A lot of people seem to be under the impression that Nordic men are submissive and strangely androgynous, but in my experience that’s anything but the case. Above is a Knud Bergslien painting commemorating the Birkebeiners’ perilous flight through the woods with the young prince Haakon Haakonsson, saving him from a rival faction trying to consolidate rule in Norway. I like the picture — it’s a nice example of masculine childcare. I’m sure the two-year-old prince had a fun time on the voyage to safety in Trondheim.
Here in Seattle there are a lot of people of Nordic descent, and I happen to be one of them. Two of my great grandparents immigrated from Norway around the end of the 19th century and then met and married in Seattle. My great grandfather was from Trondheim, and my great grandmother was from Bergen. Norwegians liked Seattle because it’s similar in many ways to Norway. Puget Sound is a long fjord teeming with marine life, there are lots of trees and mountains, and it’s often wet and cloudy — just like home (although a bit warmer). Swedes and Finns seem to have preferred the Midwest, as that’s more like where they came from.
So I grew up around a lot of old Norwegians and assorted other Nordic folks, many from the old country. I still see them from time to time when I go up to the ski club for a bit of skiing, and amazingly some of them are still going strong. There are 80-year-old Norwegian men (and one Swede who’s pushing 90) at that club who put in 20 miles of skiing a day. They are tough as nails, and although Nordics have a reputation for being short on words, they are actually pretty friendly and can have fun.
One might ask whether they defer to women. Not as far as I can tell. Their wives come along from time to time, but they certainly don’t act like a bunch of androgynous butch types. They seem pretty content with their respective roles. However, life has changed a lot back in the old country — these are old men who came to the US after WWII for the most part. Back then, with the exception of Sweden, the Nordic countries were in pretty bad shape. The war and occupation were devastating to industry and the economy. People were poor and cold. Reconstruction was the most pressing issue — not gender equality. So immigrants from that period were quite conservative. Like my Norwegian great grandmother who came a half century before, they were far more concerned with having a decent life free from want than they were with competing with the opposite sex. Ironically, that great grandmother, who began her career in Seattle as a hotel maid, ended up wealthy due to smart real-estate investments (seems the patriarchy wasn’t all that effective at keeping women down in the early 20th century). But did she grow bored with her husband and dump him for an alpha? No, it seems that her only vices were occasionally gambling in Chinatown and perhaps spoiling her children a bit. From every bit of evidence I am aware of, Nordic gender relations prior to Olaf Palme were cordial, conservative and healthy.
So what happened? I think it’s the same thing that’s happening everywhere in post-industrial society, but it may have had more of an impact in Nordic countries because the shift was more severe. Living in northern Europe used to be pretty tough. It was not always a land of plenty — far from it. Just getting through the harsh seasons meant hours of physical labor every day. Chopping wood, feeding animals, butchering, milking, plowing, harvesting, fishing — the list goes on. The hard life over there is why the US opened its doors to immigration from Scandinavia; Nordic farmers were just about the only people willing to make a go of it in the northern Great Plains. And in the Northwest, their willingness to work hard on fishing and whaling boats and in the woods in logging operations made them attractive hires. Even as recently as the 1950s and 60s, many Scandinavian neighborhoods were working class ghettoes that Anglo Americans wouldn’t deign to live in. In Seattle, all that remains is Fishermen’s Terminal, where poor fishermen still live on boats in the off-season, but the SWPL scum are hard at work trying to get rid of them, too.
Thanks to natural resources, technology and a strong native work ethic, over the last 50 years the Nordic countries have transformed from relatively poor northern backwaters to some of the wealthiest societies on earth. This has led to profound changes in day to day life, and as always that makes a big difference in social behavior. Men no longer need to plow fields and chop wood, and women no longer need to tend the fire, milk the cows and handle heavy iron cookware. There’s far more leisure time, and gender roles just aren’t clear any longer. In the Nordic countries, this made a much bigger difference than it did in warmer, more forgiving climes such as the Mediterranean region and most of East Asia. I am convinced that the reason there’s so much gender weirdness in Scandinavia and Finland is that the changes there as a result of the modern lifestyle have been more profound.
But still, as I’ve heard from some Scandinavians, and seen for myself up at the cabin in the mountains, when you put the Nordic people back in their natural, traditional environment, things have a way of going back to normal very quickly.