labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/ 2017- junho 2018 /juillet 2017-juin 2018



The Problem Without a Name? Exploring Norwegian Popular Feminism of the 1950s through

Reader’s Letters Columns in Alle kvinners blad


Synnøve Lindtner and Anemari Neple


This article explores the reader’s letters columns printed in the women’s magazine Alle kvinners blad (“Every woman’s magazine”), with an emphasis of the 1950’s. Our aim is to show that these letters give a rich and multifaceted look into the way “the housewife” was a dominant, but contested ideal within the emergent welfare state in Norway in the 1950s. The article argues that they offer new understandings of the dominant interpretations of the housewife ideal of the period, and the role women’s magazines played in promoting this ideal. Norwegian women’s magazines of the 1950s have rarely been the subject to academic research, but are nevertheless often blamed for reproducing a domesticated femininity. We challenge such descriptions, and suggest that the magazines offered spaces for discussing, developing and publicly voicing a critique and potential feminist consciousness that has been overlooked in Norwegian women’s history. Building on what British media scholar Laurel Forster (2016) has labelled the “polyvocal” and “polysemic” communication form of women’s magazines, and the way they built their communication on real life contestations, we suggest a much more political interpretation of their formulae.

Key words: Popular feminism, women’s magazines, readers letters cloumns , housewifes

When launched in 1937, Alle kvinners blad (“Every woman’s magazine”) marked a turn in the Norwegian market for mass-distributed commercial magazines, by explicitly addressing its intended readers as women (Gripsrud 1999:18)[i]. Launched by the reputable publishing house Gyldendal, it presented a visually appealing mix of journalism, ads and reader’s letters, primarily targeted at rendering intimate and practical advise for women as homemakers. According to promotional materials, it was to be ”an innovation” that would reach out to “modern”, “quality-conscious” readers, and offer reading materials “for the interests of women and the home only” (Heidenreich 2006:522). Alle kvinners blad became the bestselling magazine in Norway throughout the 1950s –  a period often presented as “the housewife era” (Danielsen 2013:X). The magazine reflected, but also contradicted the housewife ideal by engaging with a wide range of issues of real concern to a wide group of audiences. In particular, the vast sections of reader’s letters documents the layered and varied presentation of this ideal.

The reader’s letters columns facilitated for a breadth of views and participations, and give a rich and multifaceted look into the way “the housewife” was a dominant, but contested ideal within the emergent welfare state in Norway in the 1950s. In this article, we explore these columns and argue that they offer new understandings of the dominant interpretations of the housewife ideal of the period, and the role women’s magazines played in promoting this ideal. Norwegian women’s magazines of the 1950s have rarely been the subject to academic research, but nevertheless they are often blamed for reproducing gender ideologies, and offering a focus for communication that restricted Norwegian women to a domesticated femininity. We challenge such descriptions, and suggest that these magazines offered spaces for discussing, developing and publicly voicing a critique and potential feminist consciousness that has been overlooked in Norwegian women’s history. Building on what British media scholar Laurel Forster has labelled the “polyvocal” and “polysemic” communication form of women’s magazines, and the way they built their communication on real life contestations (Forster 2016), we suggest a much more political interpretation of their formulae.

With regard to what aspects of domestic life the columns in Alle kvinners blad treated, and in what forms, we explore the degree to which they challenged general discourses of the housewife ideal in the 1950s. The columns provided for lively chatter, opinionated arguments and emotional support among readers. The critique of the woman’s role was voiced mainly through three forms of expression: affective outbreaks (”sighs from the heart”), critical discussion (between the readers, as well as between the editorial staff and the readers) and humour (such as poems and photographs provided by the readers).


“The housewife” and the critical field of Women’s magazines

The term “Women’s magazine” has in a useful manner captured the degree to which commercial mass-circulated magazines have mostly been read by, but also addressed to an assumed female readership, often explicitly positioned as “women” (Ytre-Arne 2011:48). Magazines addressed to women appeared as early as the late 17th century, but were expanded on and commercialised from the mid and late 19th century in a western context (White 1970:58). Throughout history these magazines have been entangled in various processes engaged with categorising, locating and regulating “womanliness” (Beetham 1996:viii). Certainly, this womanliness has been distilled to “the imagined identity and role of housewife” in certain periods (Forster 2016:17). This applies in particular to the explosion of women’s magazines in the mid-20th century. A domesticated femininity now became the dominant mode for constructing a gendered role for women in commercial magazines in most western contexts – “and the impressive sales figures of many titles are both testament to this success, and also, surely, to reader’s willingness to be identified in this way“ (Ibid:18). Social and economic changes in this period profoundly affected the women’s press, as it has been tied to the increase in wealth, population and consumption and the many new forms of specialised leisure and cultural goods that were developed and targeted at an emerging middle and lower middle class sector (Bastiansen og Dahl 2008:300).[ii] However, it has also been tied to the new social and political role for women emerging in this period, often labelled the “housewife era” (Melby 1999). This term reflects the professionalism of household management, and a new public ideal of the home as the only proper sphere for women, developed in several western countries in the interwar period and onwards. It has been tied to an emerging middle class, as the housewife became a symbol of private and domestic wealth and health, as well as public and national interests (Forster 2016). Norwegian scholars have discussed the construction of the housewife in Norwegian popular culture by means of class-equalisation politics, as the housewife gained an important role in the social democratic imaginary of a class-wide society (Larsen 1998).

