Women in the Arctic: Gendering Coloniality in Travel Narratives from the Far North, 1907-1930

Silke Reeploeg. Scandinavian Studies. Volume 91, Issue 1/2, Spring/Summer 2019.

The Nordic region has a growing body of work that addresses “blind spots” when it comes to understanding its colonial past. However, and as noted already in the introduction to this issue, Scandinavian Studies as a scholarly field has been quite resistant to connecting Nordic historiographies with colonialism beyond imagining it as a marginal and altruistic enterprise. Ideas about Nordic exceptionalism in these matters have often been used to deflect and explain away any responsibility or historical complicity with pan-European colonial ideologies and practices, replacing them instead with vague feelings of shame and guilt in what has been defined as a “privilege of innocence.” These strategies have not only left gaps and disputed memories in contemporary discourses about Nordic histories, but have also forced us to ask how these narratives are created and embraced as part of a variety of ongoing Nordic colonialisms. Recognizing the diverse roles that women have played in the history of the Far North, both as colonizers and colonized, this article uses historical travel writing by women writers to investigate female colonization strategies and responses within this context. The examples discussed here demonstrate the diversity of colonial practices within the Nordic region, ranging from the more traditional form of Danish North Atlantic territorial expansion in places such as Greenland to the occupation of Sápmi lands by different Scandinavian nations, Finland, and Russia. Inspired by Maria Lugones’s use of the concept of “coloniality of gender,” the article will approach biographical writing from a postcolonial perspective and examine how gendered coloniality is produced and mediated through travel writing about and by women in the Far North. While Lugones’s critique primarily addresses the racism and violence inherent in modern colonial gender systems, the analysis below will utilize her understanding of coloniality as a lived experience of Eurocentric domination in order to illuminate the gendered nature of colonial complicity by White, elite women.

Women in the context of Nordic colonialism were part of a much wider network of social frameworks and gender strategies. As shown by, these are complicit with the structural processes of colonization in a variety of ways. Cultural frameworks and strategies include the establishment and domestication of exotic peripheries where “Arctic adventures” can take place. So, while there is no doubt that “women have been considered either absent from or powerless in the landscape of Arctic adventure,” there is also no doubt that excavating their stories as part of the historical landscape of the Far North entails understanding the complicit nature of their activities and the agency they represent with colonial processes and discourses. Travel writing by women demonstrates gender as historically and socially located, in that (some) women were able to use their public persona to both express and question their gender role within the colonial context. Seen through a postcolonial lens, women’s writing allows us to approach colonial archives with the aim of recovering alternative interpretations through multiple and concurrent voices that decenter and reframe existing imperial representations.

Coloniality refers to the way in which European norms surrounding gender, class, race, and sexuality were superimposed onto societies around the world during various colonization phases, but also during the writing of subsequent historiographies and anthropological studies of colonized peoples. The transnational dimension of identity formation and cultural memory means that colonial constructions of gender exist across the globe, but are often represented as taking place within the context of specific national or regional European colonial projects. This means that inter-cultural dimensions that cross national and regional borders are often neglected and comparative studies are rare. Using the work of Emilie Demant (1873-1958; known later as Demant-Hatt), from Denmark, and Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982), from Scotland, this article will analyze both “Nordic” and “transnational” strategies of colonization as they are performed and articulated through biographical writing in and across Nordic colonial spaces. Both in form and content, these texts demonstrate the multiple ways in which global and imperial power intersect with local hierarchies and systems of knowledge, forming heterogeneous and concurring regional colonialisms.

