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“The Best Place on Earth for Women”: The American Experience of Aasta Hansteen
    by Janet E. Rasmussen (Volume 31: Page 245)

The enduring popular image of Aasta Hansteen has been of an impassioned, eccentric, umbrella-wielding reformer. Gunnar Heiberg’s play Tante Ulrikke (1884) captured this side of her. Ibsen’s dynamic heroine Lona Hessel, who insists upon unveiling social hypocrisy in Pillars of Society (1877), is also frequently said to have been modeled on Aasta Hansteen. The daughter of Christopher Hansteen, a distinguished early professor at the University of Oslo, Aasta Hansteen (1824-1908) was well known in the intellectual and upper-class circles in Norway’s capital, for her unconventional behavior set her apart from her contemporaries. Aasta Hansteen had the distinction of being Christiania’s first female portrait painter, the first Norwegian woman to deliver public lectures, the first woman to publish in the nynorsk language, and, along with Camilla Collett, a pioneer in the Norwegian women’s movement. Hers was a rich and fascinating life, but one which until recently has remained largely unexplored. {1}

Aasta Hansteen lived in the United States for nine years, between 1880 and 1889. She spent six and a half years in the Boston area and two and a half years in the Midwest, primarily Chicago. Thus her American experience was an urban one. The reasons she chose Boston as her initial residence are obscure; one can only speculate that the rich cultural [246] environment and the established women’s movement made it an attractive destination. She could count on a small annual income from Norway, which she supplemented by painting portraits on commission; her life-style was of necessity extremely modest. This was, nevertheless, an important and eventful time for her. A study of her experiences in, and responses to, the American scene opens up new perspectives on Aasta Hansteen as a person, artist, and reformer. In addition, it enriches our understanding of the two environments in which she lived.

As she later expressed it, Aasta Hansteen decided to emigrate because the ground was burning beneath her feet. Hostility, it seemed, surrounded her in Norway. Hansteen’s defiance of convention and vocal opposition to traditional theological views about women generated a steady barrage of criticism and scorn. With good reason she felt isolated, unappreciated, and misunderstood. Her decision was also prompted by the knowledge that in the New World the struggle for women’s rights was well under way. She eagerly anticipated the opportunity to observe the inspiring suffrage leaders about whom she had read. Thus a combination of “push” and “pull” factors motivated Aasta Hansteen to go abroad at the age of fifty-five. Together with her foster daughter Theodora Nielsen, she sailed from Christiania on April 9, 1880. {2} In the euphoria of departure she wrote in her pocket calendar, “My misery is over.” In her first published communication from the United States, she confirmed her happy decision: “Since I left Christiania, my principal emotion has been an indescribable feeling of liberation.” {3}

On Wednesday, May 5, Aasta Hansteen arrived in Boston. She at once began to seek out progressive individuals and organizations. May was an excellent month for her orientation to begin, for it was the time when many groups, including the suffrage associations, held their “anniversary meetings.” There was thus opportunity to sample America’s flourishing club and organizational life before the summer hiatus. As the weeks passed, Aasta Hansteen met or observed [247] such leading reformers as Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Safford, Mary Livermore, and Wendell Phillips. Her sole paid occupation during the first months consisted of writing five reports for the Christiania newspaper Verdens Gang, an assignment apparently agreed upon before she left Norway. These articles made it clear that she was keeping up with the Boston press, in particular The Woman’s Journal (referred to as “Kvindernes Ugeblad”), and that she was very favorably impressed by the liberal Boston intellectuals with whom she came in contact.

October brought a flurry of activity surrounding the visit of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. It also marked Aasta Hansteen’s transition from newcomer to working artist. Her initial project was a portrait of Alice Blackwell, daughter of the editors of The Woman’s Journal, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, who was then twenty-three years old and a student at Boston University. On October 28 she noted that Alice Blackwell had been received, presumably for a sitting, and that she had earned her first dollar. Soon she was engaged in other projects as well; the most exciting of these was a portrait of Bjørnson, to be underwritten by local Scandinavians. Hansteen expected this portrait to open doors for her throughout the Scandinavian community. The festivities for Bjørnson, especially a grand reception in Paine Memorial Hall on October 7 with a thousand persons in attendance, made a considerable impression. There were other stirring occasions at which Aasta Hansteen was present, including a rally hosted by the Scandinavian Republican Club. Her health and spirits appear to have been good; Bjørnson characterized her as “optimistic and well.” {4} On one occasion he visited her to sit for his portrait, having sent a postcard in advance asking to be directed to her “jomfru-bur” (maiden bower). Aasta Hansteen’s calendar indicates that Bjørnson visited on December 3 and that they enjoyed a meal of oyster sandwiches and beer.

In January, 1881, Aasta Hansteen called upon Boston’s foremost art dealers, Williams & Everett, and offered them a small Rhine landscape. They purchased it for $20. In late [248] February she engaged an atelier in The Studiobuilding, where she worked and displayed her paintings from March to June. The Studiobuilding, 112 Tremont Street, was a well-known center for Boston’s professional artists. Aasta Hansteen rented studio 36; this location put her in touch with colleagues like Mrs. Jessie Noa, who worked in studio 33. Jessie Noa’s reputation was a fine one. At the time of her death The Boston Evening Transcript characterized her as the “eminent Boston pastel portrait artist.” {5} So the announcement concerning Aasta Hansteen which Jessie Noa sent to The Woman’s Journal may be regarded as a solid endorsement. Here “Madame Hansteen” was presented as “an artist of high reputation in Christiania” and the public was invited to inspect her work at the Studiobuilding. Mrs. Noa singled out for special mention the painting “Moses Praying for Victory” and concluded by noting: “her fine drawing would make her an excellent teacher; we therefore hope she will meet with encouragement.” {6} Mrs. Noa’s announcement appeared in The Woman’s Journal in early May, but there is no indication of an influx of visitors or orders as a result. Still, the spring of 1881 offered the most promise for Aasta Hansteen’s connections with, and involvement in, the Boston art world. Had she given the Studiobuilding and her new contacts more time, a steady business might have evolved. But her financial situation was too precarious; she was forced to pawn several items and her relationship with the landlords at 28 East Brookline Street deteriorated. America was proving a demanding environment for an aging artist whose command of English was very limited.

On June 2, 1881, Aasta Hansteen reached the decision to travel to the Midwest on a lecture tour. The handsome sum of money Bjørnson had earned during his recently concluded lecture tour no doubt made the thought of her own tour among the Scandinavians highly tantalizing. {7} Aasta Hansteen raised the necessary travel funds by borrowing $80 against some of her paintings and obtaining a personal loan of $20 from the local consul. Her initial destination was Chicago but [249] she clearly planned to travel on from there to a number of other Scandinavian settlements. A letter to The Woman’s Journal told of her intention to stay on in Chicago until late August, “because it is very pleasant here among so many of my compatriots, and the season is not favorable for lecturing,” and suggested that later correspondence would cover her experiences in places like Madison, La Crosse, and Minneapolis. This same letter contained a description of her Chicago lecture, held on July 10, 1881, in Aurora Turner Hall: “The audience was not large - about two hundred persons - but it was quite sympathetic with the subject and with my points of view, and I had much applause. The Scandinavian newspapers, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, were very favorable to me before and after the lecture.” {8} Indeed she had prepared the way for her lecture tour by sending announcements to three Midwestern newspapers - Budstikken and Folkebladet in Minneapolis, and Norden in Chicago. The Chicago lecture proved to be a positive emotional experience; at the same time it must have disappointed her from a financial point of view. The crowd apparently generated an income of only $17.

While waiting to continue her lecture tour, Aasta Hansteen spent the summer getting acquainted with the Chicago Scandinavians and painting their portraits. At the end of July she received four commissions and during the hot and humid days of August she worked long, steady hours in an effort to keep up with the mounting bills. She had arrived in Chicago on June 26 and spent several weeks with a Vingaard family before moving to 151 Morgan Street, where she was charged about $4.50 a week for board. September found her adopting new strategies for obtaining portrait orders. The lecture plans had been laid aside; Aasta Hansteen was absorbed with her new friends and with prospects for foster daughter Theodora to develop her musical talent. Except for a brief trip to Minneapolis in 1882, Chicago remained her home for the next two years.

Having completed the first round of paintings and anxious for more work, Aasta Hansteen arranged to exhibit the [250] Bjørnson portrait which she had brought along from Boston. In late September it was placed on display at Melanders’ (presumably L. M. Melander & Bros., photographers). The death of President Garfield on September 19 prompted her to begin his portrait and by mid-October it, too, could be viewed at Melanders’. A second Garfield portrait was then completed and exhibited at A. Reed & Sons, piano dealers, on State Street. In November socialist reformer and editor Marcus Thrane sat for his portrait. Throughout the winter and into the spring of 1882 individual Scandinavian immigrants appear to have accounted for most of her portrait painting.

At the same time her work received exposure in Chicago’s bustling art colony through the elegant but short-lived gallery known as The Cosmos. The Cosmos was the brainchild of Marie Brown, a New York native who according to The Chicago Tribune “has made a name for herself in Eastern literary and art circles by her masterly translations of Swedish literature and her interesting and successful lectures on Scandinavian art.” Brown was a true Scandinavian enthusiast, as her later writings on Leif Ericson testify, and she welcomed Aasta Hansteen as an exhibitor. The Cosmos occupied space in Haverly’s Theatre Building and was officially opened on November 23-24, 1881. It boasted expensive furnishings and a Scandinavian Room, and individual paintings were displayed with great care. Aasta Hansteen attended the gallery opening and in December exhibited four paintings there. The Chicago Tribune referred to three of these - portraits of President Garfield and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and a “Norwegian Peasant Girl.” {9} By January, 1882, The Cosmos was encumbered with heavy debts. A move and an attempt to sell $100 shares in the enterprise could not save the venture; by June it had folded and Marie Brown had left for Sweden. Among the Hansteen papers in the Norwegian National Archives is a small red notebook originally used to record the names and addresses of Cosmos subscribers.

