Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Friday, 13 January 2012

To Talk about Women's Oppression We have to Talk about Class

In my last post I wrote about the ‘developments in equality’ in the Althing. Women’s equality in Iceland has made great progress since the end of the 19th century but it was fought for by ordinary women and men not handed down by the ruling class.

The source of women’s oppression is much older than capitalism. Its roots lie in the development of class society before the Sumerians invented writing to catalogue their surplus food and tradable goods. It was the rise of class society that created what Frederick Engels[1] called ‘the world historic defeat of the Female Sex’. By which he meant that as developments in agriculture meant more labour was needed so women took on much more responsibility for raising children than they had previously had to. Then women’s lives were further restricted as private property developed to be controlled and handed over to the next generation.[2]

5000 years later under capitalism, the current form of class society, all women experience oppression[3] but that experience is mediated by class. Millions of middle class women around the world can liberate themselves by buying the labour of other women to clean their houses and care for their children. That is not an option for the thousands of millions of working class women, who know that ‘the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.[4]

Kolaburða - carrying coal
The Icelandic magazine Fjallkonan, which strongly supported women’s rights,[5] argued in 1885 that married women in Reykjavik had a slightly easier time than working women as they would not usually need to take the worst jobs. These jobs were collectively called Stritavinna - hard work, they included eyrarvinna - dock work, water carrying and Laugaferðirnar, the innocuous sounding laundry journey.

Eyrarvinna, loading and unloading ships meant carrying cargo, often sacks of coal. The men lifted the sacks onto the women’s shoulders and head, who then carried the load to the warehouses. Horses were apparently too valuable for this work. The worst of it, Fjallkonan pointed out, ‘was that women were only paid a third or quarter of the men’s wage yet they do the same work and as much as the men.’ ‘Nowhere in this country are conditions so like slavery as for the women in Reykjavik who do dock work’.[6]

For the laundry trips, women carried back-breaking loads of washing, in all weathers out to the hot springs, a round trip of several kilometres with no road. If the weather wasn’t dry then the washing would have to be carried back wet. The women also had to carry a tub, bucket, soap and food. Children who were too young to be left at home had to walk there too. There were at least two fatal accidents[7] when women slipped and fell into the boiling water yet a safety frame wasn’t put over the springs until after the turn of the century.

Another article in Fjallkonan[8] remembered the deaths and noted that a few krona spent on cement and a metal frame would save lives. Rather optimistically Valdimar suggested this penny pinching was because the Washers were usually women, but the treatment of deckhands proved the authorities were equally content for men to die, to save money, as much as women.

Anna Þorsteinsdóttir, died on her way home from the Springs, when she slipped on ice into a brook and weighed down by the washing pack on her back, drowned. Anna’s horrible death has been commemorated by artist Harpa Björnsdóttir in her sculpture, Fist [9] It's a clenched fist made of soap and plaster, raised to Anna and the memory of all the women who had to wash clothes at Laugardalur.

In 1907 a water carriers wage was 2 aurar[10] per bucket whether a man or woman. Each trip to a well was made with 2 buckets and it took 75 trips per day to earn 3 kr, theoretically a working wage.[11] However it was also common to pay for water carrying in food, clothes and alcohol.

One particular water carrier was called Gunna Grallari because she knew the entire Psalm book Grallarann [12] and sang it constantly whilst carrying water for Hotel Ísland and the chemist NS Krüger as well as cleaning their toilets. Despite being hard work water carrying was usually a job for those unable to stand harder work, so the young, old or unhealthy.

Ásmundur Sveinsson commemorated the water carriers with his extraordinary modernist sculpture Vatnsberi, made in 1936 which last summer was finally moved to the corner of Bankastræti and Lækjargata where the artist intended it should be.


It’s now close to the site of the well named Bernhöftsbrunninn, when Bankastræti was called Bakarastígur or Bakarabrekka, because of the Bernhöfts bakery built in 1834. Explaining the Town Council decision not to allow the statue to be placed centrally, Einar Magnússon commented that the authorities did not see why they had to take the piece seriously as it ‘didn’t represent anything seen by normal eyes’.[13] It’s an unintentionally illuminating comment from a class that wants work done but doesn’t want to see those who do it.

The progress working class women and men have made since has been by collective action, strikes and protests. In 1907 women in Hafnarfjörður working in fishmeal processing went on strike for higher wages and won after barely a day. This was probably the first strike by women in Iceland.[14]

But progress can be lost and if the financial crisis is paid for by ordinary people work will get much harder. As it is, Morgunblaðið reported last week that nurses in the acute wards at the hospital Landspítalan walk 12 km in a single shift. These women have far more in common with their male colleagues who also juggle shift working and childcare, than they have with Halla Tómasdóttir & Kristin Pétursdóttir founders of Auður capital whose mission is to 'feminise' banking.

Improved pay and conditions were fought for originally and they will have to be defended by working class women and men. In Britain on November 30th last year public sector workers made up the biggest strike by women in British history. If the cuts are defeated and working class women’s progress is advanced it’ll be because women of our class stand with working class men against all the women bankers, mangers and Prime Ministers of their class.

[1] Author of Origin of the Family, Private Property & the State
[2] Chris Harman, A Peoples’ History of the World
[3] This explains breast implants which I’ll discuss in the next post.
[4] Joan Violet Robinson, Economic Philosophy pg 45
[5] The editor Valdimar Ásmundsson was married to Briét Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, editor of Kvennablaðið
[6] 31st January 1885
[7] Soffía Ólafsdóttir died from burns after she fell into the spring 17th February 1894, also Kristín Ólafsdóttir 25th August 1898. Sbr. ÞÍ Prestþjónustubók Dómkirkjunnar í Reykjavík 1881–1898.
[8] 27th January 1900
[9] Laugavinna 2009 pg 56 of the book or 60 of the pdf online.
[10] 100 aurar = 1kr
[11] Íslandsdætur pg 126
[12] Ebenezer Henderson, Iceland: or, The journal of a residence in that island, during 1814-15..., Volume 1 ‘For upwards of two hundred years, the only    Psalm-book used in the Icelandic church was.. Grallarann.. which first appeared in 1594’. A new Psalm-book was published in 1801 but the Grallarann and its scripturally incorrect old psalms remained popular.
[13]ekki eftirlíking á því sem venjulegum augum sé sýnilegt’
[14] http://www.kvennasogusafn.is/index.php?page=artoel-og-afangar

1 comment:

  1. I think it's particularly apt to compare the position where we come from as a class to where we're going. The worldwide Austerity drive that seeks to reduce our share of the surplus we create is initiated by people who think like Magnússon and don't see why work should be an issue.

    I also wanted to ask, though, about the position of women you've described in early 20th Century Iceland. I get the impression that although the same material oppression was experienced as elsewhere in early capitalism, there is a countervailing tendency in that women worked from very early on in the development of capitalism. (In Britain, for instance, it wasn't until the end of the Industrial Revolution that large numbers of women were pulled into the factories). Is this impression correct and, if so, is there any cultural cause behind it?