The article is divided into four sections. The first section considers the historical relationship between gender and coloniality in biographical writing by women in the Nordic context. It demonstrates how travel writing by women has been a powerful asset to the colonial endeavor since the late eighteenth century. Gender, class, and ethnicity discourses produced elite women who were able to impose and maintain colonial boundaries in their travel narratives. However, in addition to being complicit in imperial storytelling, their biographical writings also negotiate increased anxieties about gender in European societies toward the end of the nineteenth century, exposing contradictory aspects of patriarchal discourses that demanded that women be “fit for an Empire” while at the same time limiting their participation in the public sphere. The second section historicizes both the form and content of published travel writing by women in Scandinavia, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). It traces gender as a historical process and performative act within the history of national identities, which included the creation of utopian, anti-modern images of the North. Claims about femininity and masculinity are fundamental aspects of coloniality and are tied closely to the process of expanding the capitalist/patriarchal/imperial Western metropolis over the rest of the world. Taking a historical approach to gender and colonialism therefore requires an analysis of knowledge creation, as well as how this knowledge affects cultural encounters in specific contact zones. The third section puts this approach into practice by analyzing specific texts by two women who traveled across Nordic colonial territories during the early part of the twentieth century. A critical analysis of excerpts from their work (both textual and visual) will show how colonial femininity oscillates between contestation and compliance as both women develop personal strategies to negotiate their social realities in specific Nordic contexts. The last section offers a critical assessment of the value of biographical and historiographical writing about the North as a tool in postcolonial studies and decolonization practices. It concludes by suggesting the use of women’s history as a tool for a type of Vergangenheitsbewältigung that continuously decenters and reframes Nordic colonialism.

Gender and Coloniality in Biographical Writing

When considering the role of biographical writing by women in the history of Nordic colonialism, it is vital to understand the entangled nature of the coloniality of gender with the activity of historical and historiographical writing itself. Scholars such as Heidi Hansson have argued that women travelers produce a “Feminized Arctic” and, through their publications, curate their own gendered “space” in travel writing.

These roles or positions are variously accessible to men and women and the notion of gendered travel is not dependent on the sex of the travel writer, but on the relationship between the authorial role and the objects of description. The governing idea is that the power relation between the discoverer and the land resembles the relationship between men and women under patriarchy.

The American historian Jeanne has long argued for a critical reassessment of gender as a category:

Everywhere invoked, almost regardless of the time, place or culture under investigation, as a category of analysis gender seems almost nowhere critically reassessed with respect to time, place and culture. In a sense, relying on gender as a category of historical analysis has stymied our efforts to write a history—or many histories—of gender as historical process.

So, while analyzing their relationship to existing colonial practices and ideologies, the historically located social, aesthetic, and symbolic processes through which gendered geographies are constructed and negotiated must also be considered. Gender is a dynamic and changing historical process that intersects with other historically and culturally constituted concepts such as class, race, and sexuality. A biographical methodology is therefore especially useful, as it “illustrates the fragility of analytical abstractions by showing the historical person as part of a network of social relations, aspirations, emotions, health, education, and occupation.” Individual biographies expose the multiple contradictions that a person faces as he or she negotiates social frameworks and historical dynamics that produce both “women” and “men” in various European gender discourses. There are clearly aspects of European gender discourses that become negotiable within the northern frontier as travel writers curate the Arctic in narratives, sketches, and photographs. This requires a more holistic methodology that looks beyond text and includes visual biographical materials such as sketches, paintings, photographs, films, curated photograph albums, and scrapbooks that connect the individual with wider discursive frameworks and different colonial contexts. Rather than re-entrenching existing colonial discourses and practices, gender-sensitive research understands the value and significance of the intersectional nature of gender. Taking a gendered approach also opens up complex historical interpretations that can reframe colonial narratives.

Within the history of colonization, travel writing reproduces familiar pan-European literary aesthetics, including culturally embedded visions of the exotic and the utopian. More importantly, as a type of biographical writing, travel writing also provides a space to negotiate aspects of the “crisis of modernity,” an expression of Anglo-European anxiety around the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and modernization. Writers and artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries frequently responded to this by exoticizing the primitive, and imagining traditional societies as authentic, uncorrupted cultures that must be both “saved” and idealized. Travel narratives about the Far North are an important part of the discursive vocabulary through which this crisis is reproduced as “Arcticism.” As a literary discourse, Arcticism intersects with many other discourses that mediate ideas about imperialism, nationalism, modernity, and gender. The circumpolar North, as a transnational region, for example, is often represented as a “hypermasculine region” with a scientific and colonial history that “produced solid patterns of homosocial environments.” During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular, women’s self-representation changed against this background, with biographical writing about the North including the publication of personal travel narratives by women in books and articles in newspapers. These narratives were generated by women writers who combined their public persona with the dominant gender discourses of the time. However, while travel writing by women often includes descriptions of indigenous or working-class women, the texts also clearly demonstrate historically specific ideas and discourses in Nordic colonial spaces that connect to ongoing colonial ideas and practices. Travel writing by women thus illustrates the way in which Edward Said’s orientalizing techniques of the prejudiced but powerful outsider can be transposed onto “special areas” in the world, supporting a potent mixture of nostalgia and paternalism toward the peripheral, liminal, yet-to-be-fully-conquered-and-known “North.”