As had been the case in Boston, Aasta Hansteen found herself despairing over the tiny trickle of income she received [251] from her work. But Chicago offered her the advantage of a substantial support network. Her move to 242 North Clark Street on the near north side in late September, 1881, put her in close proximity to two other Scandinavian artists - William Torgerson, a Swede who specialized in marine paintings, and John Olson Hammerstad, a Norwegian landscape painter, both of whom were located at 3 North Clark Street. She may or may not have known Torgerson well; Hammerstad later proved to be an important inspiration. This was not a fashionable studio area - Torgerson was encouraged by The Chicago Tribune’s art critic to leave it: “he should come over and establish himself in the region of studios and take the place among artists which of right belongs to him” (December 11, 1881). But North Clark Street was an ethnic neighborhood where Aasta Hansteen felt comfortably at home and where she could afford to live. She began to take her dinners at a restaurant operated by Mrs. Thora Hansteen on Milwaukee Avenue, the thriving commercial center of the early Scandinavian community. Mrs. Hansteen was presumably Thora Lange Hansteen (1845-1930). What the family connection was, if any, is unknown.

One of Aasta Hansteen’s most important contacts in Chicago proved to be Dr. Gerhard Christian Paoli (1815- 1898). G. S. C. H. Paoli attained a high status within his profession, serving twice as president of the Chicago Medical Society. He also acquired a reputation as a champion of social and political reform. He took a strong interest in opening the medical field to women and taught for many years at Women’s Medical College of Chicago. In local Scandinavian circles he was known in particular for his leadership, along with Marcus Thrane, of the Freethinkers’ Society. Dr. Paoli introduced Aasta Hansteen when she delivered her speech at Aurora Turner Hall and later invited her to parties and meetings in his home on Webster Avenue. On November 4, 1881, Paoli married Sarah Corning Magnusson; it was the second marriage for both. Among their friends the Paolis counted Ole Bull and Jenny Lind, figures whom Aasta Hansteen greatly admired. Their political and philosophical stance [252] coincided with hers and they enjoyed the same generational outlook. Aasta Hansteen not only found considerable comfort in their acquaintance but enjoyed their practical assistance as well.

During the summer of 1882, after a slow period when she turned to the retouching of photographs for extra income, Aasta Hansteen demonstrated a burst of artistic energy. In rapid order she produced four thematic paintings, sharing the conception and development of each with her Norwegian colleague J. O. Hammerstad. This “Kunstneralliance” (artistic alliance), as she called it, obviously provided important inspiration and encouragement. The paintings bear intriguing titles, in particular the composition called first “Noble Deeds of American Women” and later “Europe Pays Homage to American Women.” These paintings all sold within a few months, thanks to the good offices of Dr. Paoli, but the professional relationship with Hammerstad was short-lived. On August 28 Aasta Hansteen recorded his comment to her: “He felt that I was a better writer than painter.” The diary makes no further mention of him. Taking into account the various portraits and crayon drawings which she completed, the four thematic paintings, and the other professional activities noted in late 1881 and during 1882, this must be regarded as Aasta Hansteen’s most productive artistic period while in America. Unfortunately the paintings themselves have not yet been located.

Little is known about Aasta Hansteen’s activities in Chicago during 1883, but it seems that while in the Midwest her attention rested primarily on supplementing her annual income by selling paintings or exchanging them for room, board, and other services. She wrote one article which appeared in Den nye Tid, sent two letters to The Woman’s Journal, and was the subject of an article by Jakob Bonggren in Svenska Amerikanaren. Her social contacts were based squarely in progressive Scandinavian circles as represented by the Scandinavian Freethinkers’ Society and members of the radical press. She oriented herself in the larger progressive movement to a certain extent, though one looks in vain for [253] references to suffrage meetings. The unpublished poem “Tilbageblik” (Retrospective View) which she composed on July 30, 1883, on the steps of the Methodist Episcopal Church, La Salle Street, illustrates the sincere optimism that she maintained in Chicago despite difficult financial straits. One stanza reads, freely translated:

  “The Atlantic’s strong breeze, the prairie’s
sharp storms lie between us and narrow-mindedness.
Our courage stirs in spite of all that
we have suffered, in spite of want and the
daily, frightening struggle for
bread. For here life’s seeds and opportunities
swirl about us, in
the refreshing wind” {10}

Aasta Hansteen’s diary breaks off in October, 1882; thus the last year of her stay in Chicago remains very thinly documented. In November, 1883, she returned to Boston. The Woman’s Journal noted this fact with a brief statement in its “Concerning Women” column on December 1.

While living in Chicago she briefly revived the plan for a lecture tour to other Midwestern cities. Budstikken passed along word on March 14, 1882, that Aasta Hansteen could soon be expected in Minneapolis and other nearby communities. Two weeks later the same newspaper announced that the Minneapolis appearance had been set for Sunday, April 2, in Nordens Hall: “She will treat the woman question as it has developed among us Norwegians. Since Miss Hansteen is one of the women who first functioned as a spokesman for this cause in our homeland, we expect to receive from her a presentation that is as interesting as it is substantial.” {11} She left Chicago on March 31, traveling on a free pass supplied by the emigration department of the railroad. Upon her arrival in Minneapolis on Saturday evening, April 1, she drove immediately to the residence of Mrs. Oline Muus, where she received a friendly welcome. {12} The following day she delivered a speech at Nordens Hall for an audience of some 100 persons. The subject was woman’s social position and the lecture followed the main lines of the one given in Chicago the [254] year before; however, certain unexplained practical difficulties appear to have marred this Minneapolis appearance. According to the diary, Aasta Hansteen delivered her speech without benefit of manuscript, silk dress, or admission tickets.

