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

Negotiating abortion rights and sexual pleasure in the New Women’s Movement in Norway in the 1970s

Hilde Danielsen


Drawing on a reading of pamphlets, magazines, fanzines and books produced within the New Women’s Movement (NWM) in the 1970s, this article analyses cultural and social aspects of the NWM and its struggle to shape new practices, norms and ideals. Viewing social movements as important places for developing new ways of understanding self and society, I focus especially on negotiations of sexuality and discuss two cases: the struggle for abortion on demand, and the quest for female sexual pleasure. In the new women’s  movement of the 1970s, sexuality was vital in the construction of a new womanly subjectivity, both in Norway and in the Western world. References to female sexuality worked as a unifying force in the NWM in relation to, for example, a specific female experience, the fight against patriarchy, for abortion rights and against pornography, while it also caused a high level of conflict within the movement. I will argue that the overall aim within the struggles about sexuality was for women to become a subject in their own life, to be able to decide over their bodies and actions, and to become independent.

Keywords: abortion on demand, female sexuality  women’s movement, Women’s liberation movement, social movements, Our bodies, our selves.



Notwithstanding the enormous impact the New Women’s Movement (NWM) in Norway had on women’s rights – such as educational and professional opportunities, economic prospects and juridical positions – it is equally important to consider the social and cultural impact the movement had on practices, norms and ideals for a good life. As Dahlerup has stated, one of the most important hallmarks of social movements is to change public opinion and policymaking through meaning making (Dahlerup 1998). The broad women’s movement in the 1970s was a key driver internationally in radical transformations, in making new practices and ideals for how we lead our intimate lives (Roseneil et al 2011).

In the Women’s Liberation Movement (in Norway coined the New Women’s Movement in the 1970s), sexuality became central to a new womanly subjectivity, both in Norway and in the Western world. Sexuality worked as a unifying force, such as in the reference to a specific female experience, the fight against patriarchy, sexual violence and for abortion rights. Sexuality also caused a high level of conflict within the movement regarding the position of heterosexuality, lesbianism, pornography and prostitution (Hellesund 2013, Korsvik 2014, Roseneil 2016). I will investigate negotiations of sexuality by focusing on the struggle for abortion on demand, and on the redefining of female sexual pleasure. These cases are well suited to help understand how the NWM instigated new ways of understanding self and society. How was the sexually liberated woman created through the NWM in Norway? Which actions and practices did the movement call for?  These questions and issues are appropriate for shedding light on demands about autonomy and liberation, which were central to the movement. The concept of liberation, intrinsically linked to the ideals for the new woman growing out of the negotiations in the NWM, implies an idea of being liberated from or getting rid of something in order to be free(r). Making new visions, which was very important in the NWM, implied relating to the past.  I will therefore bring a historical perspective into the analysis of the 1970s, tracing the cases I analyse back to the interwar period and onwards as that was an important period for the formation of these struggles.

This article builds on a broad reading of magazines, fanzines and books produced within the NWM in Norway in the 1970s. I thus focus mainly on organisations that were feminist and established in the 1970s, and often categorized as part of second wave feminism (Evans, E 2015). They fought for a new and broader conception of politics, of making the private public, but they had different conceptions of what should be public. I have not examined the wealth of women’s organisations that already existed or women’s voices within the existing political parties and trade unions. These were important parts of the broad women’s movement and the gendered uproar during the ‘70s, many working within traditional concepts of politics, fighting for women’s rights within politics and policy making, in the work force and legislation (Nyhagen and Halsaa 2012, 33). As I will show, the NWM cooperated closely with several of these organizations, although there were also strong conflicts between them. Whereas the NWM worked for liberation and had revolutionary visions for a new society, many of the other organizations and brands of the women’s movement worked for reforms and aimed at gender equality. I will begin by presenting perspectives that have influenced my analysis, give a brief overview of the political and cultural climate in Norway in which the movement took place and present the central organisations and demands in the NWM in the 1970s.

Perspectives: Social movements as passionate politics

Perspectives viewing social movements as passionate politics (Goodwin, Jasper, Polletta 2001, Jasper 1997) inspire this article. The point of departure is that affections and actions involved in social movements are not automatic, “given” responses to discrimination and unfair treatments. Emotions are linked to moral institutions, perceptions of rights and duties, knowledge on expected effects, and dreams and visions of a good life in different historic settings. The NWM altered several of the cultural frames surrounding emotion. Phenomena previously related to happiness, progress and freedom, like that of being a domestic homemaker and mother, increasingly became related to force and limitations (Danielsen 2010). As I will explore more, norms of what a fulfilling sexual life consisted of, changed. Following perspectives on social movements as emotional politics, such shifts are important to examine as these dominating ideals symbolize different selves, routes to freedom or happiness.