Northernist Visions: Nationalism and Gender in Nordic Landscapes

Starting with Mary, the Nordic countries became a kind of utopian destination for European women travelers. Here, gender aspects could be both exoticized within rural settings (i.e. when describing domestic scenes at mountain farms) and re-negotiated (often influencing women’s movements back home). A bibliographical essay published in 1897 by Hjalmar Pettersen, Udlændingers reiser i Norge: Bibliografiske meddelelser (Travels in Norway: A Bibliographical Essay), gives an idea of the sheer volume of travel descriptions and journals about Norway alone that were published between the mid- to late nineteenth century. Out of the 658 publications, forty-six are clearly identifiable as being authored by women writers. Titles include “Abenteuer eines Schlittschuhläufers in Norwegen und auf dem Baltischen Meer” (Adventures of an Ice Skater in Norway and on the Baltic Sea; in Das Ausland); Sketches of Life, Scenery, and Sport in Norway and Gamle Norge by Mordaunt Roger Barnard; Voyage en ballon de Paris en Norvege du capitaine Paul Rolier (Journey by Balloon from Paris to Norway) by Emile Cartailhac; A Tandem Tour in Norway by S. Golder; Kaiser Wilhelm’s II. Reisen nach Norwegen in den Jahren 1889 und 1890 (Kaiser Wilhelm II. Travels to Norway in the Years 1889 and 1890) by Paul Güszfeldt; and Description of the New Rob Roy Canoe, Built for a Voyage through Norway, Sweden, and the Baltic by J. Macgregor; “Our Home amongst the Vikings” (in Belgravia. A London Magazine, vol. 27); and A Jubilee Jaunt to Norway—by Three Girls by Violet Crompton-Roberts.

As Wollstonecraft’s writings on female emancipation demonstrate, the eighteenth century had already seen an increasing engagement between women and Enlightenment discourses that connected history and progress (including feminist ideas regarding women’s education, female rationality and moral agency). Wollstonecraft was the first British woman writer to produce a personal travel narrative about Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Translated into German, Dutch, Swedish, and Portuguese, and published in North America, the book proved immensely popular. A combination of autobiography and travelogue, her narrative inspired Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other British women travelers who followed in her footsteps.

Her comparisons of primitive with polished societies foreshadows anthropological travel, lending her intelligence to what she observes, for ‘the art of travelling is only a branch of the art of thinking.’ She takes in women weaving and knitting to keep warm during the deep winter; the smell of children’s bodies seeping through layers of linen; the hospitable warmth of peasants; and the communicative smiles exchanged with women who share no language.

As travel to the Far North increased in the late nineteenth century, so did the number of Romantic descriptions and travel narratives written by women. Just like those written by their male counterparts, their texts tended to center on the ancient and old-fashioned European aspects of some Scandinavian societies (in particular, Iceland and Norway), while discovering the exotic indigenous peoples of Northern Canada and Sápmi. argues that there are two factors that contributed to narratives of a rustic “Gamle Norge” (Old Norway) by travel writers. First, the descriptions centered on domestic life and rural landscapes, which “encapsulate a nostalgic sense of the nation and medieval, pastoral democratic.” Secondly, the repeated contrasts with metropolitan centers emphasized the geographical distance between industrial Britain and the Norwegian wilderness. Women writers experienced a sense of otherworldliness/ stepping out of time when traveling to the North of Europe, often describing it as journey into an imagined Old Germanic past. Norway, in particular, represented a utopian playground for the British woman traveler, where she could enjoy the freedom of physical activity such as fishing and hunting, much “in contrast to her stilted and restricted life in Britain.” Socially and culturally, women thus “participated in the marketing of European social and cultural practices to a British readership which allowed comparisons to be made with British practices, by both author and reader, with a concomitant sharpening of awareness of national identity that takes firm hold at the time.” On a more general level, the North, for women travelers and their readers, is therefore not merely a place to reminisce about old traditions and bygone ways, but it represents a space where gender can be both performed (as an aspect of imperial power) and critically assessed (for audiences at home).

