Loving another human being is never an easy task. Yet, imagine if that love had to not only venture from one heart to another, but also remain fossilized on yellowing paper, sent careening across a vast ocean, and over thousands upon thousands of miles of amber waves of grain. Imagine if the promise of eternal union meant leaving everything and everyone you know behind. For Birgitte Evensen, a privileged young Norwegian woman, those scenarios were not imaginary, but reality. Caught between her duty to her family in Norway, and her promise of marriage to her fiancé in Iowa, Birgitte’s decision to emigrate and subsequent experiences in America as the young wife of a pioneer pastor, were greatly shaped by the gender roles and expectations of women in the late 19th century. Her experience reveals that external cultural forces, such as gender roles, influenced the emigration of Scandinavian women, and acts as a looking glass into the past for the women of today.
As detailed in Letters of Longing, a correspondence translated and edited by Frida R. Nilsen, Birgitte “Bibba” Evensen was born in February 1854 in Arendal, a maritime town located in southern Norway. Her parents died when she was quite young, so she was placed in the care of her older siblings, Likka, Katrine, and Klaus. Being from a well-to-do family gave Birgitte the ability to receive an education, which she used to attend a governesses’ school and later become a primary schoolteacher in Arendal from 1878 to 1881. On February 3, 1881, Birgitte wrote a letter to her former schoolteacher, Ole Nilsen, who had immigrated to Iowa in 1870, to inquire about “a teacher’s position over there [in America].”1Ole Nilsen and Birgitte Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, trans. and ed. Frida R. Nilsen (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970), 1. From this letter, more than 50 would follow.
Birgitte proved to be a very forward-thinking and independent woman for her time when she traveled to Paris, against the suggestions of both Ole Nilsen and her family, to study French, geography, and voice from October 1881 to April 1882. There, she experienced the wonders of a foreign culture that only strengthened her “urge to come out into the world to learn about other situations and to understand life under varied circumstances.”2Ibid. While in Paris, Birgitte continued her correspondence with Ole Nilsen, during which he urged her to come to America, for there was “a more open field for women [there] than in any other place.”3Ibid., 4. What had first started as an inquiry into American teaching positions now had morphed into something quite different. On February 25, 1882, Ole wrote to Birgitte and asked her “to be [his] own dear wife and share [his] work, [his] sorrows and joys, and in return allow [him] to have a share in [her’s].”4Ibid., 25. Despite having not seen each other, especially in a romantic way, for over ten years, Birgitte responded affirmatively to his proposal in a telegram just days later. This decision would prove to greatly alter the rest of her life.
Upon her decision to marry Ole, the reality of her impending emigration drove Birgitte home to Norway in April 1882 to prepare her family, and herself, for the long separation. Initially, both of Birgitte’s older sisters, Likka and Katrine, opposed the engagement. Both were ill with an undisclosed disease that caused weakness, dizzy spells, fainting, and to put it lightly, complete noncompliance with anyone around them. Although Birgitte had originally planned to leave in the spring of 1882, she decided to return to Norway to assure her family’s support of her decision, and pushed her departure to the middle of the summer. In a letter to Ole, she explained, “You will understand that they, who always stay quietly and peacefully at home, view a journey to America through different eyes than do you and I who are more mobile.”5Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 29. While she longed to see her family, she also recognized she would have to sacrifice her and Ole’s happiness for the time being.
With Ole’s promise of everlasting love, Birgitte spent the summer of 1882 trying to convince her family that her decision would not lead to permanent separation. She also prepared herself for life on the prairie, namely in the art of housekeeping. Because she had grown up in a wealthy family with servants, Birgitte never learned to cook or do certain chores that were expected of any good housewife. Despite her efforts, she continuously felt as though she made no progress. In a letter on June 23, 1882, she wrote, “My incompetence continues, but I can say that I make use of every opportunity to learn.”6Ibid., 81. While learning to be a good housewife was important to Birgitte, her battle for her sisters’ consent proved to be more demanding. Whenever the topic would come up in conversation, each sister would become extremely “ill” and unable to continue the discussion.7Ibid., 5ff. In a letter on July 19, she finally admitted that “L.’s and K.’s way of acting [was] egotistical and unlike them.”8Ibid., 95. This realization proved to be a turning point for Birgitte, and despite Katrine’s refusal to give her consent, although Likka eventually did, Birgitte departed Norway on September 15, 1882, on the Thingvalla to New York.