My interpretations are also indebted to social theories and feminist views on sexuality that take as premises that “sexuality”, “gender” and “intimacy” can not be set against society as if they were separate domains (Butler 1992, Weeks 2003); in contrast, they are intrinsically linked together. Another premise is that the history of sexuality cannot be understood in terms of a natural dichotomy of pressure and release, repression and liberation (Weeks 2003:19). Foucault’s interpretation of the history of sexuality suggests that “what is involved is the production of sexuality rather than the repression of sex” (Foucault 1990 (1976):114). The self, and in this context the sexual self, like the broader institutional contexts in which it exists, has to be reflexively made. Educational, activist and self-help texts like the ones being analysed in this article not only assist in shaping a reflexive self, but also incite the desire to have a self (Johnson and Lloyd 2004:13) and point to the complex interconnections between the self and the sexuality.

This article will analyse how the NWM used the struggle for abortion on demand and the quest for women’s sexual freedom and joy to show the injustice of patriarchy and also as a direction to develop independent choosing selves as a new norm and ideal for women. Taking these reflections as starting points, I ask: What are the demands on society for shaping the conditions for women’s sexual freedom? Where are women seeking sexual happiness directed? Before answering these questions, I will give a brief overview of the context for the creation of these new subjects.

The Norwegian New Women’s Movement in the 1970s

The slogan “the personal is political” and the “consciousness-raising” project coined first for the WLM in the U.S. in 1968 (Rosen 2000:196), hit Norwegian women like a fever in 1970.  The Australian-American feminist Jo Freeman was invited to a meeting at the University of Oslo, which was arranged by women involved in a new breast-feeding organisation along with an established women’s organisation. The meeting was a great success and is often referred to as the starting point for the new movement in Norway (Danielsen, 2013b, Haukaa 1982). The women present said that there was an electrically charged atmosphere and many decided to join feminist groups there and then. Shortly afterwards, almost 800 feminist groups were active, numerous demonstrations and actions took place, and there was enormous media buzz. 

From her European consciousness-raising hitchhiking journey in 1970, Freeman’s impression of Norway was that it was one of the most traditional countries in Western Europe. Almost no other country had lower female participation in the paid work-force, stronger family-orientation and more conventional gender norms. The establishment of a feminist movement seemed more unrealistic here, according to Freeman (Hagemann 2004), and Norway was not the most obvious country to later be known as a women-friendly welfare-state (ibid. Hagemann, 61).  

As a poor northern peripheral nation, part of Scandinavia and the Nordic region bordering with Russia, and with oil not yet discovered in 1970, Norway was a late-industrialized country with an agrarian profile and a gender system based mainly upon the housewife-breadwinner model (Danielsen 2013). When the new women’s movement began to rise and manifest itself publicly, the political climate in Norway was infected by the 1968 uproar (which was never violent in Norway) and its protests against the Vietnam War, the rise of the new Left and a number of counter-political movements. The social-democratic Norwegian Labour Party had maintained political power in Norway during the post-war period until 1965, with its policies of broad collaboration and the building of a social democratic welfare-state. Questions of gender equality, reproductive rights and women’s place in the work-force had been on the public agenda during the interwar years and up until the late 1940s. The 1950s were marked by an incipient critical investigation of gender roles based upon liberal claims of equality between men and women, while the 1960s were marked by a stronger public interest towards getting women into higher education and the work force (Danielsen 2013a). Hence, the NWM did not emerge out of the blue. The rise of the feminist movement can be explained because of a more visible opportunity gap between men and women. There was a contradiction between on the one hand, women’s new educational opportunities and position on the labour market, and on the other hand, traditional sex roles (Dahlerup 2004,74).

