Oslo is ice cold, but sunny, when The Doyennes meet up with Madeleine Schultz for a chat. We’re in the Botanical Gardens on an early Sunday morning in February, excited to hear one of favourite feminist writers’ views on the current state of the world. But first and foremost, what is she working on now?
- On a daily basis, I’m part of the editorial staff Agenda Magazine. Right now, I’m on writer’s leave for a month, to finish a book project that I’ve been trying to finish for about two years, haha! I had a kid along the way, which put the project to a halt for a while, so we’ll see if I can finish it now!
Speaking of books, you have also written a book with Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl! Can you tell us a bit about The F-Word and what it’s about?
- Yes – it feels like a long time ago - it was published in 2015, but everything moves so fast these days… The book is an instruction manual to feminism for young girls. It’s illustrated by Jenny. I wrote half the book along with Marta, and did the layout - putting everything together with Jenny’s illustrations. In retrospect, I’ve realize that I never want to do that again!
Madeleine laughs, and tells us about how much work doing the layout was. She’s very happy with the book – as a lot of feminist theory can be a bit heavy for those not already acquainted with the subject, Schultz, Breen and Jordahl made the The F-Word with the goal of being a fun and approachable introduction to the topic. We move on to another feminist topic:
Do you think we’ll see any real social and cultural changes after the #metoo fall and winter, are we at a crossroads?
- That’s a good question - I hope so. We have a new Minister of Children and Equality now, Linda Helleland. I don’t think she did a very good job in her former role (as Minister of Culture), but her ministry has recently had a hearing and it’s possible that they will strengthen the disclosure requirements (the reporting process in sexual harassment cases), I hope they do that. However, that same government has previously proposed to take the disclosure requirements out of the equality law, and that says a lot about how they view that whole issue; as more or less insignificant. So I’m sceptical, but I hope that there will be some political changes. Tackling sexual harassment isn’t something that can be the responsibility of individual companies, we need political leadership that will hold them accountable. I also think #metoo has changed the attitude of society, people are now realizing how common it is that these things happen. That’s the first step to political change – people realizing that there is a problem. I do however think we have a certain window of time where we can do something about it. If not, it will just become something we’ve talked about, which then disappeared.
That being said… The accusations within the political parties has made it pretty clear that not even the women in the top political positions in this country are comfortable with doing something about the sexual harassment problem when it has consequences for their parties’ reputations… Are you as disappointed as we are, or do you think Solberg, Jensen and co have handled this in an ok manner?
- Of course I don’t think so! Madeleine laughs. Not surprisingly, I think they’ve handled it extremely badly; especially Siv Jensen. What I think is interesting, is that people are excusing the Progress Party by saying “but they don’t care about these things anyway.” It doesn’t matter if they care or not! Discrimination and harassment is illegal, so they have to do something about it, whether they care or not!
We continue the conversation, and Madeleine points out how Siv Jensen, the Norwegian Minister of Finance, seemed to be sticking to a script when talking about her party’s sexual harassment scandal on national TV. The minister has had to deal with similar cases before, such as the Søviknes case in the early 2000s, and Schultz thinks both of these cases show how bad the Progress Party is at dealing with internal affairs, and how someone accused of sexual assault of a minor easily can bounce back to a minister post, while no one talks about how the subject of their harassment can get back into politics.
- It creates a twisted picture of who the victim in the situation is, Madeleine says. There’s so much talk about the men in these cases, of how we have to be careful because they’re having such a difficult time, while it’s overlooked how difficult it can be to be a whistleblower or a victim of sexual harassment, what that does to you. My own mother has experienced it, and it took her a long time and a lot of money and resources to get over it. That the perpetrators of this harassment is placed portrayed as the victim - that really angers me.
We agree. On a brighter note: despite the political leaders having dealt with the #metoo case in a horrible manner, women are usually each other’s best supporters! Can you tell us a bit about your own experiences with this?
- Yes! There’s an expression I really dislike, “women are other women’s worst enemy” (“kvinner er kvinner verst,” in Norwegian), it creates a very negative stereotype of how women are expected to behave. It’s so important to have other women on your team in feminist debates! They’re the ones who’ve been there for me. As a young feminist, I sent e-mails to Herbjørg Wassmo and Toril Moi, and they replied to me with long, extensive replies. That was such a nice thing to do, taking time to explain things to me, as someone who had just discovered the feminist community. Kind of the same idea we had when writing The F-Word – wanting to help the new generation discover feminism by explaining it in an approachable manner.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? Academically and professionally?
