Lutheran Protestantism, the dominant religion in Norway, considered marriage to be a calling from God (Predelli). Marriage was considered to be a binding relationship which should endure till death and the divorced women were looked down upon (Laslett and Brenner). There were very few career options available to single women; marriage was the only path towards economic survival available to most women. Lower class women that worked outside the home found only menial work in factories and farmhouses and were paid for their work, considerably less than what the men earned (Baigent). Women without money of their own that were unable to marry or were widowed or divorced were often forced to resort to prostitution in order to survive.
Marriage was also considered to be the only legitimate avenue for women for sexual gratification while men’s visits to prostitutes were tolerated as a necessary evil in view of men’s greater sex drive (Bullough and Bullough). ‘Proper’ women were supposed to have no sex drive at all and it was considered improper for a woman to display any sexual desire. Women that displayed any sexual feeling at all were considered sexually promiscuous and immoral (Laslett and Brenner).
Within a marriage, the husbands were supposed to be the breadwinners and the providers of the family while the wives were obliged to remain within the home caring for the family (Ritchie). Ibsen has inverted this idea with the wife Nora Helmer, borrowing money to save the husband Torvald Helmer’s life and then paying the debt through years of hard work. Men considered it a slight on their honor if women contributed to the household. In the play Nora says “Torvald, with all his masculine pride – how painfully humiliating for him if he ever found out he was in debt to me. That would just ruin our relationship” (Templeton).
Men were considered to be the intellectual superiors of women (Ritchie). Women were considered too fragile to receive the same education as men. It was thought that too much mental activity was harmful to the development of the reproductive system of women and higher education disrupted young women’s normal cycles of ovulation and menstruation (Laslett and Brenner). Medical doctors of that time presented the idea that the excessive use of the brain used up a lot of blood, in a young woman, higher education would use up the blood needed for menstruation causing all sorts of illnesses and disorders in their bodies (Bullough and Bullough). It was thought that the greater intellectual abilities of men were due to the presence of excess heat in their bodies and intellectual activity increases the heat in the body. Highly educated women would therefore become some sort of hermaphrodites, neither male nor female and unable to bear children (Bullough and Bullough). Motherhood was considered to be the noblest of all states for a woman and the very reason for their existence. A mother was considered to be a wholly dedicated, selfless being that is willing to sacrifice all for the sake of her children (Templeton).
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