The concept of the New Women’s Movement, which became the most well-known label in Norway, places the movement among other counter-cultural movements during the 70s, such as the new Left. The concept also creates distance from older women’s organisations who were considered conservative or old-fashioned by the newly mobilised activists. Among the organisations most central to the NWM, this article explore the New Feminists (Nyfeministene) established in 1970; the Women’s Front (Kvinnefronen) initiated in 1972; the Lesbian Movement (1974) and Bread and Roses (1975). The New Feminists were based on flat organisation and consciousness-raising, inspired by the WLM in the U.S. The Women’s Front (Kvinnefronten) was a more outspoken left-wing socialist alternative and had a hierarchical structure. The Norwegian Maoist Party influenced The Women’s Front for a period, causing a tension between their engagements on the one hand with solidarity with men and international conflicts, and on the other hand with feminism. The Lesbian Movement (Lesbisk bevegelse) was initiated as a protest against the lack of visibility of the lesbian cause within the other organizations, and the sometimes hostile attitude against lesbianism within the movement. Bread and Roses (Brød og Roser) was established as an alternative between the New Feminists and the Women’s Front. The main point is, these organisations represented different directions within feminism, but they all fought for abortion on demand. The organisations had altogether approximately 5000 members (Haukaa 1982), which is low compared to the visibility and impact of the movement as such. However, many women who were not members of the organizations, supported many claims of the movement. The movement also manifested itself in new journals and magazines, and within literature, music and theatre (Lindtner 2015, Muftuoglu 2013). Some of the traditional women’s organisations with roots back to the first wave of feminism also expanded during this period (Norsk kvinnesaksforening and Norsk kvinneforbund).  

As a social movement, driven forward by the effort of activists wanting to change existing rules, norms and ideals, it was essential for the actors to produce a new understanding of women’s role in society. Several new words were introduced into the Norwegian language by activists in order to develop new conceptions and understandings of gender roles and societal structures: patriarchy, sexism, women’s oppression, sex-fascism, male chauvinism, sex-object, reserve forces, reproduction, consciousness-raising and sisterhood, women’s culture, unpaid work, rationality of care (Danielsen 2013b, Haukaa 1982:50-58). These new concepts point to a feminist analysis of society and mirror the NWM’s bonds to the New Left, and to marxist, socialist, psycho-analytical and existential perspectives. As stated previously, the movement was heavily influenced by the U.S. (Hagemann 2004) and the other Nordic countries. American feminist literature was quickly translated into Norwegian, and the devoted feminists had magazines and literature sent directly to them from the U.S.; they read for example the influential Notes from the first, second and third years, and works by Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone were translated. Activists read the writings of Juliet Michell and Sheila Rowbotham from U.K. Danish and Swedish feminist books were also translated throughout the period, and the Norwegian feminists met with other Nordic women during summer camps, conferences and meetings (Halsaa 2004). The movement inspired many Norwegian publications and books, and some activists made their own version of Our bodies, Ourselves, in Norwegian titled Kvinne, kjenn din kropp (Woman, know your body).

The slogan “the personal is political” unified the NWM, but also caused central divisions within the movement. There were constant negotiations within and between the feminist organizations over which causes they should pursue, and what should be open to public discussion. The New Feminists proclaimed that their primary focus was on individual and collective consciousness-raising as well as discussions on themes such as family-structures and sexual difficulties (Danielsen 2013b). The Women’s Front proclaimed that their emphasis was on what they considered more overarching issues related to economy and class, and the fight for a new socialist society (Haukaa 1982, Sætre 1976). There is little doubt that there were substantial contradictions within the movement. The limits for “solidarity among sisters” already became visible in 1972 during the eighth of March celebration in Oslo, the capital, when members of the New Feminists were thrown out of a march by the Women’s Front. The most controversial slogans included “I will be Prime Minister”, “No to Forced Childbirths”, “ No to Motherhood”, “We will be on top” [in sexual intercourse] and “No To Forced Fucking” [intercourse in marriage]. These paroles were considered by the Women’s Front to be too radical and thus too frightening for the average woman, who might otherwise sympathize with the movement (Danielsen 2013b). The new organisations disagreed on the role sexuality and reproduction should have in the movement, whether this should play a major or minor role, and on which strategies they should pursue, i.e. individual ambitions or collective solidarity. In the internal Women’s Front fanzine, members suggested that it was too unrealistic and ambitious to demand that a woman become prime minister, and they were critical of what they perceived as fighting men instead of supporting them in a common struggle for a radically new society.