She stayed with Ole’s friend, Pastor Gjeldaker, in Lyle, Minnesota for a month until she and Ole were married on November 30, 1882. They settled into Ole’s home in Northwood, Iowa, where he served congregations from 1874 to 1892. Birgitte became, more or less, the housewife she was “supposed” to be, although she often enlisted the help of young Norwegian immigrant girls in her home. She gave piano lessons out of the house, and when Ole was invited to serve a congregation in Scandinavia, Wisconsin, in 1892, she taught for a few years at the Scandinavia Academy, a Lutheran school. Together, she and Ole had ten children, four of whom died in childhood. Despite those traumatic losses, their “homes were known for their hospitality, good cheer, contentment, fun and the Nilsen’s interest in music and literature.”9Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 125. Birgitte kept her promise to her family that their separation would not be permanent when she and her family returned to Norway for a visit in 1895. Birgitte died in 1903 in Scandinavia, Wisconsin. Ole later married Anna Sunde Swenson. However, in a letter to his daughter Laila on December 1, 1932, he remembered his and Birgitte’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. Sadly, this time, she wasn’t there with a pen in hand to answer back.
Birgitte’s decision to emigrate and her subsequent experience as a Norwegian immigrant in the United States were very personal. Her relationship to Ole and her family, the difficulties of separation, and the choice between duty and desire were unique to her experience, but not as unique as one might think. These facets of her life and emigration were greatly shaped by the gender roles and expectations of women in the late 19th century, in both Norway and the United States.
For the time period, Birgitte was an unusually independent and freethinking woman. She alone made the ultimate decision to leave Norway for America, as well as chose to study in Paris, despite Ole’s suggestion to immediately come to America and her family’s request for her to remain at home. However, as Harris E. Kaasa of Luther College discusses in the epilogue of Letters of Longing, Birgitte was still a relatively sheltered individual, and this fact would greatly influence her decision to emigrate. The 1880s in Norway were turbulent as religious skepticism, social Darwinism, and industrialization swept through the cities and upper tiers of society. Birgitte, despite her easy access to new ideals as a member of the middle to upper classes, never discussed current events outside her family or her letters to Ole. Her existence consisted of visiting friends and family, being educated in the cushy accommodations of Paris with other upper class young women, and practicing her housekeeping skills in preparation for her departure to America. In contrast with Ole’s detailed descriptions of his struggle to pass a temperance amendment in Iowa, Birgitte appeared, though perhaps was not entirely, to be the poster child for the well-to-do 19th century woman: naïve, serving, and sheltered.10Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 125–135.
Her relatively guarded lifestyle, perpetuated by the belief that women were to be protected and nurtured from the difficulties of the outside world, led Birgitte to accept a marriage proposal from a man she barely knew. While love may have had something to do with it, Birgitte initially wrote to Ole to inquire about teaching positions in America, not marriage. While Ole did explain that there were more employment and social opportunities for women in America, he did not go into detail as to all that was available. Birgitte, therefore, knew little of what to expect in America. Her original reason for leaving Norway was to get out and explore the world, but when Ole proposed to her that reason shifted to joining the love of her life in a foreign land. What initially started as a quest for independence, turned into a transition from one sheltered lifestyle to another.11Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 1ff. As explained by Elisabeth Lønnå in her article “Gender in Norway in the Period of Mass Emigration,” this dramatic change of heart for Birgitte was no doubt influenced by the 19th century belief that public life was a “masculine domain,” and women, especially single women, had no place on the job market in Norway or America.12Elisabeth Lønnå, “Gender in Norway in the Period of Mass Emigration,” Norwegian-American Women, ed. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 23–50.
Birgitte’s goals shifted away from being an American schoolteacher to being an American housewife. While marriage and housewifery were considered practical pursuits for young women in late 19th century Norway, Birgitte’s older sisters objected to the engagement mainly because it included long periods of separation from her. Thus, family relationships also shaped Birgitte’s decision to emigrate. In fact, they greatly delayed the making of the decision itself. As the youngest child with two ailing sisters, it was Birgitte’s perceived duty to care for the emotional state of her family when she was at home. Her desire to leave and join Ole disrupted the fragile equilibrium of her familial relationships. She felt obligated to remain at home to make sure she had her sisters’ consent to leave, something they were quite reluctant to give. Because of the gender expectation that Birgitte provide emotional support for her family in their time of need, her desire to emigrate was seen as a radical, selfish, and an unforeseen proposition. As a result, Birgitte put off her departure for nearly six months to assure the condition of her family was suitable enough for her to leave. What her family thought was a radical decision, was actually not that uncommon.13Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 1ff. According to Odd S. Lovoll in his article, “Norwegian Immigration and Women,” women, married and unmarried, made up about 41% of all Norwegian immigrants. That being said, the final way in which gender roles and expectations shaped Birgitte’s decision to emigrate and her experience in America was the promise and presence of a large community of Norwegian women in the U.S., a large community that could relate to her culturally, speak her language, and help her adjust to her new life as a pioneer pastor’s wife.14Odd S. Lovoll, “Norwegian Immigration and Women,” Norwegian-American Women, ed. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 51–73.
