One evening I went to the theatre, to all appearances the same old spinster Dreary, confused by a thousand contradictory impulses that bubbled up from the restlessness of my blood and spirit, and I emerged from there like one who knew her mission in life, a hero, a liberator, a young Napoleon.
I had made a great decision.
I had gone like everyone else to see the great Ida Aalberg in the role of Ibsen’s Nora – I tried as best I could to keep up with the more noteworthy events in cultural life. But what I saw was a revelation! My own rebellious longing embodied in a dazzling female revelation. I was hardly able to sit still, so dreadfully did I suffer as I watched them tighten the noose around her neck. My eyes were glued to her as though my life were at stake. All the way up to the gallery where I sat one could feel how horrible that home was, detestable, narrow, poisoned. I shook with indignation, I could not understand her indecision. Was she really unable to see through that man, how selfish and foolish he was, utterly unworthy of a woman such as she? And the children were the same, of course! I clenched my fists in impotent rage, I dug my fingernails into the velvet of the barrier in front of me and in a state of passion and overexcitement whispered proud words to my heroine.
And look, a miracle has happened! There she comes in her simple attire – serious, reserved and firm as a fortress. That is what a woman ought to look like!
“I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.”
My heart beats with violent joy, my eyes flash with lightning. The infamous scoundrel of a man speaks of course of her most sacred duties, of husband and child and what people will say.
“I have other duties just as sacred... Duties to myself.”
My heart laughs with delight. How wonderful it is that she can say this! Myself! She just says it, calmly, majestically, as such things ought to be said. Who can harm her when she is able to talk like that? But does anyone believe that this parrot will fall silent as a result? One might think he would have had about as much as he could take, but no! He just starts going on about her being a wife and mother. Before all else, a wife and mother, has one ever heard the like? I half get up from my seat, mutter my protests, hear hisses behind me, but in uncontrollable ecstasy lean far over the balcony as if I could catch from the air the passionately longed-for words:
“I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being...”
Did you all hear that? Before all else a human being! I must reflect on all these things and find out what they mean. Do you realise their significance? If no one else does, Vega Dreary does. At that very moment I hear the sound of the door shutting after Nora, the door through which she breaks out of her home, I sense the curtain going up on a mighty drama in which I myself have been chosen to take part.
I am ignorant and conceited, I know nothing of real life, but even so I am seized by the same inspiration which in those years passes through the entire female world, which drives the suffragettes to battle, induces high-born women to hurl stones through shop windows and pour acid through letter-boxes, climb into ministerial cars in order to shout their “Women’s suffrage, Mr. Asquith!” in the face of the terrified statesman. I have no idea that such things take place, perhaps I don’t even know that, in advance of the women of every other country, the women of my own been granted that right to vote. I have never even heard of the existence of a venerable institution like the Finnish Women’s Union, and have given even less thought to its mission of elevating women in the intellectual sphere and improving their economic and civil status. The little sewing circles in Limingo, Suojärvi, Kangasala, Finby, Pargas, in the most remote parishes and in the largest cities across the land, perform their work entirely without my knowledge, sewing and darning and organizing on a small scale in order to help impoverished mothers and children, provide work for indigent women, support orphanages, workhouses, weaving schools, libraries. If I knew anything about them I would despise them from the bottom of my heart, the sewing circles. I know nothing of the women in my own country who work in quarries, copper mines, brickworks, in match factories, sawmills, pulp mills, paper mills, in cotton mills, bakeries, flour mills, tobacco factories, who earn their living by cooking, lace-making, needlework, washing, ironing, copying, book binding, stevedoring. Even if I knew of them and had seen their bended backs, their tired and worn hands, I would have no idea that it is these women, the most disempowered and despised of all, who with their hard, underpaid labour, their double service in community and home, have laid the foundations of women’s freedom and have made it possible for every Nora to open the door of her home and say: Before all else I am a human being!
(to be continued)
translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff