A Feminist University
in Norway

Berit Ås

 

In 1985 the Feminist University opened in Norway. Ten years in the planning, one woman's radical idea became a reality. Hundreds of women helped, and funds were obtained from around the world. It even had the support of the government. Predicated on the assumption that there now exists a new feminist knowledge-base that is of critical importance in solving the complex political and ecological problems of the planet, the Norwegian Feminist University's intellectual orientation is grounded in the rationality of care. Up until this time, most of the intellectual contributions stemming from this pedagogical orientation have been made by women; great philosophers like Berta von Suttner who enhanced our understanding of disarmament; Rachel Carson, who established modern ecology; and Virginia Woolf and Rosa Luxemburg who forged a tie between feminism and human rights.

The story of the founding of the Feminist University in Norway is a personal story, one deeply interwoven with my life experiences in academia, politics and family. The story includes the initiatives1 thoughts and actions of many other women in Scandinavia and around the world. Without these hundreds of women who served on committees and in work groups the Feminist University would not be a reality today. Neither would it exist if it had not been for all the hundreds of US dollars contributed, along with gifts in many different currencies raised at international conferences around the world1 The contributors include women from Tibet to Groeningen from Haifa to Umeå, and from Spetses to Mexico City and Nairobi. All contributed to a dream that has now come true.

During the ten years of planning it took to establish the Feminist University, our efforts were guided by two principles. The Feminist University was to be directed by a board of women only, and it was to be an educational institution that would teach issues from a feminist perspective, refusing to accept the philosophical orientations of Aristotle, Descartes and Bacon. The number of students would be small in order to allow for the implementation of a democratic model of administration and a rotating leadership. It was designed to attract and admit students (predominantly women) of different ages and with different educational and religious backgrounds. All of the planning took as a given the possibility that government funding might be withdrawn so that a means of supporting the institution had to be found, preferably by combining the acquisition of knowledge with the production of goods, such as arts and crafts. Finally, it saw its main obligation as the education and rehabilitation of women who were victims of violence and discrimination.

These principles were articulated in the University's by-laws, although in the initial version of the by-laws the term feminist was not used. Now that the university has been in existence for five years, providing the opportunity to teach students the meaning of the concept of feminism, the term has assumed a central place in the institution's mission:

The goals of the feminist university consist of building a centre for education based on feminist values and feminist methods of instruction.

 

 A decade of planning

 The history of the founding of the Feminist University spans a period of ten years. In 1975 approximately 150 female social scientists gathered in Norway to discuss their research programmes. A number of feminist scholars had been studying the lost contributions of women through the ages, and shared their findings with us. We were inspired by their stories, but also furious that the contributions of our foremothers had been rendered invisible by the patriarchal educational establishment.

I reasoned that, given the history of women's struggle for equal rights, what happened once might very well happen again. I suggested that one way to protect ourselves from being forgotten would be to found a women's university that would at least function as a archive for our work. To my surprise no one supported my idea. On the contrary, I was accused of espousing separatism at a time when women had finally won admittance into almost every field of study in the universities.

Despite this lack of encouragement, I decided to start looking for a building within the borders of Scandinavia in which to house my dream. I did not try to persuade those who did not agree with me, but rather worked with the few who were as worried about preserving our recent gains as I was. Given the changes that have occurred in the attitudes of young women today, I am convinced that I did the right thing.

During the 198Os a new group of young women emerged in our universities. They believe that equality between the sexes bas been successfully established. Not only have they accepted the (male) media message that discrimination based on sex is a relic of the past, they have also become convinced that taking an interest in women's issues is old fashioned, even silly.

In the beginning I worked mostly as a 'lone wolf’. I searched for a building everywhere in Scandinavia. During an eight-year period six buildings were seriously considered.

 

  The buildings

The first building I looked at was in the northern part of Finland. It had a dormitory for 40 students. One other woman explored the project with me.

The second attempt was to locate the Feminist University in two buildings in the Swedish town of Umeå. One of these buildings was part of a private school for the continuing education of adult women that had been left to the town on the condition that it continue to be used to meet women's special needs. The second house was the main part of an old farm located in the centre of town close to the university library and the Women’s Studies department. The feminists in Umeå felt that the first building comprised too great a financial responsibility for them to handle and it was ultimately purchased by the Pentecostal Church. The second was 'pulled out from under us' by a leader of a study organization when we were about to make the final decision to settle there. In both endeavours a wonderful group of feminist women, many now involved in the peace movement, worked with me.