A rich body of academic work has dealt with how magazines from this period defined and addressed “the housewife” in and through their content. Through a wide range of approaches, focus has been on the sociological dimensions and influence of the magazine industry and advertisers, as well as on the ideological imperatives, communication style and function, and the potential reception of such magazines. Most approaches have been clear about the oppressive role of the women’s magazine industry in forging a pervasive domesticated femininity – narrowing women’s lives and outlooks to what British historian Cynthia White has labelled “the Kinder, Küche, Kleider formula” (White 1970:217). American feminist critic and journalist Betty Friedan had a profound impact on the field, with her bestselling book The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 (Friedan 1963). Friedan described a turn within American women’s magazines in the post-World War II years, that prescribed a female withdrawal from working life and public commitments, and a confinement to domestic concerns, motherhood, bodily and psychological improvements, and the pursuit of romantic love with a man (ibid:30-60). Friedan accused male editors and writers of promoting this ideal for commercial purposes, and described the ideal housewife as a general “formula” for magazine copy and advertising that provided a mode of addressing the target audiences, and a focus for the content of articles. As Forster notes, this formula has been important for magazines configuration as  “it acted as a channel for aspirations and needs subsequently identified and fulfilled by advertisers’ products and, more didactically, simplified the conundrum of how to live a successful life as a woman” (Forster 2016:17). It enabled a wide range of potential readers – across class, geography and cultural differences – as almost any topic qualified for inclusion, as long as it related to the housewives’ tasks and domain. It has thus “served to reinforce the social centrality of the housewife” (ibid).

However, several studies have also challenged the descriptions of the housewife formula as an constant entity, as magazines published during the “the housewife era” on the contrary included contestations, ambiguity and competing discourses of femininity (Johnson and Lloyd; Meyrowitz 1993; Forster 2016). Some studies have even provided approaches to magazines as popular texts that theoretically challenge the notion of magazines as monolithic vehicles acting on behalf of the magazine industry, that have inspired and informed this study:

In A magazine of her own, Margaret Beetham discusses the meaning, role and place of popular print magazines in Britain from 1800–1914 (Beetham 1996). Drawing on poststructuralist approaches, she argues that different power structures are at play in magazine texts, and that they consist of layers of meaning, and channel both capitalist interests as well as contestations, oppositional writings and readings. Editorial power, in her account, is limited, both by advertisers and the readers, and magazines are mediums for exchange among a community of women who may “circumevent the economic aims of its producers, however also reassets an alternative set of rules” ((ibid:2).

In her study of the British commercial magazine Housewife (1939-1968), Forster (2016: 17-49)draws on this understanding of how meaning is constructed when explaining how the magazine reconstructed the housewife ideal in order to respond to distinct social and cultural changes in the period (ibid: 17-49). Housewife presented “a flexible formula for the housewife”, Forster argues. In the 1950s, the magazine was adjusting to new middle class ideals when encouraging women – or housewives, as the title indicated – to be confident in their skills, increase their contact with the public and working world, and to think in feminist terms of equality in work and pay, as well as in child care and domestic concerns (ibid:49). Forster argues furthermore that commercial, mass-circulated magazines have a radical potential due to how they reflect and respond to current social changes and cultural contestations, in a manner that resonates with the real concerns and dilemmas of audiences. She foregrounds how “the flexibility of the magazine format” permits “a layered, malleable and variable interpretation” of the formulaic address ((ibid:18). Magazines have a “polysemic” and “polyvocal” form, and in order to reach and maintain popularity among broad, elusive groups of audiences “changing, disjointing, even conflicting and contradictory communication is the norm for commercial magazines” (ibid:4).


The Norwegian housewife-magazines and Alle kvinners blad

In Norway there has long been a notable absence of historical research on women’s magazines, even though “housewife magazines” have been ascribed a formative role to the modelling and maintaining of the housewife ideal throughout the 1950s (Avdem 2001; Breen 2014, Furu 2014). [iii] Alle kvinners blad (1937–1978) was the first of an array of magazines published in the mid-20th century, of this genre. Along with titles such as Norsk Dameblad (Norwegian Ladies’ magazine) (1938-1965), Kvinner og Klær (Women and Clothes) (1940-) and Alt for Damene (Everything for the Ladies ), Alle kvinners blad is typically seen as a Norwegian response to the significant trend in European commercial magazine production in the interwar period, marked by a pronounced feminization of the magazine market and its intended audience. The 1950s describes the glory days of the Norwegian women’s magazines, and the magazines enjoyed a significant commercial success in this decade (Heidenreich 2006: 21).

Alle kvinners blad was the most popular, with an estimated 560 000 readers each week throughout the decade (ibid). The magazine has often been portrayed as the typical Norwegian housewife magazine (Avdem 2001: 26). However, it is not until recently that scholars have paid closer attention to the rich material it offers. Drawing largely on Cynthia Whites historical and sociological analysis of changes within the print magazine industry (White 1970), historian Vibeke Heidenreich has discussed the construction of the housewifeliness in Alle kvinners blad by means of its commercial formula, distilling a rather wide definition of womanhood to the housewife identity (Heidenreich 2006). The target audience was every woman, whether or not they were married, had children, worked outside of the home, were young or elderly, came from rural or urban districts, or were of working class or middle class background. Heidenreich argues that the magazine, in the early 1950s, particularly made efforts to reach women from the lower middle class and the working class. Furthermore, she argues that this may explain the success, as the “housewife era” lasted for longer, and had a deeper societal impact, than in several other western countries, due to its clear class-equalising ambition. In Norway, most women throughout the 1950s were registered as housewives, and it was not primarily a middle class ideal (Hagemann in Sæther 2006).