At the very beginning of her correspondence with Ole, Birgitte asserted her urge to go out and explore the world. However, as their relationship progressed, she sought information about housekeeping, language, and food in an attempt to ready herself for life as a Norwegian-American housewife. Over the summer of 1882, she practiced the skills she would need to prosper as a “good wife” in America, including: cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for young children. It was no easy task, and at one point, she described that once she had served a meal to her brother-in-law and several of his business associates, it felt like “a burden had fallen off of [her].”15Ibid., 81. Repeatedly, she asserted her incompetence at everything domestic and hoped Ole wouldn’t be too harsh a critic. He responded to her uncertainties with his descriptions of Norwegian-American communities of women that flourished in Northwood, Iowa. According to Lori Ann Lahlum in her article, “Women, Work and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840–1920,” Norwegian-American women created groups, such as Ladies Aid Societies, to create a sense of community and maintain the “duties” women had to society as caring and giving spirits. Ole’s suggestion for Birgitte to join such a society eased her fears of being “too green”16Ibid., 85. upon her arrival to America. As a person very connected to her family, Birgitte desired a network of people she could communicate with and learn from. Immigrating to America meant she had to create a new support network for herself. With groups like the Ladies Aid already present in Northwood, it wasn’t a difficult task. Despite being unfamiliar with domestic duties and American lifestyle, Birgitte had immediate access to a group of women who could help her find her way in a foreign land. With her uncertainties eased, Birgitte had little to fear of emigration, and could leave Norway comforted by the fact that there existed a man who loved her, a community willing to help her, and new experiences to be had in America.
In conclusion, Birgitte Evensen, although a freethinking and independent woman whose mindset was quite modern for the late 19th century in both Norway and America, ultimately let the gender roles and expectations of the day shape her decision to emigrate and her subsequent experiences in the U.S. While she made the final decision to emigrate on her own, Birgitte did not come to the U.S. to be a teacher as she originally intended, but instead a pioneer pastor’s wife. Her choice was radical in the sense that her family didn’t support it, but she accepted her “calling” to a traditional female role, just in a foreign country.
In addition, despite the rising secularism apparent in Norway, Birgitte adopted a very religious lifestyle. This decision, in fact, made her quite “American.” While the U.S. did offer more employment and social opportunities for women than Norway in the 1880s, American culture still encouraged women to seek their place in the domestic sphere. Birgitte accepted this very American ideal unknowingly, all while thinking that she would be too “green” because of her inability to speak English and cook American food. Before she even departed Norway, her correspondence with Ole revealed that she was already beginning the assimilation process, just based on her reactions to Ole’s explanations of American culture and society, especially in reference to the role of women. This phenomenon was probably not unique to her experience.
Birgitte’s story is a great example of the power of gender roles in the emigration of Scandinavian women and to the modern woman, and offers a window into how considerably female expectations have evolved over time. It is astonishing, as a modern woman, to see how many more opportunities have arisen. Who knows how far we would have progressed without the first few steps taken in new directions by women like Birgitte.
Bergland, Olga Nilsen. Forward to Letters of Longing. Edited by Frida R. Nilsen. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970). v–vi.
Kaasa, Harris E. Epilogue to Letters of Longing. Translated and edited by Frida R. Nilsen. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970. 125–135.
Lahlum, Lori Ann. “Women, Work and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840-1920.” Norwegian-American Women. Edited by Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 79–117.
Lønnå, Elisabeth. “Gender in Norway in the Period of Mass Emigration.” Norwegian-American Women. Edited by Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 23–50.
Lovoll, Odd S. “Norwegian Immigration and Women.” Norwegian-American Women. Edited by Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 51–73.
Nilsen, Ole and Birgitte Evensen Nilsen. Letters of Longing. Translated and edited by Frida R. Nilsen. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970), 81.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Ole Nilsen and Birgitte Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, trans. and ed. Frida R. Nilsen (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970), 1.|
|5.||↑||Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 29.|
|9.||↑||Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 125.|
|10.||↑||Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 125–135.|
|11.||↑||Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 1ff.|
|12.||↑||Elisabeth Lønnå, “Gender in Norway in the Period of Mass Emigration,” Norwegian-American Women, ed. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 23–50.|
|13.||↑||Nilsen and Evensen Nilsen, Letters of Longing, 1ff.|
|14.||↑||Odd S. Lovoll, “Norwegian Immigration and Women,” Norwegian-American Women, ed. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011), 51–73.|