Travel writing allows the performance of highly gendered public personas, such as “the lady,” in different national and transnational spaces. This figure allows the partial transgression of gender boundaries, while still maintaining superior colonial European standards of behavior, for example, brings together many of the aspects of the contradictory figure of the Victorian lady traveler that projects progressive gender attitudes through the lens of British superiority. Both the provocative title and content of Unprotected Females in Norway employ gender as an ironic trope, which both confirms and subverts dominant gender norms. Lowe, for example, insists on riding a horse astride, rather than using the “ladies'” saddle—a seemingly small act that clearly provides a sense of empowerment to the author (and which caused some consternation among readers at home in Britain). Having demonstrated her liberty (to ride a horse like a man), Lowe quickly explains her transgression as part of her role as a civilizing agent abroad: “Ladies should always carry the high hand in Norway—it is expected, their presence alone is a pleasure to the natives, and shows new fashions” (1857, 151). This demonstrates the complicit nature of the coloniality of gender, with women writers adopting different public personas to suit their own, national, colonial contexts, while also conforming to transnational ideas about modernity and civilization. So, for example, while women writers overall contribute to a similar genre of transnational travel-ethnography, works such as; With the Lapps in the High Mountains by Danish artist and writer Emilie Demant-Hatt have often been classified as and incorporated into the corpus of early Danish or Swedish anthropological writing. The work of the Scottish author of, Isobel Wylie Hutchison, on the other hand, not only gives us a unique insight into Danish colonialism from a transnational perspective, but also officially forms part of the field of British world geography.

Nordic Crossings: The “Danish” and the “Scottish” Far North

A recently published biography charts the multi-disciplinary nature of Emilie Demant-Hatt’s work, which included a significant body of visual art. Born in Selde, Denmark, in 1873, Demant studied at the Women’s Academy of Art in Copenhagen. On a train journey in 1904 (on the recently opened Iron-Ore Line [Malmbanen] from Luleå to Narvik), she met Johan Turi (Johannes Olsen Thuri), a Sámi hunter and guide from the Torne Lake region in the municipality of Kiruna. She returned in 1907, initially staying with Turi’s family on the other side of the lake. Following her stay with Sámi families, Turi and Demant became collaborators, with Demant editing and publishing a bilingual edition of Muitalus sámiid birra: En bog om Lappernes Liv (An Account of the Sámi) in 1910. Published in Danish as, the new English translation published in 2013, translated by Barbara Sjoholm), describes Demant’s travels in 1907-1908 across northern parts of Sweden while accompanying two Sámi families. Returning with her husband, Gudmund Hatt, in 1912 and 1914, another publication of Sámi folklore followed, Ved Ilden (1922; By the Fire), as well as art exhibitions that illustrated how the landscape and people of the Far North inspired her as an artist. Both Demant-Hatt’s writing and art thus illuminate the many aspects of the coloniality of gender, including a quietly complicit implementation of contemporary racial ideologies.

The belief in racial hierarchies based on natural, biological, and evolutionary reasoning was central to the imperial project, which imposed ideas of a superior, yet paternal, European civilization onto the rest of the world. Mary Louise Pratt, in her influential book, charts the history of the Eurocentric classification of nature and people by the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (also known as Linneaus). His classification system, first introduced in 1735, not only categorizes natural phenomena but also racial “types” according to physical and behavioral attributes. This not only naturalized Eurocentric systems of comparison and hierarchy, but also “scientifically” explained the position of the “European race” as superior. The growth of scientific racism attributed racial characteristics as biological preconditions, while discourses of modernity introduced the concepts of purity and racial hygiene as conditions for progress. Colonialist ideology conflated race and nation, with race becoming one of the attributes of national belonging, but also translating easily to internal class hierarchies within the nation.

