Nordic eugenic feminists supported the notion of women as mothers in society

In times of campaigns like #metoo and #timesup feminism is a vital part of the public discourse. Though most people agree that feminism has achieved great things for women in the last decades, outcries over sexual harassment in professional and private lives of women could question this now.

“My study is a critical examination of feminist movements in the early twentieth century in the Nordic countries and their involvement into eugenic and racial hygienic discourses beyond sterilization”, says doctoral candidate Merle Weßel from University of Helsinki.

“I argue that today's gender equality in this context in the Nordic countries must be seen with a pinch of salt. It must be critically examined if men and women are indeed as equal as we like to believe, or if women are not still predominantly defined through motherhood than other achievements in the society.”

Controversial link between eugenics and feminism

The interest of first-wave feminists into eugenics was widespread internationally but the Nordic countries showed an especially keen engagement with these ideals. This link between eugenics and feminism is a controversial one, since eugenics is often thought to restrict women's reproductive choices, whereas feminism empowers women's reproductive choices. 

Merle Weßel’s dissertation examines the engagement of Nordic feminists with eugenic ideals between 1890 and 1940. It investigates prominent feminists and feminist organizations from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. 

“I analyse if, and to what extent, Nordic feminists believed eugenics to be an appealing ideology to support their goal of female empowerment.”

Female civil rights were defined around the concept of motherhood

The dissertation's main findings are that the Nordic eugenic feminists supported the notion of women as mothers in society and as such defined female civil rights around the concept of motherhood. They argued that women were not only mothers to their own children but were foremost mothers of the nation. 

“My study paves the way for further research on eugenics and its connection to other social movements, as well as the impact of eugenic ideologies on women and welfare policy after the Second World War”, Weßel says.

Merle Weßel, M.A, will defend the doctoral dissertation entitled "An Unholy Union? Eugenic Feminism in the Nordic Countries, ca. 1890-1940" in the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki, on 28 March 2018 at 12:00. The public examination will take place at the following address: Main Building, lecture hall 13, Fabianinkatu 33.

For more information please contact: Merle Weßel, phone +49 3834 420 3327,

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service