The class-wide ambition is visible in the communication style of Alle kvinners blad. Compared to other available women’s magazines, Alle kvinners blad was less expensive, less glossy and more concerned with everyday tasks and duties than with luxury and gossip. This may reflect the ambition of the magazine to lift social standards and medical knowledge among working class families. In line with the housewife magazines White has described emerging in Britain in the interwar period (White 1970: 94-95), Alle kvinners blad was addressed to women who had little outside help in the home. One important function may have been to help them run the house efficiently, something that entailed both practical planning, knowledge and intimate advices. Furthermore, a concept of “reader identification” was emphasised by the editorial, an approach that was friendly, reassuring and supporting, rather than patronising. Accordingly, the editorial of Alle kvinners blad was mostly women, and they addressed and positioned themselves as potential readers. A major communication pattern emphasised by the editorial was weekly reports covering the everyday lives of Norwegian housewives. By travelling across the country, interviewing Norwegian women from all layers of society about their housewifely deeds and everyday rutines, concerns and pleasures, the editorial documented and gained insight into the everyday tasks, thoughts and desires of their potential readers, and were enabled to reflect and represent them in an authentic and relevant manner. In this way, the magazine invited readers into a community of women that could provide for recipes, patterns and inspiring narratives. This communication style proved profitable as it increased the reader’s senses of belonging to the magazine as well. This was also the function of the many reader’s letters columns of the magazine, Heidenreich argues.

Heidenreich’s study implicitly seems to support approaches emphasizing a triangle of production of meaning – between readers, writers and editors – in Alle kvinners blad. She also adds to this the understanding of the role played by the overarching public ideal of the housewife, something that alludes to Forsters description of how the overarching governmental communication intervened in this meaning making process in a number of ways during World War II in Britain (Forster 2016:37). Likewise in Norway, the rationing of paper, together with systems, politics and cultural ideals which in several ways affected, and determined the role for women, seems to have been at play in the meaning construction in Alle kvinners blad. However, her study shows that “the housewife” represented a variable and unstable subject position for women in the magazine that neither excluded women from working outside of the home, nor from engaging in public matters. The magazine for instance often presented “working women” as something positive, something Heidenreich ties to the fact that most writers were working outside of the home themselves. Heidenreich’s study thus challenges critical feminist descriptions of how magazine writers in the 1950s came to romanticize the housewife role, even though they were employees (Friedan 1963:x).

Despite the deep impact of the housewife system on the emergent welfare system, the 1950s is frequently presented as a period of emergent public debate about gender equality politics in Norway (Blom 1999: 368; Danielsen 2013:219). While a system based in home care and the housewife certainly was a public ideal (Melby 1999; Larsen 1998), the class-wide housewife identity opened up a discussion of women’s common role and fate, Danielsen has argued (Danielsen et. al. 2013: 219). Recently, we explored the degree to which an emergent debate about sex roles and gender eguality was addressed by Alle kvinners blad, in order to add breadth in views and participations to this debate (Lindtner and Neple 2017). We found that the magazine presented the housewife in terms that neither excluded women from public activities and prosperities, nor prevented them from discussing and criticising the constraints and miseries of being a housewife. Furthermore, we discovered that these magazines represented a new kind of openness in emotional and intimate matters.Furthermore, we discovered that these magazines represented a new kind of openness in emotional and intimate matters. Our study challenge monolithic understandings of Women´s Magazines as only reproducers of gender ideology. Rather, it seems they anticipated the changes to come, by encouraging women to discuss and contest privatized dilemmas openly, in a communication style that tied women’s personal challenges and dilemmas in life to discussions of their gendered role as housewives. The purpose of this article is to pursue this idea further, by looking in to the reader’s letters columns.

Every women’s oracle: The Klara Klok columns 

Reader’s letters columns have been an important feature in women’s magazines ever since the genre occurred. The first British women's magazine, Athenian Mercury, stemming from the late 1600s, had a column consisting of questions related to marriage, love and sexuality (Sarromaa 2009). Even though these columns have changed significantly in content, the very concept - that the reader sends questions and an "expert" in the magazine answers - has been relatively stable (ibid). According to Cynthia White, such columns, as they reoccurred and even had a more central space in British women’s magazines in the 1930s, was one of the main reasons for the magazines becoming so popular. They represented a new space for “chatter”, identification and companionship among readers, and enabled exchange of practical advices and recipes as well as pleasures and emotional support, in a manner that made readers constantly want to return to them. Paraphrasing Mary Grieve, the editor of the successful magazine Woman, these columns came to represent “gold mines” for the publishers (White 1970:128). The emphasis on building large and loyal readerships also may reflect the degree to which housewives of this period were increasingly positioned as “experts” of the home, and carriers of valuable knowledge and experiences with household products as well as dilemmas and concerns (Myrvang 2009:153). This is visible in the many columns of Alle kvinners blad. Even though reader’s letters were answered by an expert – such as ”Helena” or ”Klara Klok” (Klara the wise) – these experts often stressed that they had gained their expertise and authority from previous communication with readers, and thus the female community of housewives. These columns have come to represent an important space for communication among the readers and the editorial – and they were often framed as a space in which women could share experiences and opinions as equals, or as experts of the home.