 

The third attempt - renting a building in southern Norway for a 5 year period - was halted when I backed away from assuming the full financial responsibility alone. On the day the contract was to be signed none of the three co-signatories appeared. I learned a valuable lesson from this experience. Women cannot be asked to assume great economic responsibility without access to capital or property to back them.

 

Throughout this period, all the voluntary groups I worked with were very  enthusiastic about the project; but enthusiasm was not enough. I initiated a second stage of programme development by constituting a Women’s University Foundation, financed soley from the proceeds of my book, Women Unite: A Handbook for Liberation (Ås 1981). Although this income was not tax exempt it did amount to about $7,000 – enough to get the foundation up and running.

 

Five women served on the beard of the foundation, which started to support loosely organized women's university groups by paying office rent and hiring part-time help, as well as covering the costs of mailings, telephone bills and travel. The board was responsible for investing the funds raised to support the Feminist University from women around the world while the search for a building continued.

 

One thing we learned from the first phase of the attempt to find a building was how to utilize volunteer effort effectively. The volunteer group had split up into working groups to address issues of curricular development, public relations with both the local and feminist communities here and abroad, fundraising, budgeting, and organizational tasks like answering the phones and dealing with the mail. This high level of activity was a good means of including large numbers of women in the process and capitalizing on their skills. In the second stage, each group was asked to set their own schedules and de fine their own tasks.

The board served a coordinating function. This organizational structure appears in Figure

 
The organizational structure of the Feminist University

The second phase of the effort to found a Feminist University represented a transition from an informal, voluntary non-hierarchical organizational structure to a more formal one. The hoard now elected a treasurer, took minutes and spent time on financial matters. Meetings became more formal and business-oriented.

When the investigation of a fifth building became possible, it was the board that assumed responsibility for developing relations with authorities and women's organizations within the community, as well as coordinating the financial arrangements. The building's owners, the Board of the Missionary Association of Norway became a critical element in the acquisition attempt.

A trip to look at (and temporarily to occupy) the building we were considering was organized, and the need for another organizational unit became apparent. A registered legal body was constituted to represent us. We turned to a feminist attorney at one of the most conservative law firms in Oslo to accomplish this task as the firm'5 credibility was impeccable.

 

Unfortunately we ran into a community problem we had not anticipated. The building was a beautiful hotel built in the last part of the nineteenth century, a favourite of the German Chancellor, and the Norwegian royal family, who liked to fish far salmon in the nearby rivers. On our preliminary visit to the site, the townspeople saw members of our board drinking beer on the veranda. Following this incident one of Norway's most colourful lay preachers had a dream in which God came to him to warn him about the anti-Christian, communist feminists. He contacted the Missionary Association about his dream and convinced the community to sell the property to him rather than us. Net surprisingly, the media covered this episode with great glee. So we lost the fifth building, though we did gain some insight into the functioning of a small fundamentalist community.

 

At this point my own motivation and spirit lagged. Friends urged me to get away and !et a committee take ever the search. I left for a semester’s teaching as a visiting professor at the Mount St Vincent University, a former women's college in Halifax, Canada.

When I returned to Norway in December I learned that three communities had offered us buildings for our project. One was Løten, one of the least prosperous places in Norway. Løten had invested in a new facility for the elderly and they offered us the old one. We went to see it on New Year's Day and found it charming. The surroundings were beautiful: fields and mountains as far as one could see. We said we would be happy to rebuild it and use it, but we wanted the council's unanimous support (Women's projects are too vulnerable to become issues in local party politics!). I was impressed by the beauty of this house as I reflected on all the women's houses I had visited around the world, many of them in slum areas and in bad condition. This building’s beauty would heal broken hearts and lift depression in a few days' time. 