There were also struggles concerning the internal organisation: if groups should be based on discussions of experience and consciousness-raising, or rather work for specific causes and issues. The New Feminists fronted a politics of experience – one could not go straight to the cause, but had to go through a personal and active reflection over everyday life first (Danielsen 2013b). This was a goal in itself, just as well as working for rights or political goals. The Women’s Front prioritised the uniting of women through specific paroles and not as much through discussions.

Two overarching issues dominated the struggle in the NWM in Norway in the 1970s: to secure and improve women’s place in education and the work-force, and to ensure their reproductive and sexual rights and autonomy. These issues were important both practically and symbolically speaking. Earning one’s own money became essential for women in the 1970s; it was no longer good enough to be provided for, like the housewives had been (Danielsen 2010). The figure of the homemaker, or rather the housewife as she was called in Norway, became outdated and out of place. It was a female self to be abandoned. Now women wanted to earn and control the money themselves in order to be independent. They fought for issues such as extended rights to parental leave and the right to equal pay. Economic issues were important; many women had been vulnerable because they depended on men economically in the housewife/breadwinner system. At the same time, there was a new emphasis on professional work as a primary site of self-actualisation for women (Hernes 1987, Danielsen 2013a).

Redefining sexuality was crucial in the creation of a new womanly subjectivity, which was also a precondition to fight power relations between the genders, and to create new sorts of gender relationships. Outsiders and insiders regularly attacked parts of the NWM for being too concerned with sexuality, too hostile against sexuality or too liberated regarding sexuality and these issues caused conflicts within and across the movement.

I have chosen to focus on the mobilization for women’s access to abortions on demand and the effort to produce new norms of sexuality. Both these cases revolved around the possibility to control one’s own body and life and are as such linked together intrinsically. In a book chapter discussing conditions for sexual freedom, an activist belonging to the New Feminists answered her own query: “What needs to be done for women’s active and living sexuality to become a social fact? Of the most important factors is self-determined abortion, actual control over the body” (Monsen 1976, 157, my translation). She also mentions other important factors such as a liberated upbringing, language and symbols that can express women’s feelings, and the message that women had to be able to control their reproduction in order to experience sexual joy.

Abortion on demand: the right to choose

The implementation of a new law on abortion rights in 1978 is considered the greatest victory of the NWM in Norway, and is among the most important feminist events after the implementation of women’s suffrage in 1913.

The struggle to legalize abortion in Norway actually started in 1913, after the implementation of universal suffrage. The advocates emphasized that women’s lives could be saved if abortion became legalized, and stressed women’s rights to choose their lives. In a famous speech called The Emancipation of Motherhood, the birth control pioneer Katti Anker Møller (1868-1945) attacked the Norwegian penal code that punished abortion with years of imprisonment (Blom 2007, 59). She argued that “the basis of all freedom is to be master of your own body and what is in it”, formulating the links between control over one’s body and control over one’s life that defined feminist views on abortion for the years to come. Together with socialist women’s organisations, Møller fronted such (in those times) scandalous statements, but they did not gain much support until the 1930s. Then the Norwegian Labour Party, supported by working-class women’s associations and socialist physicians, put legalizing of abortions on the public agenda in order to change the law. Popular opinion, heavily influenced by the established church, was very sceptical about such a law and collected 230,000 signatures against it, in a country with 3 million inhabitants. Even though the Norwegian Labour Party came to power in 1935, they decided against pursuing a new abortion act, because they did not want too loose votes or power.

The first abortion law was passed in 1960, and came into force in 1964. Until then, abortions were handled through the Criminal Code, and abortions were only legal if the woman’s life was in danger, or if she had been raped. The legal medical reasons were now widened in 1960 to include the consideration of women’s physical or mental health (Flatseth and Madsen 2013, 115).  An abortion appeals board consisting of two physicians decided if the woman was allowed to have an abortion or not. These boards were increasingly viewed as humiliating for women, making visible that they were not allowed to decide themselves. In addition, the boards were accused of discrimination because the board’s decisions varied according to a) how strong the Christian Democratic Party was in different geographical locations, and b) the personal views of the members of the abortion committee.