In order to boost the income from the trip, Mrs. Muus helped arrange a benefit concert for the following Monday, April 10, in Harrison Hall. The program consisted of six musical numbers which framed a speech by Aasta Hansteen entitled “Tidsbetragtninger og Strøtanker” (Contemporary Meditations and Aphorisms). The musical numbers were performed by local talent - ”kvartetten ‘Freja,’ frøken Wetterhal, herr Selmer Johnson, frøknerne Kjeistrup” - and tickets cost 25 cents. Since Aasta Hansteen listed ticket sale income at $45, paid attendance at this evening of entertainment was presumably 180. Her financial situation was so difficult that she apparently abandoned all plans to travel to other cities and instead returned directly to Chicago on Wednesday, April 12. The Minneapolis trip was no triumph. Budstikken’s report on her first speech expressed disappointment at its “somewhat fragmented form” and the financial return was not what Aasta Hansteen had hoped. {13} But neither was the venture a disaster. It provided her an opportunity to meet Mrs. Muus, on whose behalf she had written strong appeals, and to see another segment of the Norwegian-American community.

After her return to Boston Aasta Hansteen shared lodgings with the Clarke family, an arrangement which lasted throughout her remaining five years in America. It has not been possible to trace this family through city directories or other sources; the name may have been spelled either Clark or Clarke. One is led to believe that they had no connection with Scandinavia; when disagreements erupted, Aasta Hansteen labeled them “uforskammet [insolent] Yankees.” The first year their address was 11 Tremont Street, a residence she described as cold, leaky, and unhealthy. {14} Then in April, 1885, the Clarkes and she moved to the country. Here Aasta [255] Hansteen felt her optimism and strength return. She recalled this summer in Clarendon Hills in a letter to her American friend Mrs. Lyon Livingston Machynleth: “What lovely surroundings, beautiful landscape! Oh, to see the trees of peach, cherry, and apple in bloom, it is beneficent for the human soul!” {15} They spent four months in this pleasant rural area some seven miles from the city center. Aasta Hansteen interpreted this summer as a turning point. In early 1885 she had been on the verge of returning to Norway. She had informed her family to expect her and had even bought a steamship ticket. To sister Nanna she wrote that joy at having escaped Norway sustained her during the first years in America, but as time went by circumstances grew more and more confining. Now, however, her financial situation improved and she settled into a new way of life in America.

Because she was no longer responsible for Theodora’s support, Hansteen could now adapt her expenditures to fit within the limits of her $200 annual income. This meant a number of restrictions upon household services, but at the same time it brought a new measure of freedom - there was no longer pressure to generate extra income through the sale of paintings. Instead she adopted a frugal and largely self-sufficient life-style. She learned to cook, wash clothes, and make her own dresses. These practical skills were not easy to acquire at the age of sixty, but she wrote proudly of her accomplishments to her sister Nanna. One letter offered an extensive list of the various dishes which she had learned to prepare, including fish soup, oyster stew, roast beef, and oatmeal porridge. The notation of "pengeknibe" (short of funds), frequent in the early years in America, virtually disappears from the later diaries.

There was a dramatic shift in her creative pursuits at this same time. She let the paintbrush and charcoal rest and turned with enthusiasm to research and writing projects. Her new financial independence was the key to this redirection of energies. As she wrote to her friend Agnes Mathilde Wergeland, “In this way I am independent and can manage my own time, can study the sciences, and write books.” {16} In [256] composing an essay entitled “Sejr” (Victory) on June 8, 1885, she pledged herself to the pen; as she wrote in her calendar two years later: “Anniversary ‘Sejr!’ Two years ago I took up my pen again, nevermore to let it rest.” Through the summer and fall of 1885 she produced a series of Norwegian-language manuscripts which may be found among her papers at the National Archives in Oslo. The titles are revealing of her philosophical and political interests: “Evolutions-filosofi” (The Philosophy of Evolution), “Det franske Folk” (The French People), “Verdenshistoriske Vendepunkter” (Turning Points in World History), and “Dyreriget og Menneskeheden” (The Animal Realm and Humankind). She continued writing over the next four years, in part reworking some of the same materials. In addition, she focused on English translations of her own works and those of her literary hero, Henrik Wergeland.

With the exception of a few articles in specialized publications like The Woman’s Journal, Aasta Hansteen’s attempts to enter the American publishing scene did not succeed. Her limited command of the English language remained a major stumbling block. When she sent the text of Church of Christ in the Nineteenth Century to editor B. F. Underwood of The Open Court, he returned it stating that it was not in acceptable form. It might be published if “some practiced writer put it in good English, at the same time condensing it.” {17} Such setbacks did not dampen her productivity. In the summer of 1887 she began submitting material to Nylænde (New Ground), in Christiania. In November she mailed the first of three articles to Framåt (Forward) in Gothenburg and the first of two articles to Kvinden og Samfundet (Woman and Society) in Copenhagen. These three journals were all geared to supporters of the women’s movement.

