The Female Legacy of Sweden

A writer traces the country’s history through its women, and learns heart-warming tales of indomitable strength and Viking spirit.  
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The author spent a few days in Malmö learning about Sweden’s history through its women. Photos Courtesy: Fredrik Johansson, elvanfoto.se

The legend of the strong, female Viking warrior is an enduring one, despite its debatable real existence. In 2017, scientists in Sweden unearthed a tomb of a woman that hinted at validating the warrior narrative. While there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence of this, surviving and thriving in regions near the Arctic 1,000 years ago is enough evidence of Swedish women’s resilience.

When I visited pre-pandemic Sweden in 2019, perhaps the most formidable way to travel through Sweden’s past and present was through its women, what with Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate crusader rocketing to international fame. The Skarhults Castle in mid-western Skåne isn’t the country’s largest or most opulent, but it was the only one literally rewriting history to include pivotal women who men left out. Built in 1560—some parts dating back to the 1100s—it is one of the best-preserved Swedish Renaissance castles. The castle opened to tourists in 2014, with its gardens and cobbled pathways, and fanciful archways that led to stone stairs.

“We wanted to credit women with the roles they played in Swedish history—which is written by men about men,” says Emma Ehrenberg, tour guide and a student of gender studies. Through centuries, women were credited with only keeping home and children, never for running estates. Alexandra von Schwerin, who is married to the castle’s current owner, Carl Johan von Schwerin, became interested in her predecessors who had taken charge of the castle. She contacted Swedish historians who did extensive research to showcase for the first time, the women of Skarhults. The revelations led to the creation of the ‘Power of Disguise’ exhibition.

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A temporary exhibition in Skarhult Castle highlights the short, but impactful, life of firebrand Swedish journalist Ester Blenda. Photo Courtesy: Claes Hall/Skarhult Castle

Each room in the exhibit paid tribute to an era and the woman who ruled it. The building of the castle is credited to Steen Rosensparre, but the historians found that he was killed in battle in 1565, before the castle was completed, and that his wife, Mette Rosenkrantz, actually took the baton over the finish line. But she is never credited.

A mirror hung in the largest ballroom (now used for festivities for the owners who live in a different wing). A poem scribbled on it loosely translated to:

“Women have the same sexual urges as the man,

the same right to the pleasures of love,

the same ability to feel pleasure of the sweetness of embraces.”

Those lines, written back in the 1700s, by Swedish botanist and scientist Carl von Linné are as relevant and debated in 2020 in most parts of the world. “Although women won the right to vote only a 100 years ago, Sweden adopted the world’s first feminist foreign policy in 2014, which means that all issues of foreign affairs are permeated by feminist and gender equality perspectives,” says Ehrenberg.

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Wallåkra Stoneware Factory (bottom) in Northwestern Skåne is run for the past 30 years by former psychologist Åsa Orrmell (top). Photos Courtesy: Wallåkra Stoneware Factory

A temporary exhibition on the castle property highlighted Ester Blenda, a firebrand Swedish journalist. We walked past her book covers, her motorcycle, her photographs and a section dedicated to her relationship with a woman, Carin Frisell, which lasted her entire 57-year-old life.

Before Ester became a journalist, women were considered too weak for jobs that required investigative social and political commentary. She was the first to go undercover for stories in 1914, (although a man is credited with it much later), and changed Swedish journalism. She put herself in extreme situations constantly—be it travelling in a train to South America, or or working as a maid in Sweden to write about their struggle in society. Widely read and popular, male editors had no choice but to acknowledge and publish her work. skarhult.se

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If Ester understood something about the human spirit, Åsa Orrmell was all about channelling it. Orrmell has been the owner and potter at 150-year-old Wallåkra Stoneware Factory in Northwestern Skåne, for more than 30 years. A heritage site today, the success of Orrmell’s methods depends entirely on the geography and geology of the valley. “The best clay was found here, because it is a by-product of coal mining, which was done in this region.” A former psychologist, Wallåkra seemed to manifest Orrmell’s soothing philosophy. The kiln and café were set in Borgen, a nature reserve. Forest trails lead to a river below, and the trees towered above, bathed in birdsong. The workspace, where the clay is moulded into pots, was divided into sections of workstations with tables and benches, allowing enough natural light to touch everything it saw.

As our group gave the clay a whir, her clinical training became evident in her instructions—she could tell our personalities from the way we held the clay—a good friend, a cautious soul, a careless touch. There was a mirror in front of our hands, so we could watch the way the clay moved, and an old-fashioned wheel to move by foot. I said, “I am scared that I’ll ruin it. I’ve done that before.” She laughed and said, “Breathe my girl, this is new, different clay. Let go.” I was not sure we were talking about the clay anymore. wallakra.com

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The women at Yalla Trappan (top) in Malmö relearn skills to build a new home in Sweden; The coastal city of Malmö (bottom) is Sweden’s third-largest. Photo courtesy: Tina Axelsson/imagebank.sweden.se (women), Werner Nystrand/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se (city)

If there is one place where I felt the female Viking energy come to life, it was at Yalla Trappan in Rosengård, Malmö. A women’s cooperative, it is run a by non-profit organisation that works to integrate immigrant women into Sweden’s workforce. The cooperative began in 2010 by Christina Merker-Siesjö to help women displaced from their homes. Yalla Trappan provided a way to overcome deficient language skills, lack of prior working experience and limited (or no) education.

We reached the small office space in Rosengård. Sevinc Suleyman and Anna Ryden, local women who work at the office, introduced us to the women working in the kitchen. Mariam, 60, who came to Sweden from Iraq, said, “This place is full warmth and support. It has raised our self-confidence, sense of strength, and pride in earning an independent income.” She gestured to her colleague, a young woman from Somalia, “she would never speak when she arrived, now she does not stop. That is the openness and safe space we provide each other.”

The women operated under four different pillars: catering, sewing studio, cleaning services and the administrative office. As the afternoon gave way to the lunch hour, the kitchen opened to the smell of jam cookies for dessert. A woman from Lahore, whose eyes lit up when we spoke to her in Hindi, ensured we ate more than our share, while telling us stories on her life in Lahore as a PE instructor. What about now? “Now, I am learning to stand on my feet here, with these women to hold me up.” yallatrappan.com

When women help women, this was what the world looks like.

 

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  • Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.

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