The abortion struggle, concerned with altering the current law on abortion and with the conditions for having control over one’s body, became a core issue in the NWM from the start. The Norwegian Labour Party, together with a union of socialist doctors, had put abortion on demand on the political agenda in 1969 by including this goal in the party program. The feminists, however, accused the politicians of not prioritizing this cause. In 1971, the New Feminists demonstrated against the humiliating practices at hospitals where women were interrogated by an appeals board in order to have an abortion. In 1972, the New Feminists and the Women’s Front unified in a campaign in order to influence politicians and put abortion on demand on the public agenda. They claimed that “the right to abortion is a necessary precondition for women’s liberation” (Bjerck 2006) and initiated protests and lobbying. The NWM made abortion into an ideological issue, crucial for women’s liberation.

The struggle for abortion on demand mobilized and united different women’s organizations but divided the political parties in Norway; only the socialist parties in the Parliament supported abortion on demand whereas the conservative parties supported the existing act. Abortion on demand was thus a very touchy, controversial question for the public during the 1970s. Many of those critical towards the new sexual norms following in the wake of the birth control pill, introduced to Norway in 1967, were also sceptical towards abortion on demand, whereas many who supported liberal views on sexuality also supported a new law. However, the activists and set out to alter the existing abortion law in 1974.

The popular opinion against a new abortion law was extensive. The struggle for abortion on demand caused extensive counter-protests, not the least a broad protest from the Lutheran State Church. Reacting against the growing support for abortion on demand, the church united in its struggle against legalizing abortion. The bishops wrote a circular letter that was widely distributed and read aloud from the pulpits around the country. There was a massive protest against the suggestion to leave the choice of abortion to women, and a petition against the bill collected more than 600,000 signatures during a short period of time in 1974 (Danielsen 2013, 306). The church had a deep impact on the public in Norway at the time, perhaps deeper than in the other Nordic countries – for instance, Norway even had a Christian Political Party. The petition to support abortion on demand collected only 50,000 signatures that same autumn, which seems like a small number, considering the force of the protest. The struggle for abortion gained a lot of support from parts of the media, the trade unions and some organizations within the medical profession. The controversial abortion act did not pass in the parliament in 1975, because a Christian member of the Socialist Left Party used his right to vote against the party line, following his religious beliefs. After this, to the activists and supporters shocking incident, the Socialist Left Party decided that all their representatives would have to follow the party line regarding abortion. However, the new law that passed in 1975 represented a major liberalization as socio-economic grounds for abortion were further legalized, and women got a right to appeal the decision of the board.

In 1977, the Socialist Left Party and the Norwegian Labour Party won the election in Norway and they were eager to put the abortion bill on the agenda once more. The major change in the public discussion during the 1970s, compared to the interwar years when the struggle was lost, secured the renewed efforts for a legal reform. The socialist/social democratic parties could openly support a new abortion act because public opinion was changing. As in 1913, the majority in parliament passed a new law after a cooperation between women’s movements and politicians. When the act finally got through in the Parliament in 1978, it happened with only one vote to save the act. However, many of those opposing the new law came to support it in the years to come. The awaited law fulfilled the NWLM’s claims, and stated that demand for abortion was the individual woman’s choice:

Should the woman find, after having received information and guidance after §5, that she cannot go through with the pregnancy, she will herself make the final decision with regards to the abortion as long as the procedure is complemented within the twelfth week, and there are no serious medical reasons why the procedure should not take place. (Translation by The Women’s Museum

The major point for the activists in the NWM was that women themselves – not men or the patriarchy, nor religious or medical authorities – should have the right to decide if they needed an abortion or not. The abortion struggle specifically handled the question of women’s rights to decide over their own bodies, but the struggle also addressed – symbolically and practically – women’s ability to control their own everyday lives and future, and the possibility to separate reproduction and sexuality. Most women who wanted to take an abortion in the 1970s were allowed to do it, in 1974, 94% of the applications to the boards were admitted (Aanesen 1981). The trouble was then those who were denied abortion, and the demand that they had to send an application to an abortion appeal board who then got the final word. The struggle was therefore to define who should be in charge of such decisions, and to alter the increasing sense of injustice and humiliation when women’s ability to decide was questioned. The activists portrayed the appeal boards as consisting of old conservative men with little understanding of women’s lives. Strong feelings of rage and anger continued to fuel the fight for abortion on demand and the cause became a symbol of women’s treatment in Norwegian society.

The new abortion act had a great influence on gender norms and visions, far beyond the concrete legal amendment. It showed that change was possible, and became a manifestation of the fact that the ordinary woman, rather than men, experts or priests, had the moral authority to decide the question of abortion. In much the same way as after the implementation of the general vote in 1913, women’s organisations and members withdrew from activism after the victory of the abortion struggle. This cause had gathered different organisations in the NWLM to join forces, and mobilized their members – and now it was hard to find a new cause that would again foster alliances and co-operation across the movement.