As Emilie Demant-Hatt crosses Northern Scandinavia, her travel account describes her experiences with the people around her, the dogs, reindeer, and the changing seasons and landscapes. Both the Danish and English-language editions include photographs as well as drawings of reindeer markings and explanatory notes on language and traditions. However, the very process of biographical writing also reveals many aspects of colonial ideology, particularly her ideas around separate gender spheres and her assessment of ethnic and social hierarchies (i.e. when describing the lower-class “Finnish settlers”). Both Demant-Hatt’s husband, Gudmund, and the main source of finance for the publication of her work, the Kiruna industrialist Hjalmar Lundbohm, were in favor of the study of separate racial types and hierarchies (rasbiologi). This included the belief that one could improve the genetic quality of the population through racial hygiene and selective breeding, ideas that connect to a global program of scientific racism from the 1920s onward. Demant-Hatt’s initial narrative negotiates this context by using her (innocent/female/outsider) perspective as a strategy to criticize some of the challenges she believes the Sámi are faced with. She notes: “It’s remarkable that the Lapps could have preserved themselves as a people and preserved their racial characteristics to such a high degree in spite of strong influences and pressures from all sides.” With this seemingly sympathetic assessment she clearly “establishes herself as an indispensable though articulately modest agent,” which later finds expression both in her collaborative work with Johan Turi and her own publications about the Sámi people. However, and as noted by her biographer, her views on race later in life also show a clear acceptance of Eurocentric racial classification, which framed differences and conflicts as natural and inescapable aspects of Nordic society.

With the Lapps in the High Mountains begins with a comparison between her home region in Denmark and a yet-to-be-named, mysterious place she is describing that has snow in June. A romantic description finally reveals it to be Torneträsk (Lake Torne), where the author is waiting to be taken “to the Lapps.” Almost instantly, Demant notes the difference between the Indigenous, exotic, nomadic “Other” she has come to see and the poor Finnish settlers in the area. Her descriptions of the first family she encounters are not complimentary. As she enters a dwelling, she immediately identifies a “housewife” who not only encapsulates lower class and poverty, but a careless immodesty: “Her bare legs stuck out of a skimpy gray skirt, and the loose cotton bodice was unbuttoned at the breast.” The older women she encounters on her way to Turi’s family settlement “looked like fairy-tale witches.” There are no such descriptions of her Sámi hosts, Sara and Nikki, and their departure day sees them row across the lake where “the red and yellow trim on their faded blue tunics or koftas glowed in the sun, just like the colours on their warm brown skin.” The first few pages of her narrative thus not only establish her authorial voice that will introduce the reader to exotic landscapes and people, but also define the Sámi as a people “unspoilt” by poverty or the nearby industrial developments. She uses the symbols of femininity (perfume) to make her point: “Inga, however, didn’t want it if it was haksesáibbo (perfumed soap). Perfume smelled abominable to their unspoiled senses.”

It is worth exploring the contradictions that Nordic colonial ideologies and structures represent for Demant-Hatt as a travel writer. Her position as a sympathetic yet complicit colonizer is complicated and constantly under negotiation. For example, she ends almost every chapter with an assessment on what she thinks are the reasons for the conflicts and misunderstandings that she encounters. Her explanations range from a combination of inferior communication strategies by her hosts who “bear some of the guilt” by never complaining “to the right people,” to pointing out willful ignorance amongst the settlers from the South and appealing for consideration.

But the farmers shouldn’t be allowed to place poison on the Lapps’ travel route during the migration period. Several dogs are lost in this way every year; besides the grown dogs, I heard of two large puppies belonging to a widow in our siida. If you knew how difficult it is to raise puppies in a Lapp tent in winter and to take them along on the migrations, you would understand the Lapps’ sense of loss and anger and spare them such disappointment. But perhaps the Lapps themselves bear some of the guilt for this being repeated year after year. They never complain to the right people. When I reproached them about this, they answered, “What’s the use? Who cares how it goes with us?”

Demant-Hatt’s arguments for her own authority and expertise on the subject of Sámi culture are clearly based on a “compassionate personal relationship and shared experience.” Her publication With the Lapps in the High Mountains is no doubt informed by observations and comments exchanged with her Sámi co-author Johan Turi during the writing of An Account of the Sámi. However, her position as a colonial agent is also illustrated by the way in which she selects another Sámi community to host her, making sure that she experiences “new territories”:

The Talma Lapps, with whom I’d been staying up to now, were in fact heading back to the same tracts of land where they’d been in the autumn, which would be a little humdrum. Here, on the contrary, were new people, new conditions, and new territories.

