The Port City of Gothenburg as Performance Ground for the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Christina Reimann

Black and white Image showing the Demonstration for women's suffrage in Gothenburg in late 19th c
Demonstration for women's suffrage, with among others FKPR-president Frigga Carlberg, in Gothenburg, Sweden. FKPR stands for ‘Föreningen för kvinnans politiska rösträtt’, the Association for women's political right to vote.
(Creator: Anna Backlund (1865–1920); Source: Nordiska Museet - NMA.0032617.jpg (public domain))

Port cities traditionally appear to us as male spaces. Both scientific research and popular culture convey a picture of port cities marked by masculine agency – by seafarers, dockworkers, tradesmen or men of industry. Women seem to be relegated to a few professional branches in the invisible backgrounds of the port industries, yet ensuring that trade and industry work smoothly – as housewives, maids, prostitutes, or in the catering industries. However, revisiting the gendered order of early-twentieth-century Gothenburg, we discover the ‘male’, yet transnationally well-connected port city as facilitating host of a vibrant women’s rights movement, argues Christina Reimann, historian and researcher at Södertörn University, Stockholm, and lecturer at Sciences Po Paris.

Between 1900 and 1940, women’s living conditions and their ‘places’ in cities were transforming rapidly, particularly in port cities like Gothenburg. Massive female immigration made women numerically dominant in the ‘male’ port city. In the first half of the twentieth century, on average close to forty percent of the female urban population was not born in the port city. Gothenburg’s overall population had doubled within one generation to reach 168.000 inhabitants in 1910, and then almost doubled again to 320.000 in 1945. In the crisis-ridden early twentieth century, women, who had historically been limited to a few occupations including prostitution and domestic service, entered the urban job market in large numbers, diversified their occupations, and often earned more stable positions than men held in the growing, but crisis-sensitive engineering industries (Karlsson & Lundh, 2022).

At the same time, the socio-cultural arena of Gothenburg became home to the first and most vibrant women’s rights movement in Sweden. Arguably, the port city environment played a catalyzing role for the performance(s) of the women’s movement. This blog post elaborates on four port city features that were particularly beneficial for the women’s movement to thrive: Gothenburg was a ‘second city’; it saw an important female immigration; its urban culture and sociability had blurred social boundaries and relatively open performance scenes; and its port city society had historically grown transnational connections.

Women’s movement in a ‘second city’
Port city literature has suggested that these often ‘second cities’, which were usually situated at geographical and sometimes also ideological distance from the capital, were particularly prone to host political contestation movements (Darwin, 2020). Lacking the professional imprint and culture of state bureaucracy, and home to an often-cosmopolitan socio-economic elite that steered urban policies, these supposedly liberal and open-minded spaces allowed for political contestation movements to emerge. While there is a good deal of port city romanticism to this narrative, there certainly was some ‘second city’-related reason to the fact that it was in Gothenburg, not Stockholm, that the women’s rights movement first took hold in Sweden. It was to this port city that the major Swedish women’s rights activist, Frigga Carlberg, came to live and work and where the movement organized the country’s one and only street demonstration for female suffrage. Yet, there is more to the port city environment than it simply being a ‘second city’ that boosted the women’s rights movement.

Female immigration
Since the late nineteenth century, female (long distance) migration had increased on a general level in Europe and port cities attracted a particularly high share of migrants (Greefs & Winter, 2016). Many female migrants came to the ports to work as maids or prostitutes, in the expanding public service sector as well as in the urban industries. A number of these highly mobile women would move on after relatively short stays in the port city. Yet, growing harbor cities like Gothenburg that offered plenty of opportunities also attracted well-educated and highly ambitious women with important socio-cultural capital (Larsson, 2018). These energetic migrant women came to put their imprint on the urban society, its cultural and artistic milieu, often via their engagement in the growing sector of social welfare, as was the case for Frigga Carlberg. As an immigrant from Falkenberg on the coast south of Gothenburg, she initiated and ran several orphanages in the port city, and founded the Association for women's political right to vote (Föreningen för kvinnans politiska rösträtt (FKPR)) in 1902, which grew into a national organization. Lydia Maria Larsen, initiator of the Gothenburg female debating society, founded the same year as the FKPR, was an immigrant too, as was Judith Karlander, who in the interwar years came to be known as Gothenburg’s ‘restaurant queen’ since she owned and managed the cities’ major restaurants. The port city environment allowed these highly ambitious immigrant women and the feminist movement to unfold their activities as they made skillful use of its peculiar urban sociability and culture. This holds especially true for Frigga Carlberg and the FKPR that addressed independent women in particular.