The desired subject in the fight for abortion on demand, also called self-determined abortion in the Norwegian language, was the individual choosing subject. The process leading to the new abortion on demand Act in 1978 in Norway was part of a broader historical process unfolding through the twentieth century, where members of society became more autonomous and individual rights trumped religious and moral concerns (Flatseth and Madsen 2013, 112). Scholars like Taylor argue that modernity is shaped by individual’s rights to choose and shape their lives, defended by the legal system (Taylor 1992, 2). The fight for abortion on demand can thus be interpreted as a result of the individualization and democratization of society.

From Frigidity-Fear to Clitoris-Celebration.

The sexual-political climate in Norway was changing from the 1960s onwards, as in other Western countries. Since the interwar years (1918-1940), the labour movement had promoted healthy sexuality as a natural ingredient in a happy life (Danielsen, 2002). The Kinsey reports, Masters and Johnson studies and the works of Kollontaj, Reich and Freud were translated and discussed publicly in the post-war period after 1945, and some of their books were republished in the 1970s. The sexual “revolution” in Norway in the 1960s was promoted mainly by sex-experts in the media and radical, mostly male, authors. Women engaged in the NWLM felt that they had to make their sexual revolution on their own terms, by exploring female sexuality and making specific claims regarding autonomy.

The Sleeping Beauty metaphor often used in the movement, as shown in posters and used in literature, places the question of sexuality in an awakening process: Women have been and are supressed by patriarchy, but now they wake up and take their sexuality into their own hands, both symbolically and literally speaking. As the publication Kvinnefront explained the idea in 1978,

Many clitorises are still in a Sleeping Beauty state of sleep due to lack of touching and stimulus. Think about how we learn to walk. It is by trying and practicing until we gain control of our bodies and can walk. Just as we have the ability to learn to walk from the time we are born, we have the ability to learn to function sexually (Kvinnefront nr 5 1978, s.21, my translation).

In the magazine the Women’s Front, the article under the heading “Orgasm” opens up by stating that the texts is based on knowledge that comes from conversations with women, the writer’s own experience and by reading books on sexuality. Personal experience gives a rhetorical power, an authentic flair for speaking from the same position. The NWM claimed that “We want our sexuality back” (Brantenberg and Melby 1976) from men, sex-experts, medical science and the church. “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away” (MacKinnock 1982:515). Women should learn to say both yes and no to sex, with their own feelings and desires as guiding principles.

The major concrete claims in the NWM were to legalize abortion on demand, as shown, to fight sexual violence like incest and rape, to support public sexual education both in schools and through the health care system, to accept lesbianism, and to fight pornography and sex-objectification (Haukaa 1982, Roseneil et al 2009). Women were now representing themselves as experts in matters of sexuality, and sexuality had been opened as a field everybody was entitled to engage in publicly (Davies 2007,42). The Hite Report on female sexuality gained a Norwegian little sister called Women’s Sexuality (Kvinners Seksualitet 1981) with extracts of women’s own stories about sexuality, and was collected and published by a collective of women from the NWM. Sexual education became more obsessed with masturbation, and less with coitus. Trying to fight “the orgasm hysteria” and open up for a wider understanding of sensuality and sexuality, the women’s movement wanted to encourage and teach women how to have sexual joy. To be asexual became an even bigger taboo than before, as Hellesund has pointed out in her research on Norwegian spinsters from 1880 to 2000 [2003]. The new and authentically female site of pleasure was the clitoris, as in other Western countries during the ’70s. This is a strong tendency in the NWM literature on sexuality compared to earlier literature on sexual advice.