The reader’s letters columns in Alle kvinners blad were extremely popular. In 1951, the magazine received more than 1,3 million letters from the readers (Heidenreich 2006:x). Of all the columns in Alle kvinners blad, the column “Klara Klok gir råd” (“Klara the Wise gives her advise”) was the most popular. According to Norwegian popular historian Yngvar Ustvedt, the commercial success of Alle Kvinners blad is mainly due to Klara Klok, a column that almost served as a social welfare office at a time when social counselling was less advanced and less available (1979:381). Through Klara Klok, the editors encouraged their readers to share anonymously various problems of practical, social and emotional concerns. The reader could write to the column asking for advise with a specific problem in his or her own life. Thus, the dialogue between the columnist and the reader had an intimate aspect. However, the source of Klara Klok’s great appeal is likely to have been that she seldom treated the readers’ problems solely as individual problems. Rather she emphasised that many of the other readers shared the problems. The phrase “I get a lot of similar letters from people who finds themselves in the same situation as you do” was often included in her answer (ex. nr. 34/1961), and as such, her advice often had universal appeal. A typical example of the column would present two to three reader’s letters, where one addressed a marriage-related problem («Mannen min er utro, det gjør så vondt at jeg greier det ikke»/“My husband is unfaithful. It hurts so much that I can’t bear it”), the other a socially related problem (“Jeg er flau over min oppførsel i selskap”/“I am embarrassed by my own behaviour at parties”) and the third a teenage-related problem (“Jeg er så tykk og fæl i figuren/“I’m fat!” - All examples from Klara Klok nr. 12/1958).

Many letters written to this column addresses problematic aspects of marriage, with emphasis on the role of the married woman. For the signature Plaget sørlandshustru (“Sørlandswife in pain” nr. 50/1957), the marriage is a “nightmare”. The letter describes her husband as horrible; he abuses her and is constantly unfaithful: “The doctor who visited her when she had her last child told her that she had to get a divorce because her husband was sexually abnormal. However, she did not manage to break free, because of the children. He provided house and food. She had to manage for their sake.”[iv] Klara’s advice to the woman is to get out immediately, and in her answer, she gives a universal reflection: “There are some men who are not suitable to be husbands and fathers. Their bragging and apparent brutality may be something they use to cover their own feelings of inadequacy. They may feel that something is wrong with their emotional life. Perhaps they lack the ability to be kind and responsible.”[v] She continues by assuring the woman that no amount of material wealth can measure the emotional profit both she and the children will gain by breaking free from this man. She also assures the woman that all her «sisters» (meaning the other readers of the column) are «appaled to read what humiliations you have to suffer for the children’s food and clothing.” (nr. 50/1957)

Although this letter stands out as a specially dramatic and brutal one, the emphasis on problems in the domestic sphere are constant in the Klara Klok columns. Female readers asks for advice about cheating husbands (nr. 12/1958) and threatening boyfriends («My boyfriend is threatening me» (nr. 37/1958), while male readers may address problems concerning depressed housewives («Kona mi er som en fisk på land»/“My wife is like a fish out of water” Klara Klok. (nr. 51-52/1958). Readers also address problems that may arise for a married couple when either the husband or the wife falls ill. A young mother with polio worries how her husband and children are going to manage (nr. 51/1957), while an elderly wife find herself in a hopeless situation with a disabled husband and a considerable mortgage. («Kan det tenkes en inntektskilde for en kone på 61 år med skamfert høyrehånd?»/ “Is it possible to get an income for a wife of 61 with a damaged right hand?” nr. 34/1961).

Addressing these questions, the readers directed attention to weaknesses in the economic model where the husband was the sole provider of the family, the housewife did not have an income of her own, and the husband often lacked practical experience with domestic work. The answers given in these or similar situations were often emphasising where they could seek help (“You ought to write a letter to Statens Centralstyre for vanføreforsorg” (nr. 51/1957) … “Go to the social security office and ask them if they have any work you can manage with that hand (nr. 34/1961) and so forth). Thus, the column also gave the readers a higher level of consciousness regarding their rights as citizens. The magazine utterly strengthened this aspect with another column entitled “Hun, Han og loven” (“The Woman, The Man and the Law”),  that explicitly handled legal questions. Once again, the subject of the columns was various kinds of domestic challenges, this time with an emphasis on women’s legal rights  (“Er det lett å få skilsmisse?”/ Is it easy to get a divorce? (nr. 33/1957), “Vi kan få se regnskap for fyringen”/ “We have the right to see the accounts for the heating” (nr. 50/1957)) and once again the answers and advices had a universal appeal.


“I am tired – tired – tired!” Grounds for divorce in 1951

The examples above indicate that Alle kvinners blad was not just a fashion and lifestyle magazine that had a rose-coloured view of everything, but also one that provided space for the problematic aspects of marital and domestic life. In our opinion, previous research on the magazine has only partly been willing to acknowledge this. In her examination of “the paradise of the housewife”, Anna Jorun Avdem claims that Alle kvinners blad described married life with an emphasis on happiness and harmony almost without objections in the early 1950s (Avdem 2001: 39). According to Avdem, the magazine reached the middle of the decade before they took the consequences of the fact that there also could be trouble in paradise and launched a column entitled “Kan dette ekteskapet reddes?” (“Could this marriage be saved?”) (Ibid: 31).[vi]

Her description echoes Friedan’s claim about how women’s magazines in general were unwilling to look at the housewife with anything but rose-coloured glasses in the early 1950s. A closer look at Alle kvinners sommer (“Every woman’s summer”) from 1951, however, gives a different impression. Under the title “Hvorfor ble det slutt?” (“Why did it end?”), the magazine already in the early 1950s dedicates two pages of their summer special to a number of excerpts from the letters of frustrated husbands and wives who are either already divorced or finds themselves on the edge of separation (Alle kvinners sommer 1951, ss. 38-39). In the introduction, the editors state that the pages contain excerpts from letters sent to Klara Klok over a number of years, but this time, the letters are presented without an answer and thus stand as fragments of one and the same tragic story. In one of these fragments, it is clearly the wife’s role as housewife that is the core of the eventual failure of the marriage. The (now separated) husband tells their story:

"When we married, we were so very much in love. We were “the first” for each other. We were both employed workers. She enjoyed the double amount of work and was healthy, smart and energetic no matter how much she had to take on. Then she got pregnant and went on maternity leave. When the second child arrived, she quit working altogether."   