Her dream of seeing a major article appear in English remained unfulfilled, however. Efforts in this direction had begun in the late 1870s when she commissioned a translation of her 1878 treatise Kvinden skabt i Guds billede. Repeated submissions of this manuscript also failed to net a positive result, but a breakthrough finally occurred in 1888. After Aasta [257] Hansteen revised and edited sections of the English text, three installments appeared as Woman Created in the Image of God in the spiritualist periodical The World’s Advance Thought (Portland, Oregon) during 1888-1889. She was naturally delighted by this turn of events, as she was by the appearance in The Woman’s Journal for April, 1888, of her descriptions of Norway’s feminist pioneers. While her ambition to become an “American” writer was never realized, Aasta Hansteen did have the satisfaction of returning home to Norway with some American publications. She continued to seek visibility in America throughout the rest of her life. There were further successful submissions to The World’s Advance Thought and further unsuccessful negotiations concerning the publication of Woman Created in the Image of God as a monograph.

By the summer of 1888 Aasta Hansteen could look back on three years of steady involvement with writing projects. She had seen articles published on both sides of the Atlantic and was following with intense interest the blossoming of the Scandinavian women’s movement. Prompted in part by her Norwegian friends in Boston, she began to think seriously of returning home. A new wave of depression and loneliness had engulfed her and this time Norway seemed to present a positive alternative. In August, 1888, she was inspired with the idea of undertaking a lecture tour of the Scandinavian countries, and in late February, 1889, she sent a notice to Dagbladet and Verdens Gang in Christiania formally announcing her intention to return and deliver a series of speeches. In early May, 1889, exactly nine years after her arrival in Boston, she left the Clarke household to begin the trip back across the ocean. The leave - taking sparked a renewed feeling of emancipation and optimism. Aasta Hansteen had pictured her emigration as a matter of self-preservation. The return to Norway was a matter of following her heart.

Aasta Hansteen experienced two sides of “Norwegian America” during her nine-year stay in the New World. On the one hand, she ran up against the hierarchy and ideology of the Norwegian Lutheran Church as transplanted to [258] America. On the other hand, she encountered the fellowship of the Scandinavian Freethinkers and the patriotism of liberal nationalists. Her personal orientation naturally led her to lash out at the first group and embrace the second.

Part of her journalistic mission while abroad was to describe the backward state of affairs among conservative Norwegian Americans. Her favorite example here was a case involving Pastor Bernt Julius Muus, whose wife Oline had challenged his authority to dispose of her inheritance. For this display of insubordination, she had been publicly censured by her husband and the Norwegian Synod. Aasta Hansteen was outraged by this action and described for The Woman’s Journal the situation among “these antiquated people, who, like a phenomenon from the dark middle ages, are living in the last decades of the nineteenth century in the prosperous and thriving states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, in the middle of America.” {18} She concluded a second article by quoting an unnamed acquaintance, “If these are Christians I will try the heathen for a while.” {19}

It pained Aasta Hansteen to present her countrymen in this unflattering light: “I do not feel proud, in telling you about this Norwegian church party, and I wish you not to think all the Norwegians are in that way - without brains and without hearts.” {20} Fortunately, Aasta Hansteen had ample opportunity to associate with Norwegian Americans who shared her reformist views. In Chicago she was a participant in the activities of the Scandinavian Freethinkers’ Society. The Society met twice monthly. According to the 1882 city directory its president was Marcus Thrane and its vice-president Dr. Gerhard Paoli, both of whom Aasta Hansteen counted as personal acquaintances. At one of the society’s meetings Dr. Paoli spoke about the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi. The group was also known to celebrate the birthday of the radical political theorist Thomas Paine. The newspaper Den nye Tid (The New Era) held an autumn fair which Aasta Hansteen attended in both 1881 and 1882. She described one feature of the fair as “three blood-red Socialist banners above the door.” [259]

In Boston Aasta Hansteen was drawn into the social activities of the Norwegian Society of Boston. This group had originally been formed in 1853 but had languished for some years before it was revitalized in 1872. During the 1880s the organization was quite active; major efforts were directed to the visit of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and to the completion and dedication of the Leif Ericson statue. The meeting place of the society was the Boston Turnverein Clubhouse, or Turner Hall, located at 29 Middlesex Street. Aasta Hansteen participated in several of the society’s programs. She spoke at “Promulgationsfesten” on June 9, 1884, at the “sexa” following the unveiling of the Leif Ericson statue on October 29, 1887, and at the thirty-fifth anniversary celebration on September 19, 1888. {21} On this last occasion she presented a portrait of Bjørnson to the society. In her presentation speech she expressed certainty that the portrait would inspire the Norwegian Society to endorse full national independence for Norway. Her comments emphasized further the liberal, patriotic character of the organization: “The Society has become a place for the liberal Norwegians in Boston to gather. We hope that it increasingly will serve as the headquarters for those who believe in progress and patriotism.” {22}

The high point of national sentiment which Aasta Hansteen experienced abroad may well have been the festivities surrounding the long-awaited dedication in 1887 of the Leif Ericson statue. The Boston newspapers described a day full of impressive activity, involving prominent figures from civic and political life. {23} In the evening two sexas were held at which leaders of the Scandinavian community spoke. The Norwegians gathered at Turner Hall. Aasta Hansteen later used an amended version of the speech she gave there as the introduction to Kvin den i det nye Norge (Woman in the New Norway, 1893). In her address she talked of a “new Norway” which promised to rival Norway’s golden age, if only it would grant appropriate social recognition to women. Aasta Hansteen’s intense patriotism found an outlet in these organized celebrations; but as the years in America passed, such socializing also awakened a feeling of homesickness. In [260] October, 1888, she spent an evening at a social in the Norwegian Lutheran Church in Boston. The rather lengthy summary of the evening in her pocket diary noted the familiar songs and typical games in which she had joined. The very authenticity of this Norwegian gathering underlined her sense of alienation from American society and triggered her longing to return to the country and the people that she loved.

