated to other facets of identity (including class, race, ethnicity, sexuality), feminism as a political or social movement organizing principle has tended to place particular emphasis on the concerns of upper-middle-class, educated, white women with male partners and children. (Interesting to note that a contrasting stereotype of a “feminist” that appears frequently in popular culture and talk radio is a lesbian of any race who eschews not only traditional femininity but also any/all traditional institutions from churches to corporations.)
Finally, I think hooks’ chart begs the assumption that only women can be feminists. This idea is perhaps the most pervasive and most difficult to disentangle from conventional wisdom because it seems impossible to conceive that men would be participants in a movement or subscribe to a theory that wants to dismantle male privilege. Unless one realizes that “male privilege” itself is unequally distributed; not all men, simply by virtue of being men, gain access to power in the same way. While they may have preference over women in certain circumstances, men too are constrained by other facets of identity (race, class, sexuality, ethnicity), constraints which feed, in hooks’ terms, the “ideology of domination” that thrives on pitting individuals and groups against each other, scrabbling for resources and privileges versus banding together to dismantle oppressive systems of power.
Ibsen insisted to the Norwegian feminist group that tried to honor him in 1898 for his work on the “woman’s rights movement” that he was looking at the larger “humanist” picture.
I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of mankind in general. And if you read my books carefully you will understand this. True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity. (Speech reprinted in Ibsen Letters and Speeches, editor Evert Sprinchorn, 1964.)
As Joan Templeton argues in the article we read towards the beginning of the semester, however, when you put Nora’s actions and dialogue in the context of early feminist writers (e.g., Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Martineau are a few that Templeton mentions specifically) and Ibsen’s own circle of “personal” feminists (Templeton cites his wife Suzannah Thoresen Ibsen, Magdalen Thoresen–Suzannah’s former governess!–and Camilla Wergeland Collet) one sees in their texts and struggles “a compendium of everything that early modern feminism denounced about woman’s state” (Templeton, “The Doll House backlash,” 32, 36). Also, Ibsen’s 1898 speech is not his sole musing on the matter. He wrote this when sketching out an early draft of the play:
A woman cannot be herself in the society of today, which is exclusively a masculine society, with laws written by men, and with accusers and judges who judge feminine conduct from the masculine standpoint. (Ibsen qtd. in William Archer’s introduction to an anthology of Ibsen’s Works, qtd. in Templeton, 36).
The more I write this, the more I think of the end of the play when Nora insists to Torvald that they both must change in order for the “wonderful thing” to happen. He would have to be willing to learn lessons himself instead of continuing to “teach” or “guide” her. I have to educate myself. And you’re not the right man for the job.
When he appeals to known structures (education, religion, social mores) to convince her that these institutions can lead her to self-knowledge, she insists that only she can determine what her education will be or when it will be finished. I don’t know anything more than Pastor Hansen passed on at my confirmation! He said religion is this and is that. When I leave all this and I’m on my own I’ll examine this matter too. I’ll see if what Pastor Hansen said is right or if it is right for me.
Templeton notes that critical views of A Doll’s House either try to rescue a great play from being consigned as a “feminist” work by asserting the universality of Nora’s struggle or deny her the mantle of feminist because, ironically, she’s simply too much of a flighty, flawed woman. The first trend is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who was keen to say that Ibsen was too great of a playwright to focus on “issues,” instead “he was a poet of the truth of the human soul” (Templeton 28). The other trend emerged from the moment of the play’s publication and performance and continues through contemporary theater history. Templeton notes, “All female, or no woman at all, Nora loses either way” (30). Ironically, the binary divide is similar for Ibsen. Either he is a feminist champion or unfettered observer of human nature; either a playwright steeped in his time and place who used the theater to illuminate issues of the day or a playwright whose dramaturgy of essential human truths allows his works to exceed any specific time and place. Just as bell hooks’ graphic tries to maintain the broadest conceptualization of feminism, one that is diverse and can admit a number of different “kinds” of feminists under its mantle, perhaps can we conceive of Ibsen and Nora. Both/and instead of either/or. To my mind, you can’t get more feminist than that.