Today, we start our month dedicates to the issues of gender and women history. The passage that follows, is part of a bigger research that I am doing for one of my modules, about how powerful were the women from the Viking Age. I could put up the whole thing, but it is extraordinary long. So out of the whole essay, I thought this would be a good starting point, the struggle between power, influence and how it affects gender, and in this case Norse women.
First of all, it needs to be defined what we understand as power, and how it could be applied to women. When the concept of power is used, not only in history but even in current affairs, it usually refers to the authority and influence that one has in the public domain1. This sort of influence usually appears in the context of law, freedom, and force, having this last one several interpretations (e.g military strength, political…). “This limited view of power as public authority carries two corollaries: it assumes that women were largely powerless and thus marginal, and it discourages the investigation of women’s actions in society as seemingly inconsequential”2. It is true that according to this, women had not much power, if power at all, at least not until the 20th century. But this does not mean they totally lack power, as it could be understood in a different way. It has to be considered that through time, and even nowadays, family was the unit in which all political institution was formed. Rulership was built around the different noble families, and as imitation, so did the popular classes. And in this system women had a lot of importance, as they basically were in charge of everything that happened within the household; they fed, cared and provide for everyone in their family. In this way, women still had some sort of influence in family business, even if this influence was not the orthodox version of it. The power they had within the boundaries of family was built around their economic contribution, the support and guidance they offered to their husbands and offspring and, obviously, there is the whole issue that implicates sexual tensions3. Outside the family circle, women could build networks through social interaction that gave them a position of influence within the community. This position was achieved by gossip, deceit, hospitality, patronage, for those of higher status, and it ended having an impact, as they became the objects of literature in many occasions4.
So, one can say that power differed between women and men. It is clear that having influence or not in the world was linked with gender. Gender was present in the building of institutional and cultural hierarchies, and all was based around the idea of including or excluding the ‘submissive’ gender5: the weak members of society, which usually meant women. The issue of gender and power is always a confusing one and, despite of the effort that is done to make it clear, there are still language issues that often get in the way of our understanding of the subject. The dominant gender was largely formed by men, which made the masculine terminology prevail to refer to those that hold power6. Therefore the female concept applied to everyone else, everyone that could stand up in public for themselves. Thus, the characteristics of females got converted into a category, a social label. Nonetheless, this class was somehow movable. Sexual difference was not a wall, but a permeable membrane, and this is how gender transgressions could happen, this was what allowed some women to live like men7. Gender transgressions were more common than we thought, and usually they were more harmful and dishonourable for men than women. “Physical women could become a social man, a physical man could (and sooner or later did) become a social woman” explains C.J Clover8. For the weaker gender, the good news are that their situation could be improved, they could become dominant, while men, as they were already dominant, they could only embrace weakness with the march of time.
In what concerns the Viking culture, the issues of power and gender, and more specifically women, create a peculiar image of their society, and the roles of females in it. It is often said that Viking women seem to have a good position, in comparison with the rest of the female European population. But their success is usually linked, and dependant on their menfolk, as M. Arnold understands it9. However, one might differ. Since the beginning of Old Norse culture, women seem to have a more privileged status, regardless of their relationships with men. Viking women were considered able to do important things when they were needed, in the same way that men would do and this is clearly seen in their mythology. As the creation myth explains “Ask and Embla are created simultaneously, and they receive exactly the same characteristics from the gods”10. Men and women are equal companions, unlike Adam and Eve. Also, it has to be considered that goddesses are abundant, and as powerful as their male equivalents11. It is likely to think that, as the reflections of their heavenly images, real women held power, and their status should not be undermined. “The Old Norse view on biological inheritance constitute the basis for a view of women where women with same characteristics and intellectual abilities as the male heroes are the ideal in society”12. There is a place for women in Viking society; a powerful and real position that they fulfil over the years, usually in silence. Probably, not all of them were as remarkable as Aud, the daughter of Ketil the Flat-nose, who played an important role in the settlement of Iceland, as the Landnámabók suggests13. Nonetheless, that does not mean they are less significant and deserve to remain in the shadows, and remembered as weak, irrelevant members of society…More likely they were, and they should be considered, the working engines and rather valuable members of the community. As Gudrun would put it, “Morning tasks differed: I have spun yarn for twelve ells of cloth, and you have killed Kjartan”14.