When Aasta Hansteen left Christiania in the spring of 1880, the shock waves from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House were still being felt. Norway boasted no feminist organization and no feminist journal. Role models and moral support had to be sought abroad. Because of this, the American women’s movement exerted a powerful influence upon Aasta Hansteen and her generation. For these Norwegian activists the American movement served two related functions. First, it represented a source of inspiration and energy; and second, it offered a revealing contrast to Norwegian conditions. Aasta Hansteen’s writings from, and about, America point up the symbolic importance of American feminism. This is true in particular because Hansteen indulged a tendency to idolize American leaders and to prophesy the dawning of a new age whose sun was rising “in the West.” Woven into this general rhetoric are specific concerns that spring from the American context but that reflect the author’s own ideological bias. Aasta Hansteen believed strongly in the spiritual power of women, in the appropriateness of public female leadership, and in the need to cement the bonds of sisterhood.

By 1871 Aasta Hansteen was acquainted, at least superficially, with American women’s struggle for independence. In a newspaper article she pointed to America as the home of women’s liberation but noted that only vague and incomplete reports had thus far reached Norway. {24} Soon afterward she learned about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of America’s leading feminists. Her introduction to these women came through the Swedish Tidskrift for Hemmet (Home Journal) and its editor, Sophie Leijonhufvud, as well as through L’Espérance, a journal published in Geneva by [261] L’Association Universelle des Femmes. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony symbolized for Aasta Hansteen the best of the new movement; by 1873, when hard at work on Kvinden skabt i Guds billede, she wrote to the two suffrage leaders seeking advice about publication possibilities in the United States. Her inquiries, written in French, went unanswered, and so it was not until May of 1881 that Aasta Hansteen came into contact with her admired models. The occasion was a New England suffrage meeting held in Boston and Hansteen was apparently not disappointed. In her diary she wrote, “Now I have seen them!”

An intriguing diary entry from October 2, 1879, suggests that the actual decision to emigrate was connected with another well-known American woman. “Victoria C. Woodhull. Resolved to emigrate to America” the entry reads. Victoria Woodhull’s fame rested both on her involvement with spiritualism and on her candidacy for the presidency of the United States, the first woman to run for the office. It is unclear how Aasta Hansteen came to know of her endeavors, but the impression she made must have been considerable. On November 15, 1879, Hansteen sent a dispatch to Woodhull and in preparation for emigration she included Wood-hull’s name in a list of New York addresses. {25}

Once settled in Boston Aasta Hansteen met women like Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and Mary Livermore and was introduced to the organized life of the women’s movement. To judge from her diaries, Aasta Hansteen found women’s congresses and suffrage meetings to be wonderfully inspiring occasions. A favorite response was “herligt” (glorious). In fact the second newspaper report she sent back to Norway consisted of a detailed description of the New England Woman’s Club. What impressed her in particular was the manner in which American women presented themselves from the podium. She was struck by their eloquence, bearing, and intelligence. In a speech given to the Norwegian Suffrage Club in 1898, Aasta Hansteen expressed her admiration in this way: “The greatest result of the women’s movement, the effect which also is felt in Europe, concerns this flock of impressive [262] pioneers who have shown the world true womanhood, genuine femininity - so different from the pitiful model which for such a long time was forced upon us as the correct female posture.” Earlier in the speech she singled out American women as “the most advanced and the most superior in ability and character of any women in this century.” {26}

Since Aasta Hansteen had been ridiculed for holding public lectures in Norway, it proved exhilarating for her to encounter accomplished female orators and moderators. In an unpublished manuscript she remarked: “I sought out a great country, better suited for a woman who wished to engage in thought and to speak those thoughts.” Hansteen herself found few opportunities in the United States to do public speaking, however. Her limited knowledge of English handicapped her, especially in the beginning. She delivered her welcoming remarks to the New England Woman’s Club in French and her few formal lectures were directed specifically to Scandinavian-American audiences. Yet, as her written descriptions show, she was an appreciative and sensitive observer of public discourse. She was attracted in particular to the strong personalities who led the women’s movement and her perception of American feminism was based in large measure upon them.

Another significant discovery for Aasta Hansteen was the fellowship she encountered in America. One of the first feminists she met received her with the gracious words: “We belong to a sisterhood.” The fact that she no longer felt alone is articulated in the verse composed during this period. There is among her private papers a small, unpublished collection of America poems. The poems are sentimental and rather simplistic, but they provide a useful index to her moods. In “Arbeidsglæde” (Joy of Work, 1886) she celebrates her movement from isolated individual to member of a community. The text, freely translated, runs in part:

  “In Norway I was deserted,
shrouded in loneliness, all the others were ‘we’
but not me. [263]
Here in freedom’s land,
here I am blessed,
here I too am ‘we.’”