Demant-Hatt’s status as a privileged woman from Copenhagen shapes the ways in which she is able to present the final work, including the financing of her publications—receiving generous financial support for her publications from northern Sweden’s largest industrialist. Having come to the North as a tourist herself, she expresses her disapproval about how the Sámi population is treated by “udlændingene” (foreigners) when they arrive to the Tromso region in Norway, treating them as nothing more than “en flok kuriøse og ‘søde’ dyr,” [a flock of curious and ‘sweet’ animals]. Yet her paintings celebrate a world seemingly untouched by modernity, depicting a fairy-tale world of primitive beings in harmony with nature, who clearly have no role (gendered or otherwise) to play (as people) in a modern Nordic society. Kari Haarder Ekman has recently discussed this type of engagement with colonized peoples as a form of “slow violence” that aims to help “save” certain lifestyles or peoples by deliberately removing them entirely from aspects of modern life.

These seemingly altruistic aspects of Nordic coloniality are played out in the discursive space of Scandinavian national territories, which implement related yet separate practices of resource extraction and colonial expansion. As a discursive space, Nordic coloniality frames the occupation of Sámi territories as the natural outcome of unexplainable but progressive internal forces. This strategy manages to disconnect it from other, more explicitly colonial, expansions to external territories such as Greenland. Visitors to the Nordic colonial space, such as Isobel Wylie Hutchison, demonstrate the convergence of these different types of Nordic colonial strategies with the wider strategies of the colonality of gender.

Hutchison’s writing conveys a deep fascination with the North as an inspiring and magical place, motivating feelings of romantic affinity with the northern landscape and people. The colonial North, for her, was a space that supplied opportunities for travelers to experience new landscapes and geographies, but also new aspects of emancipation and self-determination as women.

Hutchison was a keen botanist, painter, and journalist, publishing her travel journals and notes both in book form and as newspaper articles. Like many of her contemporaries, she saw the Arctic as a romantic fairyland—a peripheral space in which to escape from her life at home at Carlowrie Castle in Scotland. Thanks to a small inheritance after the death of her father, Hutchison was able to travel extensively, cultivating friendships with a wide range of people she met on the way. This included Knud Rasmussen, who wrote the preface to On Greenland’s Closed Shore: The Fairyland of the Far North. The excerpt in Figure 1 shows a letter of recommendation Rasmussen wrote to the Governor of North Greenland, Philip R. Rosendahl, describing her as a “Skotsk Dame” [Scottish Lady].

Hutchison was keenly interested in the people she encountered, producing photographs and paintings of many of her acquaintances. She regularly purchased drawings, paintings, and objects on her travels, dispatching plants and botanical samples back to Britain using various postal services. As an Anglo-Scottish “lady traveler,” Hutchison’s performance of coloniality is perhaps best illustrated by one of her short films, Flowers and Coffee Party at Umanak from 1935 (Moving Image Archive, National Library of Scotland, Ref. 3011). One of a series of recordings made during her second visit to Greenland in 1933-35, the film is clearly meant to accompany her travel publications and public lectures, demonstrating the multimedia aspect of coloniality. The filmmaker intersperses pictures of flowers with entertaining snippets shown on intermediary slides: “Moskitoes and flies torment the botanist in Greenland” is followed by a sign “Other growing products in Greenland,” which is followed by a portrait of two children, and dogs, and a short clip showing seasonal activities: “The crowberry is gathered by women and children, and stacked for winter fuel” (with staged demonstrations by a Greenlandic woman and two children). The film then moves on to record an outdoor coffee party: “The governor of Greenland gives a coffee-party at Umanak,” with a sign showing “Kavfiliorniarum—agaluarpugut! Greenlandic words are rather hard to spell! This one means ‘We would like to make coffee.'” The various participants in the coffee party are then described by Hutchison as she would introduce guests at a Scottish country house tea party. Politely, she begins with the other “ladies” in the group, then works her way down the Greenlandic colonial hierarchy as she sees it: “The Danish Lady Doctor is a cheery guest!.” “Judita is one of the last women in Umanak to dress her hair in the old-fashioned top knot.” “Professor William Thalbitzer is another distinguished guest who enjoys coffee.” And, of course: “Our host, the governor of Greenland (Herr Daugaard Jensen) takes coffee with North Greenland’s Judge (Herr Rosendahl).” And: “Kruuse, the Schoolmaster and Organist.” The film ends with: “The sun is setting behind the mountains, it is time to say ‘Inuvdluaritse!’ ‘Pivdluaritse!'” [Good night and good luck!], ending with a short sequence that shows Greenlandic children dancing in the distance.