Early days

The day the Feminist University opened in August 1985, the Conservative minister for women's affairs gave the opening speech. The Farmer's Party's female representative on the parliamentary committee who, like me, was a member of the Women's University (The official Norwegian title is correctly translated 'The Women's University'. It is referred to as ‘Feminist’ because of a 1989 by-law change which includes a paragraph stating that this is an alternative feminist institution.) Board, spoke about its cultural significance. The Labour Party leader in Løten thanked the lay minister for sending us to his home district. The Liberal Party's woman representative, who had once chaired that party and was now

the ombudsman for the National Committee on Equality Between the Sexes greeted the crowd. I, a former leader of the Socialist Left, introduced our curriculum. It was like a scene out of a fairy tale. But I know that the day might come again when the parties would no longer allow their members to support feminist causes.

The city government of Løten was not convinced of the unique character of the new university until they visited China and saw an article on the front page of the China Daily about the Women's University of Norway, located in a part of Norway about which the Chinese had never until that day heard.

Opening day was not accomplished without a struggle. That spring we were unprepared for the news that the building needed extensive repairs before it was safe for use. An American feminist I had met in New York responded to my desperate call for help. She had told me that if we ever got into trouble we could count on her. Well, we were in trouble, and I picked up the telephone. I told her my name and said, 'I am in trouble'. After a short silence she asked, 'How much'? A cheque for one million Norwegian crowns ($137,000) arrived from New York on the very day the Feminist University opened - a delightful coincidence.

The university gained an unlikely financial credibility from a journalist for Norway's largest conservative newspaper who misread the amount of the cheque and reported it to be ten times what it was. A miracle, perhaps.

There have been many commitments, strategies, yes, miracles over the last fifteen years. We never told people about the donation except on opening day because we wanted to support of the government for our enterprise. We knew that if we could survive the first two or tree years of operation there was a good chance of gaining government endorsement and funds.

Indeed, when the head of the department of education visited us in 1986 he shook his head in amazement and insisted that we had accomplished the impossible.  “It is difficult to walk on water”, he said. I confided that the first two steps had been the toughest, but that after that it was easy! A radio reporter repeated the story locally and it was picked up by a journalist for the Christian paper where it appeared with the headline, 'Now Berit Ås walks on water!' Another miracle.

Commitments were expressed in donations from 100 community councils around 'the country. The fundraising committee had requested a donation of one crown for every adult woman in the community if they bad not done enough for their women during the UN Decade of Women. Fortunately, the woman on the parliamentary committee for education backed the Feminist University when it was suggested that we could not receive government funds because we did not occupy a line in the state budget. ‘Let us construct a category for them', she said.

And they did. In 1987 the Feminist University received 600,000  Norwegian crowns ($100,000) in government support. That was doubled in 1988 and last year we were allocated 2,200,000 crown ($350,000). This year's budget is in excess of 5,000,000 Norwegian crowns ($800,000).

It was critically important to protect the women members of the board from having to assume any personal financial responsibility for the board's collective actions. So, on 23 August 1983, the Women's University Foundation was formally registered. The signing was held in one of the rooms of the Norwegian Parliament.

Our by-laws are interest because they were constructed to codify our special mission as a university and to specify the composition of our board as exclusively women. Our claim to be a new kind of teaching institution was challenged but when the protests reached the department of administrative affairs and the department of justice the challenges were denied through the efforts of female ministers in both bodies. The specification of a board composed of women only was potentially more controversial as it was contrary to the Norwegian law of equality between the sexes. However, as our attorney pointed out, any move to tamper with the composition of our university’s board would have raised parallel questions about the considerable overrepresentation of men on the boards of the traditional universities. The matter was dropped.

Politics of the Feminist University

Historically, research pertinent to the poor, the underprivileged, the weak, the disadvantaged, has been the property of the establishment Even though there exists a literature relevant to the acquisition and maintenance of power, that literature is not made accessible to those who might use its findings to advance their cause. Needless, to say, those who have the most use for this information (workers, citizens of the Third World, proponents of peace, feminists) are not in the position to fund the studies they need to produce effective change. It is important to make the results of research about weak and oppressed groups available to them so that they can use the knowledge to improve their situations.

For example, it is the responsibility of the Feminist University to help women who have been battered, who have been oppressed, or who have been victims of discrimination in their work and professions, to understand the dynamics of their situations in order to change them.

