20th century modernisation makes its mark on gender ideals

9 October 2018

Men's and women's ideal pictures of one another do not match. That’s the way it has been for a long time. A new thesis from Uppsala University studies thousands of personal advertisements from the period 1890–1980. In addition to demonstrating what different ideals may look like, the thesis also gives a picture of how the modernisation of Sweden evolved over that period.

Studies of personal advertisements give a picture of
the modernisation of Sweden in the 20th century.

“We go from a society where the household and the group are the base of everyday life to an emphasis on our individuality. We talk not about how we are going to support ourselves but about what we are interested in. Parenthood, which used to be a load to bear, is now a natural part of how we live in a relationship,” says Josefin Englund, a doctoral student in the Department of History at Uppsala University.

In her work on her thesis "Som folk är mest: Könsideal i svenska kontaktannonser 1890–1980” [Like most people: Gender ideals in Swedish personal advertisements 1890–1980] Josefin Englund has examined personal advertisements in newspapers over a period of almost a hundred years. In all, she has read 5,000 different descriptions of men and women in search for a life partner of the opposite sex.

This is the first study of gender ideals that covers such a long period of time and that takes up many different aspects. In this study thousands of people, both men and women, have their say about what an ideal man should be like and what an ideal woman should be like. Previous research about gender ideals in 20th century Sweden has often been based on government, political or institutional material, but researchers have wanted to see more empirical studies of ordinary men and women.

Englund describes how changes in society during the period can be seen from personal advertisements. Stability and security were greatly appreciated in the beginning of the period, but in the late 1900s change and choice were more important. Both genders shifted their focus from material conditions to feelings and thoughts. The descriptions in the personal advertisements went from describing materiality to describing emotionality.

Describe how they want to live

At some points in time it is particularly clear that something has happened in society that has also affected the language in the advertisements. In 1920 property and wealth become less important than before.

“In purely linguistic terms there was a shift from building to breaking  between 1930 and1940. Being reliable became less important. Instead it became more important to describe how you wanted to live and what you were thinking. Life partnership went from being a means of having a decent life to being a goal in its own right. It was no longer essential so as to obtain social and economic security, but was a choice that focuses on feelings and closeness and company,” says Englund.

Greater individualisation means that the content of and descriptions in the personal advertisements are generally more detailed and specific. Advertisers write more about themselves and also use “I” more frequently. Membership of social and economic groups lost much of its importance and was also expressed in a more varied and individual way.

“In 1970 it is no longer as important to write about your social and economic group membership. This is probably because of the expansion of the welfare state,” says Englund.

She uses the dual structure of the advertisements with an “ego-description” and an “alter-description” – what the advertiser has to offer and what the advertiser wants – to compare men’s and women's views of what an ideal man and woman should be like. In particular she studies how the advertisers have described men’s and women's characteristics regarding breadwinning capacity, parenting, responsibility for homemaking, physical characteristics, leisure activities and personal characteristics.

Family and children become ever more important

The study shows that over time men and women are increasingly described on the basis of similar qualifications, and that both men and women are increasingly presented using characteristics previously coded as female; for instance family and children become ever more important.

Englund’s research shows that the gender ideals in personal advertisements are less stereotyped than in, for example, government inquiry reports from the same period. The descriptions in personal advertisements do not express a golden age for housewives in the 1950s. Women in Sweden are described more on the basis of their livelihood than on the basis of their capability and their interest in the home. As early as from 1920 work in the home is not presented as ideal for the advertisers’ woman. Nor does the view of women’s leisure interests support the picture of female ideals focusing on the home and household.

“An ideal in one area, for example breadwinning, need not influence an ideal in another area. Women can be responsible for the home and household and work for a living. Women’s paid work and the view of women as parents do not run counter to one another. Male ideals and female ideals need not be one another’s opposites. Men can be idealised as breadwinners without women being idealised as housewives or mothers,” says Englund.