When the woman in this story finds that she has become a full time housewife, it marks the beginning of the end for the young married couple. They are financially challenged, and she becomes gradually “a little plump, a little more indifferent with her appearance”.  He claims that he nevertheless “loved her both with and without the ornaments”, but as time goes by she also gets “more and more moody”. “Then she became very touchy and in low spirits Then she was tired all the time. Then bitter. Then she grew critical of the other, smarter women. Then she grew critical of me, because I could not manage to get her better circumstances“. The story ends with infidelity and divorce, and with the following conclusion: “I could have put up with a great many things, because she was my one true love. But not this ongoing nagging, displeasure, bothering, and greyness. No man and no normal marriage can put up with that” (all quotes from Alle kvinners sommer 1951, s. 38).[vii]

While it is understood that all married women are housewives, it is, in other words, also understood that all married women are not happy with their situation as housewives. In the same column, we find the frustrated housewife who has to “ask and beg for every dime”. “I have an impression that we manage financially, yes – that’s right – an impression – because I have no idea about our real financial situation. And I have no idea whatsoever of how my own work is affecting our budget, I have to ask and beg for every dime like a sinner or like a less worthy person.” This long-drawn sigh ends with the following reflection:

“Yes, many times I find myself thinking that a prostitute at least has the opportunity to get a real settlement, but a wife who is constantly concerned with taking care of the home in the best and most economic terms, she is like the most miserable slave who you just need to sustain. “ It all ends with an outburst of anger: “I am tired – tired – tired!”  (all quotes from Alle kvinners sommer 1951, s. 38)[viii]

Several of these dilemmas are once again raised in the magazine some years later, this time in an series of articles entitled «Hva er det i veien med min kone?» (“What’s wrong with my wife?”) in 1957. At times, the wording is so similar to the letters in Alle kvinners sommer 1951 that one suspects the editors of recycling the material. Once again, the subject matter is dissatisfied housewives. They are either framed as pedantic (“Hun er min dårlige samvittighet”/”She is my bad conscience, 50/1957), indifferent (“Alt flyter hjemme hos oss”/”Everything is a complete mess at home”, 51/1957) or something similar. This column writes in a question-and-answer style, and it gives voice to an anonymous husband  interviewed by an anonymous journalist. The fact that Alle kvinners blad at this point was repeating subjects raised already in 1951, indicates that unhappy housewives and confused husbands were material the editors assumed would appeal to the readers both in the early and late 1950s. It also adds nuance to the claim that the magazine romanticised married couples in the early 1950s, and then only later problematising it.      

A long-drawn sigh from the kitchen sink (poems)

Critical remarks on domestic life in general and the housewife’s situation in particular could also be voiced in a more comical setting. An example of this is the signature “Pernille”, who during the 1950s sent the magazine a photo of a stupendous amount of dirty dishes along with a self-produced and humorous poem entitled «Oppvask med oppvasken» («Confronting the dishes»).

Her contribution to the magazine reads in this case as an adjusting one: Where the commercial in Alle kvinners blad more often than not shows a smiling housewife in a spotless kitchen, often provided by modern household facilities (see for instance “Brilliant resultat”/”A brilliant result” (nr. 36/1957) and «Norges-melk» (50/1957)), this reader’s letter gives a rare and unvarnished glimpse into the everyday life of the housewife. “Pernille” states, in a rather resigned manner, that the “everlasting dishes” faces her three times a day, every single day of the year, while her husband is “taking to the sofa – smack!“ She seems to be approaching her sisters and fellow allies directly when she ironizes over the housewife’s “paradise”: 

Er det et tristere syn på vår klode:

enn kjøkkenbord, fettet og fylt

av oppvask som simpelthen går deg til hode,

før den er vasket og skylt?

(Could one imagine a sadder sight on earth

than kitchen tables, greasy and filled

with dishes that simply go straight to your head

before it is poured and washed out? )  

The fact that a reader sent a contribution like this to the magazine, not to mention the fact that it was printed, shows that Alle kvinners blad in the 1950s felt no necessary obligation to maintain the myth of the housewife as a “happy heroine”. It also shows that the readers saw the magazine as an arena where they could voice dissatisfaction and share critical points of view in relation to the gender roles of the time. Washing the dishes was the housewife’s job, and it was not a glamorous one. Alle kvinners blad was an arena where the housewives could express their displeasure and expect to be understood by women in a similar situation. Both “Pernille” and the editors of the magazine knew that her photo of the “everlasting dishes” would gain recognition from the other readers.

A related example was printed in Alle kvinners jul (Christmas special) in 1954 and entitled “Likestilling – et hjertesukk fra kjøkkenbenken” (“Gender equality – a long-drawn sigh from the kitchen sink”). In a poem consisting of seven stanzas, the signature “Sliten husmor fra Arendal” (“Tired housewife from Arendal”) this time describes the vast contrasts of working life that face the housewife on the one hand and the employed husband on the other. The work of the housewife is described as heavy, everlasting and exhausting, while the husband is allowed his peace and quiet in the office. “Tired housewife from Arendal” has, as she puts it, “lost her courage”, and she declares that she now wants to be “the father”. She suggests – half in jest, half in earnest – that mother and father engage in a reversal of roles – which in the magazine is illustrated with two photos showing a woman in an office and a man changing diapers respectively (hardly daily fare in 1954). A reversal of roles will provide the housewife with a shorter working day, easier work assignments, a higher level of comfort and last but not least financial independence:

Jeg tjener mine penger og kjøper hva jeg vil.