The psychological literature relevant to sex differences in attributions for success and failure is pertinent to understanding why women are less likely than men to see themselves as having great ability and more likely than men to see themselves as personally responsible for failure.Because women are oppressed regardless of their race or class or socioeconomic status, information such as this is critical to understanding the plight of women from all educational and economic backgrounds.

Given the breadth of the problem and the need to reach women who vary greatly in educational training and experience one might ask why it is necessary to insist on founding a university. why not just a house, an institute or a foundation? The reason is that only a university is appropriate to the task. The evidence on which the arguments to halt the oppression of women are made is scientific. It is based on methodologically sound research findings. And the educational mission of those who chose to teach in the Feminist University is both rigorous and demanding. Educating a diverse student body is a pedagogical challenge that few traditional universities have accepted. These are elite institutions. The Feminist University is a university for every woman. Finally, the status of a university conveys the value with which the work of women scholars must be imbued if we are to be successful in accomplishing our mission.

During the 197Os women's struggle for liberation resulted in a number of initiatives. Refuges for women were established by women. Feminist journals sprang up everywhere. Centres for research on women were established at many traditional universities. However, as time went by, it became clear that these initiatives were vulnerable because they were not interconnected. This raised the question of what kind of comprehensive programme to construct to alleviate this problem. Iceland provided one model. A feminist party had been established there and there was a network of women's crisis centres that extended across national boundaries. But the insufficient funds allocated to these centres, coupled with the relative poverty of both their clients and staffs made it clear that a mechanism to encourage the collaboration of feminist women from all walks o! life - including law and politics as well as those involved in grassroots organizations - was required.

It would take the efforts of all these women to plan, fund and build a women's university. It would take architects, planners, economists and educators along with researchers and public-relations specialists. Outreach to grassroots organizations for women would be needed, as would an international network of support. Financial concerns had to be considered and women politicians recruited to help. Finally, a feminist model for finance, administration and education had to be developed. In this regard the work of Jo Freeman, Adrienne Rich and Dale Spender was invaluable. The task was enormous. It was also exciting.

One of the pedagogical challenges was to construct a vocabulary to express the social reality of women: to describe the feminist universe.  As Dale Spender had so clearly demonstrated, all educational institutions practise discrimination against women, albeit unconsciously.

Separate classes for the victims of discrimination were seen as one way to redress this problem. Male misogyny could not be tolerated in the classroom, conscious or unconscious. The history of women in women's colleges in the USA appeared instructive. If women's separate education provided women with a competitive edge in the patriarchal marketplace there it ought to be equally effective in Norway.

Other pedagogical issues were also seriously considered. To the extent that women's morality (Gilligan 1982) was different from men’s this was a factor to take into account, along with differences in women's rationality (Halså 1988). From these feminist .concepts grew new paradigms to build theory upon.

Clearly, establishing a feminist university was both a political and an educational necessity. The Feminist University could play a critical role in the process of integrating feminist theory into the scientific disciplines. As Peggy MacIntosh (1986) has suggested, this process has many phases. In the beginning there is often no support for the notion of a feminist perspective on science that is different from the prevailing (objective) one.

But gradually the recognition that women's status may give rise to a perspective that is uniquely their own does occur. Often the short-term solution is to add a page or two describing this perspective to standard texts. But recognition is not integration, In fact, it is at this point that real resistance to change begins. Women students may rise up to protest the masculine bias in science, to contest the construction of general theories that do not fit the female experience. Here feminist scholarly analysis poses a threat to conventional knowledge and truth.

The fourth step in the process is signalled by the advent of women’s studies programmes espousing a comprehensive feminist perspective. Here there is a special place for the feminist university where feminist research and theory can grow and mature unchallenged by patriarchy.

At some future point feminist theory and knowledge will have be compared to conventional patriarchal wisdom. We cannot now know what the outcome of the intellectual confrontation will be. 

 Commitment and conflict

The story of the development of the Feminist University is not free of conflict. Originally, there were opposing views about the advisability of establishing a feminist university at all. Later, conflicts arose over its mission. Some argued that establishing a university that did not have stringent entrance requirements would discredit women's scholarship.

Some Marxist and socialist feminists left the project at an early phase.

