Single women who emigrated from Iceland to North America, 1870 - 1914

Forgotten women with agency?


By Sigríður Matthíasdóttir & Thorgerður Einarsdóttir


Excerpts from SCANDIA

(Reprinted with permission from Sigríður Matthíasdóttir, pages 10 - 16)

   In the period 1820-1950, about 2.9 million people emigrated from the Nordic countries. This article will consider the unmarried women who emigrated from Iceland to North America in the period 1870-1914.  In terms of emigration from Europe, proportionally the greatest number of people came from Ireland, but both Norway and Iceland were not far behind. Those who emigrated from Iceland amounted to 23 per cent of the country's total population. The high proportion of women was a particular feature of Icelandic emigration. As a rule, men had a 'higher rate of emigration than women in the Nordic countries', although there were deviations from this pattern; women, however, accounted for 50.7 per cent of the Icelandic emigrants. According to the Icelandic historians Helgi Skúli Kjartansson and Steinthór Heidarsson, this ratio was 'high and remarkably stable' in comparison to other countries. No figures exist concerning the proportion of unmarried women, but it may be assumed that the number was high, since the general proportion of unmarried women in Icelandic society at this time was large. 

   Being single was a factor that affected the circumstances and prospects of women who emigrated. The role of married women in their new countries was predetermined to a far larger degree, consisting of care for the home and the family. Single women's prospects, on the other hand, were more precarious, involving greater uncertainty about their livelihoods and future lives. Moreover, it has been suggested that the difference between emigrating when married with children, compared to emigrating as a single person, was greater for women than for men. 'In a period when the married woman's situation essentially was defined by her position in the family', it can be assumed that the decision to emigrate, like the experience of emigration itself, was different for married women and single women. It must be borne in mind that 'wage work was not central to most white women's lives'. Marriage must therefore be viewed as an 'economic opportunity' for women. The process of migration was also structured by a 'variety of social relationships' such as class and nationality.

   The main purpose of this article is twofold. First, in order to provide an overview of the phenomenon, we will briefly discuss existing studies of single women who emigrated to North America. Second, we will argue that a certain group of women has been forgotten, both in the history of Icelandic emigration and in Icelandic historical accounts of women and gender - the single women who emigrated to Canada and the US, who belonged neither to the class of government officials nor to the 'lower classes' or domestic servants. Our aim is to discuss the women's social position and how they are best positioned in historical research. We suggest that these women had a certain 'capital', and that they also had resources, spanning education, a career or an employment history of some kind, or familial associations, for example. Our study is based on historical sources that have thus far been somewhat underutilised in the field of women's and gender history, namely short biographies of emigrants such as those found in the Vestur-íslenzkar æviskrár (the biographical records of the 'Western Icelanders', the Icelandic emigrants to North America) and obituaries in the Icelandic newspapers published in Canada, the Lögberg and the Heimskringla.


Themes in the literature




   The country that the Icelandic women left behind was traditional, rural society with a very small population. Increases in the population between 1820 and 1880, when it reached 72,445, took place without any fundamental change in the means of livelihood or conditions of labour. Urbanisation was very slow, and over 90 per cent of lcelanders lived by farming. In the mid nineteenth century, there began a period that has been called 'the crisis in rural society'. It became harder for people to set up their own households, and so increasing numbers became household servants for life and never got married. For some, the solution to this crisis was to emigrate to North America, although people who were well-off also emigrated. 

   Most emigrants from Iceland went to Canada, contrary to the trend in almost all other European countries, from where the majority went to the US. The primary Icelandic settlement was in Manitoba, and soon Winnipeg 'had the largest settlement of lcelanders in America'. They settled in other places in Canada as well. Icelanders also emigrated to the US, and in 1910 a substantial number were living there too. 

   There was considerable international scholarly interest in emigrant history in the 1960s and 1970s, characterised by economic and social approaches based on quantitative analyses.' One of the Icelandic outcomes of this movement was the publication in 1983 of A Record of Icelandic Emigrants I870-I9I4 by the Icelandic historian Június H. Kristinsson. The Record provides a summary of the names of those who emigrated, along with their sex, age, place in their family, and the year they left. There has also been important research on this period by the Icelandic historian Helgi Skúli Kjartansson. This, together with the Record, formed part of a Nordic research project on emigration from the Scandinavian countries to North America.

   Such quantitative methods are now thought by many scholars to be too narrow. The Norwegian historian Odd S. Lovoll, for example, writes that the 'human factor may easily disappear in a macro view of this historical phenomenon and in its statistical dimensions'. This also means that it is important to balance the general ideas found in material from official sources with individual experiences and stories. The Icelandic historian Vilhelm Vilhelmsson has recently contended that the past decade has seen a shift in research on Icelandic emigration to North America. He writes that the lives of the emigrants, 'their identities and myth-making have been scrutinized from a considerably more critical angle' than had been previously the case. 




   Women and emigration from the Nordic countries seem to be a rather under-researched field. The historian Lars Olsson wrote in 2001 that the history 'surrounding the Swedish men and women who settled in America' had tended to be written according to 'an international pattern of interpretation'. Citing the sociologist Kathie Friedman-Kasaba, he stated that this was where 'largely male scholars' treated the 'category of "woman" as passive followers of "the real migrant", the male labour migrant or political exile.’ 

   This is in line with the historiography of Icelandic emigration. The historian Laurie K. Bertram pointed out the contradiction in the fact that 'Icelandic Canadian historiography generally prides itself on Iceland's history of comparatively progressive property and political rights for women', but at the same time, important female-figures 'occupy the outskirts of mainstream history and commemoration'. This is true, for example, of Salome Halldorson (1887-1970), who served in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba from 1936 to 1941 and who was 'one of the foremost female leaders in the Icelandic Canadian community in Manitoba during the 1930s and 40s' along with 'her other well-known female contemporaries'. 

   However, according to the Norwegian historian Terje Mikael Hasle Joranger, changes are now taking place. Discussing research on Norwegian emigration, Joranger claims that 'Women's gender history, which has been largely neglected in former studies, in recent years has acquired a more prominent place in immigration and ethnic studies.’ He specifically refers to the book Norwegian American Women, published in 2011, the sole subject of which is the participation by Norwegian women in emigration, and their role in their new society. 

   The historian Ann-Sofie Ohlander has conducted pioneering work on the emigration of women from Sweden. She writes that in the period 1851-1908, the gender proportions were 833 women for every 1,000 men who emigrated. Looking at the proportion of single emigrant women to single emigrant men, it rose dramatically during this period. In 1851-1860, 462 women in this category emigrated from Sweden, against every 1,000 men. In 1891-1900, the number of women had risen to 981; thus, their numbers were almost equal. 

   The higher rates of family-based emigration from rural areas at the beginning of the emigration period changed to increased individual emigration from towns in the 1880s and 1890s. This went hand in hand with increased emigration by women, which was usually higher from towns than from rural areas. Migration within the home country ('step migration'), which was more common among women than men, explains this to some extent. Women tended to move to larger cities to find work before making the jump overseas. The study by Icelandic historian Olof Gardarsd6ttir on the connection between the growth of coastal villages in Iceland and emigration to North America indicates that this pattern can be found in Iceland as well. 


Single women's agency


   The historian Joy K. Lintelman sheds important light on the situation of single women who emigrated from Sweden to North America. She has examined letters they wrote home, and found that since they had more time to correspond, they wrote more about 'public issues', in addition to personal ones, than married women did. Her study provides an interesting insight into the agency of single women. Lintelman has written about a particular Swedish woman, Mina Anderson, who emigrated when young and single, and whose memoirs became one of the sources for Vilhelm Moberg's novels. She discusses the widespread influence of Kristina Nilsson in Moberg's novel about Swedish female emigrants, as a woman who did not want to leave her country, never adapted, and who suffered from 'homesickness conquered only in death'. According to Lintelman, this 'Kristina archetype' ignores 'the majority of Swedish emigrant women, like Mina, who made their own decisions to leave' and 'achieved many of the goals they had set for themselves in immigrating'. 

The historian Lars Olsson has also written about a young emigrant woman, Evelina Johansdotter, who was in constant negotiation with her surroundings. In addition to the obvious difficulties facing a young, working emigrant, he also describes her as an agent who actively assessed the advantages and disadvantages of the possibilities open to her. This leads to another important theme in the research on emigration by single women from the Nordic countries, which at the same time sheds light on their agency in their work and working conditions. Being a maid or 'in service' was by far the commonest occupation. In 1900, 61.5 per cent of women in the US who had been born in Sweden gave it as their occupation, a proportion that seems to be in line with the situation in Canada concerning Scandinavian women in general. The historian Eva St Jean writes that according to 'Census Canada, in 1931 58 per cent of Scandinavian female workers were employed in the service industry, mostly in domestic service, but also in restaurants or boarding houses'. 

