Aasta Hansteen, feminist poet abroad

Photo: Public Domain
This portait of Aasta Hansteen, painted by Marie Nielsen Hauge in 1903, hangs in Drammen Museum.

Nancy Klimp
Daughters of Norway Sigrid Undset Lodge

In Norway I was deserted, shrouded in loneliness, all the others were ‘we’ but not me. Here in freedom’s land, here I am blessed, here I too am ‘we.’

It was 1886 when Aasta Hansteen wrote those words. The quote refers to a significant time in her life, her nine years in America, where she had found a sisterhood. It is part of a small collection of poems that was unpublished, called Arbeidsglæde (Joy of Work).

As a feminist in Norway, Hansteen had felt isolated, unappreciated, and misunderstood. She decided to travel to America in April of 1880, as she understood that the struggle for women’s rights here was well underway. As her ship departed the Kristiania (Oslo) harbor, she wrote, “My misery is over,” as feelings of liberation emerged. She eagerly anticipated observing the inspiring suffrage leaders about whom she had read, and she would spend her American years near them in Boston (six and a half years) and Chicago (two and a half years).

In Norway, she had achieved many “firsts.” Hansteen held the distinction of being Kristiania’s first female portrait painter, the first Norwegian woman to deliver public lectures, the first woman to publish in the Nynorsk language, and a pioneer in the Norwegian women’s movement. The enduring image of Aasta Hansteen has been of an impassioned, eccentric, umbrella-wielding reformer. This side of her was captured in Gunnar Heiberg’s play Tanta Ulrikke (1884). Ibsen’s dynamic heroine Lona Hessel, who insisted on unveiling social hypocrisy in Pillars of Society (1877), is said to have been modeled on Hansteen. The daughter of Christopher Hansteen, a distinguished early professor at the University of Oslo, she was well known in the intellectual and upper-class circles in Norway’s capital for her unconventional behavior, which set her apart from her contemporaries.

In America, her meager income included a small amount from Norway annually supplemented by painting portraits on commission. Her lifestyle was modest and often financially difficult. Before leaving Norway, she had a contract to write five reports for the Kristiania newspaper Verdens Gang, based on her findings and contacts with liberal Boston intellectuals. Many of her lectures over the years proved to be positive emotional experiences but disappointing from a financial point of view.

Image courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet
This 1905 statue by famous Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland portrays Aasta Hansteen at her umbrella-weilding best.

Hansteen’s experiences in America centered around writing, lecturing, painting, and “joining” with the feminist movement in many ways. They were good and important years for her. One of her most important contacts in Chicago proved to be Dr. Gerhard Christian Paoli; he had served twice as president of the Chicago Medical Society and was a champion of social and political reform. He took a strong interest in opening the medical field to women and taught for many years at Women’s Medical College of Chicago. The Paolis counted Ole Bull and Jenny Lind as friends, figures Hansteen greatly admired. Her social contacts were based squarely in progressive Scandinavian circles as represented by the Scandinavian Freethinkers’ Society and members of the radical press.

Hansteen’s attempts to enter the American publishing and lecture scenes did not succeed due to her limited command of the English language, which was a major stumbling block. Nevertheless, the unpublished poem “Tilbageblik” (Retrospective View) illustrates the sincere optimism she maintained in Chicago despite difficult financial straits. One stanza reads, freely translated: “The Atlantic’s strong breeze, the prairie’s sharp storms lie between us and narrow-mindedness. Our courage stirs in spite of all that we have suffered, in spite of want and the daily, frightening struggle for bread. For here life’s seeds and opportunities swirl about us, in the refreshing wind.”

Certain key images recur in Hansteen’s prose and poetry. These focus on sun, light, and warmth. In America she encountered the sunflower in use as a feminist symbol. The plant was interpreted as a visual sign of woman’s claim to light and air, and Hansteen took upon herself the task of introducing this symbol into Scandinavia. The campaign achieved definite success in Norway, where the sunflower was adopted as the official symbol of the Norwegian Feminist Society and its journal. Hansteen’s 70th birthday was celebrated by her friends as a special sunflower festival. The sunflower image embraces the optimistic spirit she brought back from America.

The decision for Han­steen to return to Norway was influenced by the desire to function in a more visible, public capacity, unhampered by a language barrier. She had experienced two sides of Norwegian America during her stay. She ran up against the hierarchy and ideology of the Norwegian Lutheran Church and, on the other hand, she encountered the fellowship of the Scandinavian Freethinkers and the patriotism of liberal nationalists. Naturally, she lashed out at the first group and embraced the second.

Her return was also encouraged by changes in Norway. The nine years she’d spent away had brought increased tolerance for Norwegian women, who now appeared and wrote publicly. In a letter written from Boston in December 1887 to her sister Nanna, Hansteen expressed happy astonishment that such was the case: “It is wonderful that women now can use their talents and energies.” By 1889 the Norwegian feminist movement had taken firm root and Hansteen could be welcomed home as one of its pioneers. In 1867, during a time of great personal anguish, she’d written a short poem describing a feeling of being engulfed by flames. In 1896 she added the words, “But now the flames have turned to sunbeams and sunflowers” to the poem. Her return to Norway sparked a renewed feeling of emancipation and optimism. Emigration had been a matter of self-preservation, but her return to Norway was a matter of following her heart.

Aasta Hansteen’s grave in Oslo is marked with a bust made by Gustav Vigeland. There is also a statue of her by Norwegian sculptor Nina Sundbye in the Aker Brygge area of Oslo. Two streets are named after her, one in Oslo and one in Trondheim. Her inspiration and work contributed significantly towards the women’s movement in America and Norway. Thank you, Aasta Hansteen!

Nancy Klimp is a member of Sigrid Undset Lodge #32, Daughters of Norway, and the Daughters of Norway Literary Society.

This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.