As a non-Danish visitor, the filmmaker is clearly enjoying, not just documenting, her experiences but is also staging and curating the Danish colony as a naturalized scenario. Her actors collaborate in the production of the coffee party performance, resulting in a type of “group selfie” or snapshot of an early twentieth-century Danish colonial community in Greenland as seen through the eyes of a female Scottish/British visitor. The actors of Hutchison’s “Greenlandic play” use the visual and textual vocabulary of the Scottish country house, recontextualized within a Danish colonial setting. Within a colonial context, the film articulates the Danish colony—its class, gender, and racial hierarchies—as a familiar, but normalized, domestic reality. However, by doing so, the film also changes the dynamics from merely recording a historical event to that of a curated performance in what can perhaps best be described as a celebration of coloniality and gendered complicity.

Re-articulating the Female

Like other women writers of their period, both Hutchison and DemantHatt were negotiating two opposing discourses—one demanding “action and intrepid, fearless behaviour from the narrator” and the other expecting feminine “passivity from the narrator and a concern with relationships.” Travel writing by women is thus in dialogue with many wider historical and political gendering processes that were specifically aimed at re-articulating the female. As a result, both women are careful to not defy the gender norms and “conventional understanding of femininity” of their time. Other narrative elements such as humor, self-deprecation, and, above all, descriptions of relationships emphasize the feminine, interpersonal nature of travel writing. Demant-Hatt’s feminine credentials are often performed via humility, self-deprecation, and humor:

“I can’t make food for you,” said Sara, when, out of misguided humbleness, I asked her to give me whatever I was supposed to eat. “How can I know when you are hungry and what you’d like to eat?”

I was sewing my Lapp-style clothes and on Saturday was going to try part of my dress on, but that couldn’t happen in the tent, where you could be disturbed at any moment by visitors. So Inga decided we should go up to the forest. There, up on a flat boulder, the fitting took place with great hilarity. Inga, who didn’t believe that the changing from “ladies’ clothes” to Lapp dress worked to my advantage, sang, Diibmá don ledjet dego geasseloddi, dál don leat dego boares dorka. “Last year you were like a bird in summertime; this year you’re like an old inner fur.”

By deliberately choosing to comment on the different domestic practices and adopting “Lapp-style clothing,” Demant-Hatt here potentially loses “advantage” in terms of social status. This is obvious to her host Inga, but not to her, as she knows her status as a privileged colonial guest/agent in fact remains intact (and assured through her financial arrangements with Turi). In this way, women travelers clearly “adopt shared responsibility for transferring colonial cultural values to the Arctic frontier, while sending back images of exotic locations and peoples.” However, while class and race often override gender in terms of positioning these White, elite women within the colonial spaces they transit, gender is a key factor for readers at home, where representations of the strong, articulate woman traveler increasingly clashed with a heightened emphasis on propriety and family values. The culturally and politically charged negotiation of a contradictory position between independence and domesticity is perhaps best encapsulated in another highly gendered public persona of the period: the hat-wearing, militant British suffragette, who loudly demanded equal rights for women (and her piece of the imperial pie). This is not a public persona that was required within the Nordic context, where the woman traveler instead adopted the role of the benevolent, sympathetic teacher figure. In both cases, the “lady traveler” is never an explorer, but someone who utilizes existing colonial infrastructures. Women travelers take great care to demonstrate an interest in the “feminine” science of botany and the domestic/personal lives/languages/cultures of indigenous peoples, for example, but never “discover” new land or have anything resembling a sexual relationship (a common feature of the male explorer).

