More on Aasta Hansteen (1824-1908)

Hansteen was an early feminist lay theologian, painter and writer and a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement in Norway.

Maleri: Marie Hauge / Drammen museum) Kilde. http://www.historieboka.no/

The daughter of Christoffer Hansteen, a prominent professor of astronomy and geophysics at the University of Oslo, Aasta Hansteen received her art education in Copenhagen and Düsseldorf. In 1850 she exhibited her works at the World’s Fair in Paris, and in 1862 she was the first woman to have a book published in “nynorsk” about Norwegian dialects and customs, Skrift og Umskrift i Landsmaalet. In 1878 she wrote Woman Created in the Image of God, based on her own self-arranged public lectures in the years 1876-78 in Oslo, Trondheim and Copenhagen. In this and future publications she fiercely opposed traditional theological views of women and critiqued Biblical authors for having denigrated women both spiritually and humanly by regarding her a second class person in rank and quality.

Hansteen’s self-appointed hermeneutical task was to reread crucial parts of the canon, sort out “rubbish” from its hidden “gold”, and promote women as equal in status to men by virtue of nature and God’s “true design”. Her arguments were in particular inspired by the works of the early American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and The Woman’s Bible project, and by John Stuart Mill’s influential Subjection of Women. Her overriding concern was female autonomy and female spirituality in confluence with defining and promoting a new moral/social order.

Being the first Norwegian woman to lecture in public and walk by herself (without a guardian) in male public space, Aasta Hansteen was ridiculed in intellectual and clerical circles as unwomanly, eccentric and deviating. After a scandal case in 1875, where she openly defended the moral worthiness of a named single mother up against the male medical student who had seduced her, the public mocking and stigmatization of Hansteen increased. In 1880 she immigrated to the USA to find intellectual refuge and new inspiration in the flourishing Women’s movements of Boston and Chicago. Nine years later she returned to Oslo with new optimism. Back home she joined the newly founded Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights and also introduced the North-American Sunflower Badge as symbol of women’s rights for “light and air” and spiritual-intellectual development.

American progressive thought left a deep mark on Aasta Hansteen. In the US, radical circles made few distinctions between reform in the social and spiritual domains. Suffrage feminism, anti-slavery and free religion movements often overlapped in terms of people, rhetoric and vision. Aasta Hansteen learned from this integrative practice, and in due course her writings and agitations yielded fruits also in Norway. Her lived experience became a token for what it takes to break new grounds. She was the role model for Henrik Ibsen’s emancipated female character Lone Hessel in his play “The Pillars of Society”. At the Nordic Women’s Convention in Oslo in July 1902, Hansteen was honored in the University Ceremonial Hall with the cantata “Nytaarsgry” (New Year’s Dawn) by Agathe Backer Grøndahl and Gina Krogh, before 350 women wearing the Sunflower Badge. Aasta Hansteen died in 1908 at 84 years of age.

Aasta Hansteen was a “first wave” feminist, and part of a long tradition of women’s rights movements in Norway. As a result, Norway was in 1913 the first sovereign state in the world to grant women full parliamentary rights. The priestly office of the Church of Norway, however, did not formally include women until 1938. The University of Oslo had in 1899 accepted Valborg Lerche for a full theological degree (cand. theol.). Yet the first female Lutheran priest, Ingrid Bjerkås, was not ordained until 1961. Today, twenty-five percent of Norwegian priests are women. Discrimination, however, is not a thing of the past but continues to take on new discursive forms and subtle shapes. The responsibility to disclose, understand and counter all sorts of discriminatory practices is not only a political task, or a problem of faith communities. It is a universal, moral task and therefore an obligation also for the academy. New knowledge, rigorous analysis and imaginative and relevant intellectual and theological reflection are still needed. The Annual Aasta Hansteen Lecture on Gender and Religion is a contribution to help enhance competence and performance in this particular field.

The Annual Aasta Hansteen Lecture is hosted by the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, initially in cooperation with the Faculty’s research group on gender/religion/theology and SIKOT, “Seminaret i kjønn og teologi”.

By Jone Salomonsen, professor dr.theol., Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo
Published Dec. 21, 2017 1:14 PM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2017 1:25 PM