Og får han det han trenger, så syns han jeg er snill.

Nei, det er andre boller å sitte på kontor.

Nå kan vi bytte roller. Jo, nå kan far bli mor!

(I’m earning my own money, and I buy whatever I want

And if he gets what he needs, he thinks that I am kind.

Yes, things are completely different when you’re sitting in an office

So let us reverse our roles – yes, let the father be the mother!) 

Both the poem and the illustrations this time had the potential to give the readers a good laugh, while at the same time holding a sting to the status quo of the gender roles in the 1950s. The poem draws attention to the housewives’ ongoing toil and moil, it shows how men and women are far from equal, and it suggests that all this could have been different.


In her 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan argued that American women suffered from a deep discontent, a “problem” that had no name, but lay “buried, unspoken” in the “minds of American women” (Friedan 1963/1992:13):

“Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: Is this all?” (Ibid).

According to US historian Joanne Meyerowitz, Friedan has had a significant historical impact with her description of how educators, advertisers, social scientists and in particular women’s magazines were to blame for pulling women back into the home with an ideological stranglehold, the "feminine mystique”, that commanded a female withdrawal from public commitments and participations, warned women against "careers and higher education” (ibid:37) and told them “the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfilment of their own femininity” (ibid:38) (Meyerowitz 1993:1). Not only have “hundreds of women” testified that these descriptions changed their lives, and historical accounts credited it “with launching the recent feminist movement”; the book has also had an enormously “strong influence on historiography” (ibid).

Friedan’s impact has been transnational, and also Norwegian historians seem to, at least implicitly, have accepted her feminist biased description of the ideology of domesticity, and how the “housewife heroine” was promoted by the women’s magazines press of this period, even though the multifarious Norwegian women’s magazine industry of the 1950s represent an almost unresearched historical topic. Our study of the reader’s letters columns in Alle kvinners blad, the most popular Norwegian women’s magazine throughout the 1950s, shows that the readers – who mostly were housewives, and also presented themselves as such in the columns – neither where alone, nor unable to discuss their problems. Certainly, they did not suffer from a nameless dissatisfaction.

This shows the need for empirical investigations of the women’s press, and furthermore for another theoretical approach to such texts, that allows a less ideological interpretation of their formula, than what has been suggested by Friedan and the field of critical feminist studies. As Forster and Beetham have argued, several power structures are at play within magazine texts, and meaning is constructed through multiple processes, in manners that have enabled different and even oppositional constructions of femininities. Meaning of magazine texts are entangled with contemporary discourses and discussions about class, gender politics, commodity culture etc., as well as both reactionary and progressive ideas in manners that alludes to peoples real life experiences and dilemmas. Thus, they give valuable historical insight into the way discourses of gender have been negotiated within specific historical contexts, by readers, writers, editors and overarching public ideals and ideologies. Furthermore, as Forster has argued, such magazines, as polysemic texts, both represented ideological structures, yet on the other hand, and due to their flexible format, offered space for discussions and divergences among a broad range of readers on topics of real concern to women regarding their cultural and social situation. Whilst not being “overtly and politically “feminist”, in another broader sense, they all enter into a female discourse, attending to and attending to the particular needs of women” (Forster 2016:4).

Our readings of Alle kvinners blad support such descriptions. The examples we have found show that the original intention of Alle kvinners blad (that the magazine should offer reading materials “for the interests of women and the home only”) over the years came to mean a lot more than promoting a polished and oversimplified image of the housewife as a “happy heroine”. They also show that the readers, in their contributions to the columns, were constantly participating in shaping the definition of what could be considered “the interests of women”. It was in women’s interest to direct attention to serious marital problems, such as domestic abuse and the crisis that occurred when a spouse fell ill or became disabled. It was in women’s interest to voice critical opinions of gender “equality”, whether it came in the shape of difference in treatment of teenagers or the eternal and everlasting dishes. And it was in women’s interest to focus on the women’s fragile and exposed position both in and outside of the marriage, when her boyfriend or husband failed to live up to his role as a responsible provider. By sending letters, and sometimes photos, to the magazine, the readers challenged the more polished pictures provided by the advertisers. This indicates that the readers did not feel obliged to support or confirm the advertisers shining pictures of the housewife’s “paradise”.  It also indicates that they sensed the magazine editors as susceptible to more critical approaches to the housewife’s position. We do not know to what extent the editors were prepared for this, but the fact that they printed the critical questions, the affective outbreaks and the satirical poems in the magazine certainly shows that they were willing to include them.

We will end our enquiry with a contribution from one of the younger readers of Alle kvinners blad, who also raised problems concerning gender roles. The signature “oppgitt 13-åring” (“frustrated 13-year old”) writes to Klara Klok in 1961 complaining that she is the one who is always told to do household chores, whereas her brother to a much larger extent is allowed to do whatever he wants:  

"This morning my mother sent me on my way to town to pick up something. When I got home, I had to wash socks and underwear. I was finished when it was approaching dinnertime. Then I had to set the table and make pancakes. My brother arrived too late for dinner, because he had been out swimming all day".[ix] 

“Frustrated 13-year old” would like to know Klara Klok’s opinion of the situation: 

“What do you think about this? And what am I going to do to get my brother to do anyting at all? If I ask my mother – Why can’t he do this and I do that? The only answer I will get is «Don’t talk to your mother like that - - - .”[x]

Klara’s advice to the young reader is both cunning and practical: “If I were you, I would try to make a deal with my brother. Instead of complaining every day that I have done this and that, and you have to do this and that so we are equal, I would make a deal with him that each of you will help your mother every other day. Then the one who is on duty can work while at the same time looking forward to a whole day off. In other words – work shifts»[xi] (all quotes from nr. 34/1961).


Synnøve Lindtner, Phd (2014), University of Bergen, is a Post. Doc at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen, Norway. Lindtner has published several works on popular feminism and public debate in Norway during the 1960s and 70s. Together with Jostein Gripsrud (eds.) she has recently been involved in the writing of the book Allmenningen – Historien om norsk offentlighet / The history of the Norwegian Public Sphere. Together with Cecilia Alvstad, Isis Herrero Lopez and Johanna Akujarvi she has also edited the Vita Traductiva volume, Gender and Translation: Understanding Agents in Transcultural Reception, who is to be released in May 2018. She is also editing a book together with Dag Skarstein about the online teen serial Skam, which will be released in 2018. Currently she is working with Norwgian popular feminism from the 1950s and onwards.

Anemari Neple, Ph.D. (2016), University of Bergen, is Associate Professor of Nordic Literature at Volda University College, Norway. Together with Christine Hamm and Ingrid Nestås Mathisen she has recently co-edited the anthology Hva er arbeiderlitteratur?/What is working-class literature? (2017). Neple has published on several Norwegian authors, including Tor Ulven and Torborg Nedreaas, and is currently working on a project entitled “Domesticity in Norwegian Literature from Cora Sandel to Tomas Espedal”.

References, Kilder:

Avdem, Anna Jorunn (2001): Husmorparadiset. Samlaget, Oslo

Bastiansen, Henrik og Hans Fredrik Dahl (1995): Norsk Mediehistorie, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo.

Beetham, Margaret (1996): A magazine of Her own? Domesticity and Desire in the Womans Magazine, 1800 – 1914, Routledge, London

Breen, Marta (2014): Født feminist! Gyldendal, Oslo

Danielsen, Hilde, Eirinn Larsen og Ingeborg W. Owesen (2013): Norsk likestillingshistorie 1814 -2013, Fagbokforlaget, Oslo

Forster, Laurel (2016): Magazine movements. Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Form, Bloomsbury

Friedan, Betty (2003): Myten om kvinnen, Gyldendal AS

Furu, Iris (2014): Husmorboka. Et gjensyn med Norges glemte arbeidsplass, Humanist forlag, Oslo

Gough-Yates, Anna (2003): Understanding women|s Magazines: Publishing, Markets and Readerships, Routledge, London

Gripsrud, Jostein (1999): Ukepressens kulturelle og samfunnsmessige betydning. En utredning for Foreningen Norsk Ukepresse

Heidenreich, Vibeke (2006): Hva skjedde med Norges største ukeblad? ”Alle kvinners blad” på 1950-tallet. Hovedoppgave i historie, Universitetet i Oslo

Larsen, Leif Ove (1999): Moderniseringsmoro. Romantiske komedier i norsk film 1950 – 1965. Sjangeren, publikum, sosialhistorien., Rapport nr. 42, Institutt for medievitenskap, Universitetet i Bergen

Lloyd, Lesley and Justine Johnson (2004): Sentenced to Everyday Life. Berg Publishers.

Meyrowitz, Joanne (1993): «Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture, 1946- 1958», In The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Mar., 1993), pp. 1455-1482, Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American Historians Stable. URL: (Accessed: 04-09-2017 09:14 UTC)

Myrvang, Christine (2009): Forbrukeragentene, Oslo: Pax forlag

Poulsen, Karen Klitgaard (1986): Blikfang. Om kvindeæstetik og dameblade. Aalborg Universitetscenter.

Saarroma, Sanna (2009): ”Kjønnsdiskurser i endring – om Det Nyes spørrespalte 1957, 1968 og 1977” i Tidsskrift for ungdomsforskning, 9(1):41–64

Sæther, Gøril (2006): «Husarbeidets politikk”, intervju med Gro Hagemann i Kilden.

Ustvedt, Yngvar (1979): Det skjedde i Norge 1952–61. Oslo: Gyldendal.

Ytre-Arne, Brita (2011): Women´s magazines and their readers. Experience, identity and everyday life, Phd-dissertation at the University of Bergen


From Alle kvinners blad:

«Mitt ekteskap er et mareritt». Klara Klok. (nr. 50/1957)

«Mannen min er utro, det gjør så vondt at jeg greier det ikke». Klara Klok. (nr. 12/1958)

«Jeg er flau over min oppførsel i selskap» Klara Klok. (nr. 12/1958)

«Jeg er så tykk og fæl i figuren» Klara Klok. (nr. 12/1958)

«Kjæresten min truer meg». Klara Klok. (nr. 37/1958)

«Kona mi er som en fisk på land» Klara Klok. (nr. 51-52/1958)

«Kan det tenkes en inntekskilde for en kone på 61 år med skamfert høyrehånd?» (nr. 34/1961)

«Jeg er poliorammet. Hvordan skal det gå med min mann og barna?» (nr. 51/1957)

«Hos oss druknet kjærligheten i småmas og kritikksyke» Hvorfor ble det slutt? (Alle kvinners sommer, 1951)

«Jeg må tigge og be om hver tier» Hvorfor ble det slutt? (Alle kvinners sommer, 1951)

«Hun er min dårlige samvittighet» Hva er det i veien med min kone? (nr. 50/1957)

«Alt flyter hjemme hos oss» Hva er det i veien med min kone? (nr. 51/1957)

«Oppvask med oppvasken». Dikt

«Likestilling. Et hjertesukk fra kjøkkenbenken». Dikt (Alle kvinners jul/1954)

«Broren min slipper bestandig» (nr. 34/1961)


[i]    Mass-circulated magazines appeared in Norway already by the end of the nineteenth century, however none of them addressed the readers as women, however where targeted towards men and children as well (Gripsrud 1999). Within this period, ideal and political magazines and periodicals, dealing with housewifely concerns or gender issues more generally, and specialised to reach female audiences with different interests, ideas and belief systems, also appeared (Hellesund 2003).