Hansteen also commented on what she perceived as an absence of ridicule and malice among American women.

Certain key images recur in the prose and poetry. These focus on sun, light, and warmth. In America Aasta Hansteen encountered the sunflower in use as a feminist symbol. The plant was interpreted as a visual sign of woman’s claim to light and air and Hansteen took upon herself the task of introducing this symbol into Scandinavia. Her first article on the subject appeared in the Swedish journal Framåt in 1888; an expanded version was printed in Norway in 1894. {27} The campaign achieved definite success in Norway, where the sunflower was adopted as the official symbol of the Norwegian Feminist Society and its journal. Aasta Hansteen’s seventieth birthday was celebrated by her friends as a special sunflower festival. The sunflower image points up the optimistic spirit which Aasta Hansteen brought back from America. A short poem composed in 1867 during a time of great personal anguish described a feeling of being engulfed by flames. In 1896 Aasta Hansteen added this short verse:

  “But now the flames have turned to
and sunflowers.” {28}

Traces of Aasta Hansteen’s contact with American feminism are scattered throughout her writings. They reveal that she especially valued the religious strain which often infused the American movement. She took particular note of The Woman’s Bible, a project begun by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the prominence of women preachers in the New World. Her avid interest in spiritualism was no doubt piqued by the extent to which women were given leading roles in spiritualist congregations. She understood as well that the American legal and social structure provided women with enviable protection and opportunities. In 1875 she had compared Norway’s marriage laws with the American and concluded [264] that the latter provided women with “the greatest justice as well as protection.” {29} During her stay in America she felt compelled to remark on the social conventions which permitted women to voice their opinions, earn their own keep, and walk the streets without harassment.

Norway had been comparatively slow to provide publication outlets for women. Hansteen understood the necessity for periodicals dealing with women’s issues and her American stay offered the opportunity to study a leading publication at close hand. During the summer of 1880 she paid her first visits to the Boston office of The Woman’s Journal. Through that office she also received from time to time copies of Scandinavian publications such as the Danish Kvinden og Samfundet (Woman and Society). Of major importance to Aasta Hansteen’s perception of the changing political climate in her homeland was the appearance in 1887 of a Norwegian periodical for women. Nylænde (New Ground), edited by Gina Krog, reached Aasta Hansteen in Boston on Midsummer Day, 1887. She welcomed this channel of communication and immediately began to make use of it. Gina Krog later indicated that it was Nylænde that had called Aasta Hansteen home from her exile abroad - “and she came home to us and grew near and dear to us.” {30}

The warm and genuine enthusiasm which Aasta Hansteen displayed for the American women’s movement and her clear endorsement of its models were integral elements of her American experience and a necessary prerequisite for her characterization of America as “det første sted paa jorden for kvinder” (the best place on earth for women). {31} But it should be stressed that she remained on the periphery of the organizations themselves. Shortly after her arrival in Boston, she reported that she had become a member of the New England Woman’s Club; however, the club membership records do not include her name and her pocket calendars suggest no involvement with their activities in subsequent years. It was typical of Aasta Hansteen that she took no role in the day-today work of such organizations. Her basic stance was rather that of observer and commentator. [265]

The American influences which left a deep mark on Aasta Hansteen overlapped and to a certain extent blended together. Feminism, spiritualism, and free religion were movements that shared advocates and rhetoric, and Aasta Hansteen drew freely from all of them. The radical circles made no distinction between reform in the spiritual and social spheres; they represented a confluence of efforts to define and implement a new moral order. Hansteen’s overriding concerns were undoubtedly female autonomy and female spirituality. Issues like The Woman’s Bible and the sunflower badge were therefore natural ones for her to promote. But one might argue that it was precisely the multi-faceted milieu of American progressive thought that in particular appealed to this visionary and wide-ranging reformer.

Her decision to return to Norway was influenced by the desire to function in a more visible, public capacity, unhampered by the language barrier. Aasta Hansteen was clearly encouraged by changes on the Norwegian scene which made such action possible. The intervening nine years had brought increased tolerance for Norwegian women who appeared and wrote publicly. In a letter written from Boston on December 26, 1887, to her sister Nanna, Aasta Hansteen expressed happy astonishment that such was the case: “It is wonderful that women now can use their talents and energies.” By 1889 the Norwegian feminist movement had taken firm root, and Aasta Hansteen could be welcomed home as one of its pioneers.


<1> For a comprehensive look at Aasta Hansteen’s career and a detailed review of her years in America, the reader is referred to Furier er også Kvinner, Aasta Hansteen 1824-1908 by Bente Nilsen Lein, Nina Karin Monsen, Janet E. Rasmussen, Anne Wichstrøm, and Elisabeth Aasen (Oslo, 1984). The author gratefully acknowledges the courtesy and generosity of the Hansteen family in making available much pertinent material, including Aasta Hansteen’s notebooks and calendars from the period. Sincere appreciation is also extended to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and to the Norwegian Research Council for their support of this project. Eva Lund [266] Haugen provided key assistance with local source materials in the Boston area and Rolf Erickson with Chicago sources. All translations from the Norwegian are the author’s.