The historian Lars Ljungmark studied the structure of the population of the city of Winnipeg in Canada over a twenty-year period, from 1881 to 1901, by country of birth. He found that 90 per cent of Icelandic women (86 women in total) were 'unmarried and a large majority of them served in a family'. Among the Icelandic women in Canada, Ljungmark found a high proportion of single women working as maids. 

Women's work 'existed within a gendered space'. Women's opportunities for waged work were limited. Paid labour performed by white women in British Columbia was 'largely confined to a handful of characteristically female areas'. These varied in content and status. Women, for example, could work as laundresses and in restaurants, or be midwives or teachers, this last being the primary professional occupation open to women in the period between 1840 and 1920. 


A forgotten stratum of women - historical sources


The fact that relatively little has been written about emigration from Iceland and the Nordic countries from a gendered point of view makes it important to consider the questions of how to approach the project, the methodology to apply, and which sources to use, and more specifically the types of sources available for the theme, the sort of evidence they provide, and what methods should be used to analyse them. This is all the more necessary because the source material for emigration is vast, including material produced on both sides of the Atlantic, including newspapers, magazines, biographies, written local tales of various kinds, parish registers, censuses, immigration records, emigrants' letters home, and photographs of the emigrants. These sources provide very different and varied types of information and insight. 

One task at hand has been to establish the fundamental gendered characteristics of these sources: It seems, for example, that the majority of biographies and letters sent home were written by men.  Moreover, an important concern has been to obtain a qualitative insight into the lives of single emigrant women, while at the same time establishing a structural overview of their social position. Gender as a factor easily disappears in the traditional consideration of these sources. In order to balance the traditional view, we thus attempt to bring women's experiences and stories to the fore. Guided by questions such as those outlined above, we have focused on primary sources that we would argue should be examined more closely in research into the history of women and gender: short biographies, such as those to be found in the Vestur-íslenzkar æviskrár and newspaper obituaries. 

The Vestur-íslenzkar æviskrár contains short biographies of a considerable number of single women who emigrated to North America. We have identified women in the Vestur-íslenzkar æviskrár who were unmarried and who provided for themselves, at least for some period after their arrival in Canada or the US. Thus far, we have gone through the first volume and have not yet found any women who worked as domestic servants throughout their lives, despite the large number of female domestics. They seem to be largely invisible in the sources used in this project, although not entirely so in the history of women and gender, as some limited research has been done on them. On the other hand, it is important to recognise that these women did not generally belong to the highest layers of Icelandic society and so were not part of the stratum of Icelandic government officials. This observation also applies to the Icelandic Canadian newspapers that carried obituaries of Icelandic immigrants, including a number for women who were unmarried when they emigrated from Iceland. 

 These examples, which will be discussed further below, seem to present a picture of women that has not been given prominence within the field of women's history in Iceland. We contend that they show a certain variety in women's circumstances and modes of life, as well as a form of agency or scope for influencing their own destiny. The Vestur-íslenzkar æviskrár and the obituaries contain examples of women who learned a trade in order to support themselves before they went to Canada, or after their arrival, and who especially trained as seamstresses. Then there is an example of a woman who was educated at the Women's School in Reykjavík and who supported herself in Canada for some time by teaching. There are also women who pursued an entrepreneurial path, women who led a mobile life travelling between countries, women who were obviously endowed with some extraordinary personal qualities, and, not least, women who could count on good relations or contacts. Thus, members of the forgotten stratum of women become visible in their own right, and not simply in the shadow cast by their men, whether their husbands, their fathers, or others. 

...  to be continued

Donations Creating Community

To Make your gift by phone
Please contact us Toll Free: 1-866-564-2374

Paper Subscription
Paper Subscription *paper subscription only*

Subscription to Lögberg-Heimskringla Published 24 times a year the 1st and 15th of each month.

Online Subscription
Online Subscription *Online subscription only*

Online subscription to Lögberg-Heimskringla Published 24 times a year.