- Haha, well, I don’t have much of an academic background! I went to the Einar Granum School of Art for a couple of years, and then I went to Westerdals Oslo School of Arts, Communication and Technology for three years, so I only have a vocational education. I became interested in feminism in art school, because I had an art teacher called Pierre who was very engaged in the feminist art movement in the USA in the 70s. I discovered a whole new world during his lectures, I recognized so much of myself in the topics he talked about, their thoughts back then… It almost shocked me that someone had thought the exact things I was thinking, if you know what I mean! I was part of a hip-hop crowd in Oslo back then, and it… it wasn’t exactly feminist, to put it that way. So I had a few experiences that wasn’t very good, in relation to my own autonomy and such, and suddenly I was able to see that from a different perspective. I think that’s a very specific aspect of feminism, most people don’t come into it because of an interest in the theory, but because they’ve experienced it.
Shultz tells us about the different stages in her career journey thus far: one of the things that made the biggest impression on her was the time she spent in Nepal writing about the country’s sex industry; about how Nepalese women are trafficked to India, and how norms saying that women should be virgins until marriage has created a large market for prostitution, because the men are not subject to the same social norms. The articles she wrote, including interviews with teenage prostitutes at local brothels, were published in a web magazine Schultz started herself, Under Arbeid (“Under Construction”).
- The more I wrote, the more I understood the depth of it. For a long time, I had had the impression that feminism was a bit weird, something that cranky old women were into, and kind of distanced myself from it. I was afraid of being fully involved in it, but during my time in Nepal, I realized how important it is to take it back the ownership of feminism, and what it’s really about. When I returned to Norway, I started working in The Women’s Front, where I met a lot of the feminists who had been active since the 70s. I realized that the negative press they had received, especially from men, trying to take their femininity away and portray them as ugly old hags - that’s part of the problem. So for me, the process of discovering feminism has been a process of almost constant eye openers!
Like many feminists, Madeleine is self-taught, in the sense that she has read a lot of feminist theory in her own time, as opposed to studying it as a subject in university. We think the best books you read are often the ones you choose to read, so we asked her for some recommendations:
- Love by bell hooks! It’s about love as a political concept, I find that very fascinating. The Radicality of Love by the Czech author Srećko Horvat also touches on some of the same topics. I also really like On the Road by Gloria Steinem, it’s about her journey through feminism, as an activist. When it comes to fiction, I grew up with the authorship of Vigdis Hjorth and Tove Nilsen. Coming from a working class background, those were the books we had at home, along with Ingvar Ambjørnsen! I really like Vigdis Hjorth’s last book, Heritage and Environment. I’ve become more interested in several topics after reading it, such as epigenetics, the theory of how it’s not heritage or environment that makes you who you are, but a combination. That gave the title a whole new meaning to me. Also, I like everything by the Danish author Helle Helle. She uses a simple language, I love that, and try to do so myself.
After discussing heritage and environment, we had to find out how Schultz incorporates her feminist ideals when raising a tiny part of the next generation herself:
As mentioned earlier in the interview, you’re a parent now. In what areas do you think we need to improve when it comes to equality between mothers and fathers in Norway, and how can we make changes for the better?
- I’m very lucky and have a partner who’s as active in the parenting as I am – we’ve each taken half of the parental leave, and in everyday life, he might actually be doing more than I am, he’s way better at tidying, she laughs. Overall, I think the most important thing is paternity leave. There’s finally a proposal now to change it back to 14 weeks, as it was before the current government decreased it to 10 weeks, so that’s good. When it comes to splitting the parental leave equally though, it’s important to keep in mind that parenting will never be fully equal, because being a woman and breastfeed and give birth… It does something to your body that men will never experience, and which might make you need more time recover. Also, you have to breastfeed at night, and being able to function at work when you’ve been up all night can be pretty tough for a lot of people. I have a flexible job, so dividing the parental leave equally has been good for us, but not everyone has that. I think the best solution would be to have the same system as Sweden: they have 16 months in total, and they can divide the parental leave equally. That could give the mother the first eight or nine months, and still leave plenty of parental leave for the father.
Another thing I would change, is how the health care system treats women. I was treated more like a tool for my baby than as an actual person in the post-natal care system. Yes, it’s important to care about our children, but I think our society has stretched that idea so far that we’ve forgotten about the parents. They also need to be happy for the kids to be happy. I asked the hospital about breastfeeding for example - my son nearly bit a hole in my nipple due to neck problems - but they didn’t care, as long as he was able to feed, me being in pain wasn’t important… It was shocking to experience that side of the health care system: as soon as the kid was out of my body, no one cared about me. It makes you think of the Handmaid’s Tale, I mean, I’m not comparing myself to that, but I think it’s scary if we’re moving in that direction, where everything’s about money and time, and no one cares about the humans in the situation anymore.