Conservative (heterosexual) women took for granted that their concerns about sexist treatment would not be relevant. Women in some peace groups did not find the principle of tolerance for differences acceptable when it could, in principle, extend to tolerance for problems of women in the military. Many women became discouraged because the project confronted so many obstacles and was forced to take so many detours.

Although space prohibits a full discussion of conflict resolution, we did rely heavily on the assistance of a feminist minister who was also a member of the board, and had professional training in crisis management. One lesson we learned was that to implement non-hierarchical organizational structures successfully requires clear boundaries and divisions of labour as well as carefully worded mandates for action among subgroups, rendering the assignment of tasks a very complicated endeavour.

The Feminist University today

The Feminist University consists of a main building and three small houses, including a spacious children's house. There is a barn and 150 acres of land, a third of which is good for farming. Twenty-eight overnight guests can be housed on campus and other accommodation is available in the immediate vicinity. The houses have three lecture halls, seminar rooms, a library, common rooms and a pottery shop.

Courses, lectures, seminars and thematic gatherings comprise the curriculum. Some of these have been arranged independently, others in conjunction with the state labour bureau, voluntary study groups, the environmental movement and the labour movement's study organizations. Seven focal areas represent the perspectives through which all courses are considered:

  • ecology;
  • power and solidarity;
  • female culture and creative activity;
  • feminist critiques of technology;
  • alternative economics and production; and
  • the ethics of care and feminist theology

 (Skjønsberg et al. 1990).

These focal areas meet a series of challenges provided by the times in which we live. Courses developed to explore these issues last anywhere from one day to one year. Some are offered for credit, others are non-credit. Currently, there are about 100 students on campus every day and plans are underway to increase the student body to 200.

Students come from neighbouring towns and communities as well as  from all over the country. A course on administration and leadership from a feminist perspective has proved to be especially attractive. Women refugees, and some men, attend courses. There have been seminars for women politicians and female peace activists from all over Scandinavia. One international course has been offered in construction and gardening. Overall, approximately 2,000 students a year attend the variety of courses offered.

We are working on plans to extend the courses to the graduate level and to start a research centre. During the last year our research foundation achieved tax-free status and the funds are increasing slowly. We hope to restore some rooms in the near future se that we can house visiting scholars to stay with us to do research, teach and renew themselves.

Recently, we were honoured to have Margaret Fulton, the retired president of Mount St Vincent University, spend eight months with us as a visiting scholar. She repeatedly advised us to remain small. We are committed to following her advice. Rather than expanding our facilities in Løten, we are trying to move toward establishing small units around the world. This means we have continued needs for growth and development.

During the original discussions about the Women’s University, women from the North of Norway asked why this valuable resource was  to be located in the prosperous South, once more excluding their direct involvement. Three years ago the county council of Nordland, an area partly inside the Polar Circle, allocated a large sum of money to start a pilot project. Women from three communities visited Løten, and I have offered to assist them in building a decentralized university structure.

Following two trips to Spain to speak about the Feminist University we have received requests from Malaga for information about forming a unit there. Another initiative has begun in Mexico City. The former president of the Feminist University in Norway, Ingrid Morken, travelled to Palestine as a United Nations consultant to analyse the educational needs of the adult female population there. She suggested using the Løten model to establish a facility in Palestine.

In January I visited Overtorneå, a town in Sweden, near the Finnish border. The women in the area showed me their beautiful high school with a dormitory and extensive equipment which are seldom used. I suggested the possibility of establishing an exchange programme between Halifax Canada and Overtorneå for women of Nordic descent whose ancestors migrated to Canada generations ago. A similar programme might be offered to Finnish and Soviet women from Murmansk and Karelen. The possibilities are virtually endless. The age of the feminist university has just begun.

 

References

Ås, B. (1981), Kvinner i alle land: Handbok i frigiøring (Women unite: Handtbook for liberation), Oslo: Aschehoug & Co.

Gilligan, C. (1982), In a Different Voice; Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Halså, B. (1988), A feminist utopia,Scandinavian Political Studies, vol 11, no 4.

Macintosh, P, lecture by the author at the Greek Women’s Studies Organization (SPETSES) Conference in Kegmeg, Greece, summer 1986.

Skjønsberg, E (1990), The Feminist University of Norway: A Demographic Profile of a Feminist University, Loten: The Feminist University Press.

18- 02- 2005