Back in 2017, GayIceland reported that a new database on the history of queer women in Iceland before 1960 was in the making. The wait is over. Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir, Hafdís Erla Hafsteinsdóttir and Íris Ellenberger have now launched Iceland’s, and possibly the world’s, first database on queer women and thier lives.
The database is the product of an archive project, where the team systematically searched for information about women and queer sexuaity before the 1960s. Ásta explains that the project’s definitions are very broad.
“ We define ‘queer sexuality’ and ‘women’ very broadly, and the database includes diverse sources about women’s behaviour, friendships, sex, gender expression, words and nicknames, queer spaces and silences. There are stories about women who wore pants and behaved in a ‘manly’ way, and were even said to have conceived children with other women – women who refused to get married, had romantic friendships with women, lived with them for decades and wrote passionate letters to them.
The goal was to create a springboard for students and further queer academic research, but also to make the information accessible and appealing to everyone interested in history.”
“There are stories about women who wore pants and behaved in a ‘manly’ way, and were even said to have conceived children with other women”
Now that the database is open, and accessible to everyone, the team is gaining some insight into the reasons why people are looking for this information.
“Most of the people we have heard from are just using it as a source of interesting information and a way of gaining an unconventional insight into Iceland’s past. We also know of teachers who are using it for teaching history and gender studies on university and secondary school level,” says Íris. “But mostly we have no idea why people are visiting the site, that is the beauty of putting information out there on the web.”
Traditionally, historians have tended to erase women, especially queer women, and other queer people from the history books. The team is optimistic that a database like this will make queer women ‘hard to ignore’.
“The idea of the project came about in 2017 when we published a book about queer history, Svo veistu að þú varst ekki hér (So, you know you were never here), a citation from Guðmundur Sigurjónsson Hoftal a well-known sports teacher and the only person in Iceland who was ever sentenced to prison because of homosexuality,” says Hafdís.
“During the publication process, it became painfully clear that women were more or less absent from our knowledge about queer past in Iceland and this lack of knowledge was due to lack of sources. So in order to bridge that gap, we launched the project. By collecting, categorizing and launching this web-collection, we have already shown that there is a rich body of sources out there that shows examples of diverse patterns of female sexualities.
Such a source collection will be hard to ignore in future research. It will be hard to overlook the queer aspects of the women´s movement during the first decades of the 20th century in any upcoming research or writing on the topic.”
Researching and collecting information about ‘hidden women’, undoubtedly will uncover some interesting discoveries and make connections that previously would have been impossible.
“Sometimes we can use the sources people point out to us, and sometimes we build on them and eventually they lead us to valuable documents. For example, a story from somebody’s aunt who remembered two women who lived together in Reykjavík in the 1930s can lead us to registers, obituaries or private archives that tell us more about those women,” says Ásta.
During the research stages, the team also made some fascinating discoveries about the nature of queer communities during the early 20th century and the social mores of the time.
“While ploughing through various sources which span over 200 years such as personal letters, newspapers, obituaries, registration documents, poetry, folklore and gossip, we found a lot of queer aspects of the past that were previously unknown. For example, we figured that the word “graður” which in modern Icelandic means horny, was used as a negative label for women who were considered to step a little too far outside of the boundaries of proper feminine behaviour during the 18th and 19th centuries. We also discovered a network of intimate female friends in Reykjavík during the first decades of the 20th century, some of those women raised children together and lived together for decades.
The Hidden Women project is due to finish this year, but the feedback form will remain open and people will still be able to send in information. The team hasn’t ruled out similar projects about people of other genders which could be merged with the Hidden Women Project. However, the legacy of the project will continue. Ásta explains: “We are in the process of writing
teaching materials for secondary school students which will be available on huldukonur.is later this spring. These will basically be A4 sheets with information from the web page rewritten for younger readers along with assignments and other tidbits of information that we feel are interesting for that age.
The material includes instructions for teachers which introduces the basics of queer history and assists those who are not already familiar with that subject with integrating women’s queer sexualities into the history curriculum at their schools. We are also hoping to be able to make
teaching materials for primary schools but have yet to see if that will work out.”
Not only does the Hidden Women Project address the inequalities that queer women have faced in being recorded by traditional history, by producing materials for schools it seek to address this problem in the future. By bringing queer women and their stories to the attention of the next generation of Iceland’s historians, the project is working towards stopping the erasure of queer people and relationships from the history books.
The Hidden Women project is now collecting more stories and information. If you have anything you want to share, please use the submission form on the website or email: firstname.lastname@example.org!
Main photo: These had obviously seen a camera before and here they look very stylish. The photo of these cheerful ladies dressed in men’s clothing is taken on a snowy day at the garden of the tuberculosis sanatorium Kristnes in Iceland.