<2> Not much is known about Theodora Mathilde Nielsen. To judge from a photograph taken in 1880, she was then perhaps eighteen years old. Theodora took voice lessons in Chicago and received further training at a conservatory in Boston. She lived with Aasta until 1884, and later resided with various families. By 1907, she apparently was living in Colorado with Aasta’s friend Mrs. L. L. Machynleth. The relationship between Aasta and Theodora was sometimes stormy; Aasta apparently wanted more undivided attention than Theodora was prepared to give her.

<3> Aasta Hansteen, “Over Atlanterhavet,” in Verdens Gang, June 15, 1880.

<4> Eva Lund Haugen and Einar Haugen, eds. and trans., Land of the Free: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s America Letters, 1880-1881 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1978), 83.

<5> The Boston Evening Transcript, April 17, 1907.

<6> ”A Norwegian Artist,” in The Woman’s Journal, May 7, 1881, 149; the painting singled out for mention by Mrs. Noa was completed in Paris in the mid-1850s and bore the title “Moses, som beder om sejren, understøttet af Aron og Hur.” It is now part of the collection at the Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

<7> Haugen and Haugen, Land of the Free, 170.

<8> See The Woman’s Journal, July 30, 1881.

<9> The “Art in Chicago” Sunday column of The Chicago Tribune carried information about The Cosmos and Marie Brown on October 23, October 30, November 27, December 11, and December 18, 1881, and January 1 and June 18, 1882. According to Aasta Hansteen’s diary, the fourth painting exhibited at The Cosmos was a portrait of her father. Marie Brown’s later writings included “The Norse Discovery,” in The Index, August 5, 1886, and The Icelandic Discoverers of America (London, 1887).

<10> The stanza in the original Norwegian reads as follows:

  “Nu er
Atlanterhavets friske bris, -
præriens hvasse storme, mellem os
og sneverheden. Dette hæver modet,
trods alt hvad vi har lidt, trods nød
og daglig, ængstlig kamp for brødet.
Thi her jo livets frø og muligheder
rundt om os flyve, med den friske vind.”

<11> Budstikken March 28, 1882.

<12> As discussed below, Mrs. Muus was at this time the center of a substantial controversy in Norwegian-American circles. Aasta Hansteen had defended her in two articles in Budstikken, August 3 and October 6, 1880.

<13> Budstikken, April 11, 1882. Carl G. O. Hansen gives a brief [267] description of Aasta Hansteen’s appearance in Minneapolis in his book My Minneapolis (Minneapolis, 1956), 111-112.

<14> Letter to Nanna Hansteen, November 5, 1886, in possession of the Hansteen family. This address was probably in the area of the city known as Roxbury.

<15> Letter to Mrs. Machynleth, March 14, 1900, in manuscript collection, University Library, Oslo. Aasta referred to the summer residence as being in Clarendon Hills; the mailing address was Dale Street, Roslindale.

<16> Maren Michelet, Glimt fra Agnes Mathilde Wergelands liv (Minneapolis, 1916), 140.

<17> Letter from B. F. Underwood, dated May 30, 1887, in Hansteen papers, National Archives, Oslo. The Open Court began publication in Chicago in 1887 as a successor to The Index, a well-known weekly published in Boston by the Free Religious Association; Underwood had previously served on The Index editorial staff. Hansteen’s monograph Kristi kirke i det l9de aarhundrede was published in Christiania in 1897.

<18> The Woman’s Journal, July 30, 1881.

<19> The Woman’s Journal, May 20, 1882.

<20> The Woman’s Journal, July 30, 1881.

<21> "Sexa" was a colloquial term for a supper held about 6 p.m., usually as part of a festive occasion. “Promulgationsfesten” celebrated the vote of the Storting on June 9, 1880, which was understood to be a declaration (“promulgation”) of the Storting’s right to interpret the Norwegian constitution and to ignore a royal veto in constitutional matters.

<22> The manuscript of Aasta Hansteen’s speech was made available by the Hansteen family; a draft is in the Hansteen papers.

<23> The plan to erect a statue of Leif Ericson originated with Ole Bull and was carried on after his death by Sara Thorp Bull and a number of Bull’s admirers.

<24> Dagbladet, January 9, 1872.

<25> Victoria Woodhull also aroused the interest of Norwegian author Kristofer Janson (1841-1917). He discusses her in Amerikanske forholde (Copenhagen, 1881). By 1880 Woodhull was living in England, so there was in all likelihood no contact between her and Hansteen.

<26> Aasta Hansteen, “Tale ved festen i K.S.F.K. den l7de februar 1898,” in Nylænde, April 1, 1898, 98-102.

<27> "Brev fra America: Solblomsten,” in Framåt, February, 1888; and “Solblomsten,” in Nylænde, January 1, 1894.

<28> Included in a letter to Randi Blehr, February 12, 1896; printed in “To dikt av Aasta Hansteen. Meddelt av lektor Sigurd Blehr,” in Norges Kvinder, September 24, 1929.

<29> Stud. med. Anton Gjerdings forhold til Baronessejaquette Liljenkrantz, Part 4 (Copenhagen, 1876), 4.

<30> Nylænde, January 15, 1912.

<31> Letter to Agnes Mathilde Wergeland, dated Boston, New Year’s Day, 1886. Printed in Michelet, Glimt fra Agnes Mathilde Wergelands liv.


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