Within this context, travel narratives by women are a prism through which to understand historically specific social frameworks and gender strategies that form part of multiple and intersecting processes of colonization across Nordic spaces. While the British colonial context demands a strong female persona “fit for an Empire,” the didactic and benevolent nature of Nordic colonialism is enacted through the well-meaning woman informant whose writing normalizes a consensus of privileged innocence when it comes to imperial expansion. However, travel writing by women also has a decentering function within colonialism. Travel across the colonial space often becomes a vehicle for both transgression and emancipation for a woman who sees herself as both a “lady” and a “person.” Having returned from her travels to Canada and Greenland, Hutchison, for example, appeared in a photograph of a commemorative dinner that celebrated the twenty-first anniversary of women being given the vote in Britain. Hutchison is clearly part of a larger group of powerful, articulate women “at home.”


This article has investigated the work of two elite women who were able to “travel with a sense of emancipation and self-determination available to women of their social class” but who also continuously navigated the gendered and gendering aspects of coloniality itself. Early twentieth-century women travel writers recontextualize and perform highly gendered, public personas, not least the ideology of the heroic, White, imperial explorer—a product of “metropolitan societies concerned with the effects of overcivilization, a softness emerging from the urban existence that replaced life on the farm over the end of the nineteenth century.” Yet, while clearly engaging the visual and textual features of imperialism and nationalism, women writers also find themselves transgressing many of the limits set by their own cultures.

Through their writing and art, both Isobel Wylie Hutchison and Emilie Demant-Hatt negotiate colonial social structures that imagined women not as participants within the colonial context but as mere “symbols of home and purity.” Their work resists this discourse by making clear the participatory nature of women’s experiences in the imperial/colonial project. While clearly complicit with colonial ideas and cultivated practices aimed at taming the outer boundaries of the Empire, the women also control their own performance within the imperial space as “the right sort of woman” who is able to maintain her social status while transiting multiple colonial networks. Biographical writing here not only activates a concern with displaying the “self” within the tightly structured disciplines of letter and diary writing, but also provides a space where femininity can become both a powerful asset and an ironic trope. Hutchison, for example, does not travel light, carrying three trunks (300 pounds or 136 kg) of luggage on a flight to Nome in Alaska. The mere fact that women left their homes to travel, unaccompanied and for long periods of time, to the margins of the Empire, and that they chose to document their activities through publications, resists and challenges established gender roles at home. As Heidi Hansson argues, “the increase of women travellers in the second half of the nineteenth century could thus be interpreted as both an outcome of women’s unwillingness to keep to the gender contract and the result of a civilisation, domestication or feminisation of the wildernesses” (2007, 77).

Postcolonial perspectives, methodologies, and practices have offered an alternative to re-entrenching existing colonial discourses and practice for some time now. They provide an opportunity to illuminate the value and significance of memory making from multiple perspectives that decenter and unsettle historical narratives. However, postcolonial theories and approaches, although often encouraging socially engaged practice in academia, have not by themselves led to decolonial practices. Scholars engaged in decolonization research point out a persistent disconnect between policy and practice. A critical engagement with Nordic colonial history within academia therefore also means re-evaluating prevailing attitudes and knowledge systems that support this lack of connection. It means understanding coloniality as an intrinsic part of our contemporary values and practices, but also realizing the positive potential of “messy” and ambiguous colonial legacies. Investigating the personal and public strategies adopted by women travelers within a Nordic context, for example, not only illuminates the entangled nature of transnational colonial histories, but also helps us understand the many implicit aspects of Nordic coloniality that still continue today. Through travel writing, women curated multiple European civilization and colonization ideologies and produced their own gendered responses to colonial ideas. By publishing biographical narratives, women writers not only provide us with historical evidence about living in and traveling in colonial spaces, but express gendered perspectives of “colonial complicity.” Travel writing, just like other discursive strategies, is not merely symptomatic of, but actively negotiates “gender anxieties at the end of the nineteenth century.” As such, travel writing illustrates the wider social and cultural processes that established dominant colonial perceptions about gender across multiple colonial arenas/contact zones.