Port city sociability and pleasure culture
For their activism, the FKPR appropriated and navigated Gothenburg’s cultural infrastructure with its blurred social boundaries and relatively easily accessible performance scenes and university halls. The garden restaurant Lorensberg, which hosted a theater, an open-air scene and a circus, was the city’s main location for bourgeois and popular pleasures at the time – and it came to host numerous events organized by the FKPR as well. The same holds true for Nya Teatern, the theater located at the workers’ movement’s headquarters in the workers’ and seafarers’ district around Järntorget Square, but which attracted a socially mixed public. At Lorensberg and Nya Teatern, among other cultural and education institutions, the FKPR arranged so-called soarés that featured music and dance along with speeches or theater performances. Unlike Stockholm with its state-funded theater scenes, in early-twentieth-century Gothenburg, only privately run, often short-lived theaters existed, which were open for rent by touring companies as well as by associations like the FKPR (Reimann, forthcoming). Not only did the women’s suffrage movement rent the city’s cultural locations for their events, they also performed on its theater scenes. Activist Frigga Carlberg was an author, too, and wrote feminist pamphlets, novels and often-satiric theater pieces that were shown on scene at Lorensberg or Nya Teatern, boosting the association’s visibility in the city.

Transnational connections
Unlike Stockholm, and more than any other Swedish city, was the Western port city of Gothenburg orientated towards and had numerous trading and other links into the Anglo-Saxon world – also with its feminist activists. The (trading) connections with Great Britain were historically grown. With the important transatlantic emigration movement of the later nineteenth century that led most emigrants via Gothenburg and sometimes back to the port city, the city’s relations with the United States were intense. Frigga Carlberg received, translated into Swedish and published feminist pamphlets and pieces written by US-American activists, nourishing the movement with transcultural elements. Yet, the Swedish women’s movement, acting in a more accommodating political environment than their British counterparts for instance, took its distances from the more radical suffragettes. Nonetheless, in 1913, Frigga Carlberg invited Sylvia Pankhurst to give a speech in the fully-packed auditorium at Gothenburg’s university college. Carlberg had to emphasize, though, that the invitation to the English suffragette icon was her private initiative. However, five years later, frustrated by another backslash from the Swedish parliament, the Gothenburg branch of the FKPR, certainly inspired by Anglo-American activism, called its supporters to the streets to perform, in 1918, the only march for female suffrage in Sweden.

The Gothenburg women’s movement, led by the immigrant activist Frigga Carlberg, skillfully navigated the port city space, its socio-cultural environment, its pleasure and education institutions and transnational connections to foster the purpose of earning women their political rights. The early-twentieth-century Gothenburg feminists performed well in the port city context, reshuffling our vision of port cities as spaces of male agency and urging all of us to take a closer look at their complex gender histories.

Christina Reimann works as a researcher at Södertörn University, Stockholm, and as a lecturer in history at Sciences Po Paris.
This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. This blog was edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Mina Akhavan and Vincent Baptist.

Primary sources:
Riksarkivet Stockholm (Swedish National Archives Stockholm), Föreningen för kvinnans politiska rösträtt, SE/RA/730034/02, Vol. 178-183.

Darwin, J. (2020). Unlocking the World: Port Cities and Globalization in the Age of Steam, 1830–1930. Allen Lane.

Greefs, H., & Winter, A. (2016). “Alone and Far from Home: Gender and Migration Trajectories of Single Foreign Newcomers to Antwerp, 1850–1880.” Journal of Urban History 42(1), 61–80.

Karlsson, T., & Lundh, C. (2022). Liv i rörelse: Göteborgs befolkning och arbetsmarknad 1900–1950. Nordic Academic Press.

Larsson, L. (ed.) (2018). Hundrade och en Göteborgskvinnor. Riksarkivet Landsarkivet.

Reimann, C. (forthcoming). “Theatre and the Making of the Welfare City: An Urban History of Gothenburg’s Performance Scenes, ca. 1880-1950.” In M. Linnarsson & M. Hallenberg (eds.), Nordic Welfare Cities: Urban Community and Public Services, c. 1850–1940. Routledge.