The new expressions of sexuality that the NWM promoted were made in contrast to sexual discourses established by psychoanalysts in the interwar period and in prolongation of the international, especially US research on sexuality being wide-spread from the 1950s and 1960s. After the exploration of the vaginal orgasm in the psychoanalytic circles in the beginning of the 1920s, its antithesis – the vaginal frigidity - gained increasing transnational attention during the 1930’s (Gerhard 2001). From the Freudian perspective, mature female sexuality now rested upon women’s capacity to have a vaginal orgasm during intercourse; this idea was also supported and spread by Norwegian physicians, and psychoanalysts like Karl Evang and Nic Waal (Danielsen 2009).  The notion of frigidity, which was intended as a tool to liberate women sexually, became a source of disciplining women’s sexuality. The explicit standard was that women should have vaginal orgasm during intercourse. Women became dependent upon men and the penis to get proper sexual satisfaction, and the clitoris was defined as a childish site for sexual pleasure. For grown-up women, it was important only as a foreplay to intercourse. In the 1970s this sexual time and place structure was strongly critiqued by the women’s movement all around the Western world (Gerhard 2001), including Norway, where support was also found in research from the 50s and 70s. The clitoris now became the major and authentically female site of sexual pleasure, and a focus on sensuousness including the whole body was promoted as a new ideal for sexuality. By focusing on helping women to develop a richer sexual life, new gender standards were once again established.

The New York radical feminist Anne Koedt’s classic article The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm with its fight against male sexual experts (1970) was widely read and its message influenced the Norwegian women’s movement. The earlier interpretation of the clitoris became an important symbol and proof of how men had suppressed women by denying them sexual pleasure. Frigidity was now considered as a way of suppressing women or a sometimes-adequate response to patriarchy. Frigidity, however, was also a way of bringing women’s sexuality into public discourse in a language that promoted women’s rights to sexual pleasure and exploring women’s activity. This view was further developed and it was first and foremost the focus on vaginal orgasm that became a major source of protest during the 1970s. In Norway, prominent feminists claimed that they wanted their sexuality back from men, sex experts, doctors and the church, a sentiment expressed by the previously mentioned slogan “We will be on top” (Brantenberg and Melby 1978).

Woman, know your body!

The bestseller Woman, know your body (Kvinne, kjenn din kropp), published in 1977 by a collective of women from the Norwegian and Danish WLMs, was directly inspired by the iconic US book Our bodies, Ourselves. This book claimed that “We must make the private public, so that together we can help each other” (1977,10). The vision is women knowing their needs and desires, controlling their bodies and selves, and being able to get along on their own.

Heterosexuality and male sexuality was heavily critiqued in the book, and subject to change. It was also challenged as the best, more natural or normal sexual alternative. In Woman, know your body (1977) there is a special chapter on being lesbian, but the lesbian alternative is visible throughout the text. “If you go to bed with men, you might find it difficult that you only can reach orgasm when your partner stimulates you with the hand or tongue on or around clitoris” (1977, 175, my translations). The book suggests that before a woman begins to work with her orgasm, she should ask herself if her partner really is interested in her and her orgasm (1977:175), or whether she should think about finding another partner who recognizes that she too has sexual needs (1977:177):

“Our sexual problems mirror society’s sexuality. Hence, women’s sexual problems can be a silent protest against functioning on the premises others have set up for us” (1977:190)."

The task for each woman and for the movement was to figure out how she wanted her sexuality to function.

The second-wave feminists wanted to provide women with more opportunities to enjoy their sexuality in an autonomous way. To do that, they offered recipes on how normal healthy sexuality functioned. Their sexual liberation was dependent on introducing a socialist society, changing the norms for sexual behaviour and altering the existing gender regime which suppressed women economically, socially and sexually. Some women argued that women’s dependency on men as providers could contribute to unconscious hate and feelings of revenge towards them, which would have negative consequences for women’s sexual life. In Woman, know your body, men were accused of being brutal egoists in bed, not adjusting to their partner’s sexual needs and sometimes differences in lack of sexual drive. The new ideals were sexual equality between men and women, opening up for recognition of lesbianism and the ability to take responsibility for one’s own sexual pleasure through masturbation and sexual initiative.

Sexuality became more linked to an exploration of the self than a practice to be done in this or that way.  The aim was to sexually liberate women as a group from patriarchy, while simultaneously liberating each and every woman as an individual. Only by knowing, feeling and acting upon your own exploration of one’s body, could a woman find her own way to sexual pleasure and self-fulfilment. Only by sharing her experiences with others could she direct and change the norms and institutions in society. The collective change thus had to be a result of individual reflexivity and exploration. When investigating women’s sexual problems, activists and authors within the NWM in their aims to help enlighten or liberate women’s sexuality, also make visible their visions of how sexuality should be organized, felt and experienced, and what kind of knowledge should count as authoritative on the subject.