[ii]   Several factors made magazines popular, and especially the increase in spending power and the fact that there were few commodities available on the marked. Furthermore, the rationing of paper affected the magazine industry, so that magazines had fewer pages and appeared only every fourteenth; they were thus affordable, available and manageable to read by many (Bastiansen og Dahl 1995:300).

III Some historical studies of specific magazines from the 1950s have been produced (Heidenreich 2006; Sarromaa 2011; Lindtner and Neple 2017)

. iv]    Original quote: «Legen som var hos henne da hun fikk det siste barnet, sa at hun måtte se til å bli skilt da mannen var sykelig m.h.t. det seksuelle. Men hun greide ikke å komme seg fri med alle barna, hus og mat hadde de jo. Hun fikk se å holde ut for deres skyld.» («Mitt ekteskap er et mareritt». Klara Klok. (nr. 50/1957)

[v]     Original quote: «Det er jo enkelte menn som ikke passer til familiefedre og ektemenn, deres skryt og tilsynelatende råskap er kanskje egentlig noe de dekker sin egen ynkelighet med, de føler kanskje selv at det er noe galt med deres følelsesliv, de mangler vel rett og slett snillhetens evne og ansvarsfølelsens krefter.» («Mitt ekteskap er et mareritt». Klara Klok. (nr. 50/1957)

[vi]   Avdem, original: «Midt i femtiåra» tok man imidlertid «følgjene av at det også kunne vere skjer i sjøen, og hadde lenge fast spalte med overskrifta ‘Kan dette ekteskapet reddes?’» (Ibid: 31).

[vii]    Original quote: «Da vi giftet oss var vi forelsket som få. Vi var ‘den første’ for hverandre. Vi hadde poster begge to. Hun trivdes med dobbeltarbeidet og var frisk og smart og opplagt, enda så mye hun hadde å stri med. Så ble hun gravid og fikk permisjon. Da nummer to kom sluttet hun helt i posten. Vi fikk mindre å leve av, jeg er ike av dem som lager gryn. Vi måtte være forsiktige. Hun ble litt tykkfallen, litt likeglad med utseendet sitt, klærne hennes ble medtatte og billige. Hun var ikke noe å vise fram lenger, ikke en sånn kone som andre mannfolk misundte meg og tittet etter når vi gikk sammen på kino. Meg gjorde det ikke noe, for jeg var glad i henne både med og uten fiksfakserier. Men etter hvert viste det seg at det gjorde henne noe. Først ble hun oftere og oftere ute av humør. Så ble hun veldig lettstøtt og nærtagende. Så ble hun trett bestandig. Så bitter. Så ble hun kritisk overfor andre, smartere damer. Så ble hun kritisk overfor meg, fordi jeg ikke greidde å skaffe henne bedre kår. […] Mangt og meget kunne jeg greidd, for det var henne jeg var glad i. Men ikke denne evige masingen, misnøyen, dukkingen og gråheten. Den kan ingen normal mann og intet normalt ekteskap tåle.» («Hvorfor ble det slutt?» Alle kvinners sommer/1951)

[viii]     Original quote: «Det ser ut som om vi har det så vi greier oss økonomisk, ja – nettopp – det ser ut – for ikke vet jeg hvordan vi egentlig har det. Og jeg aner ikke hva mitt arbeid betyr for vårt budsjett, jeg må be og tigge om hver tier hver eneste dag, og det som en syndig og mindreverdig person. Ja, mange ganger tenker jeg at en gatepike kan da i hvert fall krevet et realt oppgjør, men en hustru som ikke tenker på noe annet enn å passe hjemmet på beste og billigste måte, hun er som den elendigste slave som akkurat skal oppholdes. […] Jeg er trett – trett – trett!» («Hvorfor ble det slutt?» Alle kvinners sommer/1951)

[ix]     Original quote: «I dag morges ble jeg sendt til byen for å hente noe til mor. Da jeg kom hjem, måtte jeg vaske sokker og undertøy. Jeg var ferdig da middagen nærmet seg. Da måtte jeg dekke bordet og steke pannekaker. Min bror kom for sent hjem til middag, for han hadde vært og badet i hele dag.» («Broren min slipper bestandig» Klara Klok (nr. 34/1961))

[x]   Original quote: «Hva mener De om dette, og hva skal jeg gjøre for å få min bror til å gjøre noe? Hvis jeg sier til mor – Kan ikke han gjøre det, så kan jeg gjøre det? Da får jeg bare til svar: «Snakk ikke i den tonen til din mor - - -.» («Br min slipper bestandig» Klara lok(nr. 34/1961))

[xi]   Original quote: Hvis jeg var deg ville jeg prøve å få en ordning med broren min. I stedet for å grine hver dag over at nå har jeg jammen tatt så og så mye, nå får du ta i så vi står likt – ville jeg bli enig med ham om at dere stiller dere til tjeneste for mor annenhver dag. Så kan den som har tur, jobbe – og glede seg til en hel fridag. Altså – kom over på hel dags skift.» («Broren min sli bestandig» Klara Klok (nr. 34/1961))



labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
julho/ 2017- junho 2018 /juillet 2017-juin 2018