By viewing sexuality from the perspective of emancipation as well as discipline, it becomes clear that by defining what was suppressed and unhealthy, new images of normal and healthy female sexuality were made. By focusing on helping women to develop a richer sexual life, new standards were once again established. Sexuality became even more important as a base of identity and a power in life, a place to nurture and develop one’s own needs and desires. In Woman, know your body the women were asked to stop playing theatre, like in faking orgasm, and to start to getting in contact with themselves and being true to their own needs. The focus on sexuality and the orgasm thus also served as a tool to promote the construction of intimate links between sexuality and the self, between sexual practices, authenticity, reflexivity and agency, promoting new ideal for female subjectivity. The protest created a new normality.

Visions of female sexual liberation: Concluding remarks

The Norwegian women in the NWM united in a common understanding that women’s subordination should be altered, and agreed that issues traditionally rejected as private should be made public. The problem was how, and which issues. As stated earlier, the claim for abortion on demand worked as a unifying cause within the movement. Women’s rights to control their own body and reproduction was seen as an essential prerequisite for a sexually liberated self, as well as a self generally speaking, as one could not have control over one’s self if she did not have control over her body and her reproduction. The claim was that women themselves should make the decision, not men, priests, doctors or politicians.  This claim has been repeated when proposed restrictions regarding abortion rights have been discussed in Norway, up until now (Sumer and Eslen-Ziya 2015, 1).

How was the sexually liberated woman constructed? She was made an independent and autonomous figure defining her own needs, being in control of her body and her life. She was encouraged to be active, choosing, secure of herself. The task of liberating women’s sexuality, which was an essential part of the movement, also gave way to new understandings of subjectivity and authenticity. The liberated woman was autonomous and true to herself, earned her own money and controlled her own body. References to a specific female experience became important in the emotional mobilization for the causes and demands which the different organisations sought to realize.  At the same time, through internal and external conflicts it became clear that each individual woman had different experiences and interests. With autonomy as the major claim of the liberated woman, it is timely to ask and further examine whether this representative figure for a collective movement, paradoxically enough, paved the way for the individualisation processes later to be associated with the 1980s and 90s. By describing how the relationship between the woman and her sexuality should or could be, new norms of how women should behave as subjects were created.

It is surprising how similar the claims, central slogans, internal conflicts and issues that united or divided the NWM movement in Norway were, compared to the movement in other Western countries. The inspiration in Norway from the international women’s movement is obvious, and it is important to stress that some processes happened at the same time in different settings globally during this period. The negotiation between the personal and the political manifested itself in new concepts and understandings of what a good life is. The societal changes brought about during the 1970s laid the foundation for what Helga Hernes coined “state feminism” in Norway and the region of Scandinavia (Hernes 1987, 9-29). She argues that in a woman-friendly state women can combine taking care of children with paid work and public life (ibid, 15) and that the Norwegian welfare state began to move in this direction during the 1970s. I will emphasize that the woman-friendly welfare state and the NWM are separate issues. The NWM fought for women’s liberation, not the gender equality that became the normative goal of the Norwegian welfare-state. They are still interconnected, as the struggle in the NWM and the wider women’s movement put forward new demands and questioned the public agenda and altered ways of thinking.

I will underline that a main contribution of the NWM in the 1970s was the redistribution of feelings, of making new ideas and norms for a just society, and in so doing creating new visions and norms for living a good life. Sexuality is represented as something women should do and work on for themselves in order to have joy and as a site for self-actualisation in different ways, and abortion on demand and control over productivity was seen as a necessary condition to achieve this. Women were encouraged and taught to become autonomous selves, self-choosing and self-determining. The movement participated in creating new selves, dreams, actions, borders and materiality, new ways of understanding self and society. The changing and diverse specificity of these are questions to be further developed.


Hilde Danielsen is a research professor at the Uni Resarch Rokkan Centre, Bergen, Norway with a Dr. art in Cultural Studies working with both historically and contemporary perspectives on family-life, gender and equality, the welfare state and social movements, and urban life, place, inclusion and exclusion. She is currently leading the research-project Parenting Cultures and Risk management in Plural Norway on how parenting in influenced by ethnicity, class and gender in an urban setting, with integrated international collaboration. Danielsen was the project leader and one of three authors of the book on the History of Equality in Norway 1814 – 2013. She was the editor of the book When personal became political (2013) and published the book Housewife-stories (2002). Her was a study of families with children living in urban environments and diversity management (2006).


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