Gunhild Kyle was the first female professor of women’s history across the Nordic countries.
Gunhild Kyle was born in 1921. She grew up in Gothenburg which is also where she worked for many years. Her parents were Gunnar and Karin Karlsson. Neither of them was academically trained but both encouraged their children to enter academia. Gunhild Kyle started her education at a girls’ school and then went on to a grammar school. She was the first member of her family to gain her school-leaving certificate. During the 1940s she began her university studies, which included history, and in 1950 she gained her Master’s degree at Göteborgs högskola (college). It was also during this period that she met her future husband, Per Gunnar Kyle. They married and had two children together, Jörgen and Sissela.
Gunhild Kyle began her professional career as a junior teacher at Vasa municipal girls’ school in Gothenburg. During the 1960s she returned to her studies. In 1970 she gained her licentiate degree, followed two years later by her doctorate, and in 1979 she became a docent in history. Gunhild Kyle was appointed professor of women’s history at Gothenburg university on 8 March 1984, which was International Women’s Day. She was the first person to hold that chair.
Gunhild Kyle had already begun to focus on women’s history when she was attending college during the 1940s, and this research focus in some ways can be said to reflect her own life experiences. She felt that education was an important means to counteract the inequality that existed between not just the sexes but also the social classes, and her own educational journey was proof of it. Gunhild Kyle’s academic output began as part of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s seeking to make the societal importance of women visible. She finished her writing career by producing analyses of social gender-based power structures which came to serve as the basis for the emerging research field of gender history in the late 1980s.
Sweden was increasingly becoming a society in which education was a requirement for high-level posts. With this in mind Gunhild Kyle wrote her 1972 doctoral thesis on Svensk flickskola under 1800-talet, investigating how far such opportunities were open to women. Gunhild Kyle believed that it was the patriarchal tradition of beliefs, which Sweden shared with other European nations, that explained why the workers, and rural women, were largely forced to settle for a minimal amount of public school education, and that bourgeois women were similarly prevented from studying the same advanced courses which their male counterparts attended. That men alone continued to have access to leading positions within the job market was a direct effect of the structure of the gender-discrimination practised by the educational authorities.
Gunhild Kyle’s second book, Gästarbeterska i manssamhället. Studier om industriarbetande kvinnors villkor i Sverige, from 1979, analysed the preconditions of the gender-divided job market in the post-war period. The results reveal that even though contemporary views on the division of labour and managerial posts can be said to have been gender-neutral, they were still based on an obvious but unspoken power-struggle between women and men. Women were responsible for the family and children whilst family life was merely viewed as a ‘hobby’ for men. Publicly financed childcare thus played an important role in women’s major professional activities. There was great demand for labour during the industrially productive post-war period. As women were not considered to be reliable enough in order to fill the demand – given the lack of public childcare – both employers and trade unions were in favour of importing foreign labour. The business sector and state authorities shared the view that both women and a foreign male workforce formed a labour reserve.
Gunhild Kyle brought together a number of researchers who, starting from a variety of different angles, discussed women’s experiences from a historical perspective in her 1987 book Handbok i svensk kvinnohistoria. Her own contribution consisted of two synopses, whilst her introduction set out guidelines for what a gender perspective on the past both could and should entail. At this point women’s history was a specialised subject, partly as a result of Gunhild Kyle’s own research.
Gunhild Kyle had not intended to have an academic career. She undertook her research because it was required for her job as senior teacher of history at Stenungsund high school, and where she had intended to return after completing her doctorate. One reason that she took this route was due to the publication of her thesis in the Kvinnohistoriskt arkiv series (now called KvinnSam), edited by the librarians Asta Ekenvall and Rosa Malmström. These two women had established the archive in 1958 and also participated in the women’s history programme led by Gunnar Qvist. The archive and its accompanying programme benefited from being in an inspirational and supportive environment. Even some of the male colleagues were encouraging, including Henrik Sandblad, the intellectual historian. However, it was Gunnar Qvist who was most important to Gunhild Kyle as they not only moved in together but also collaborated from 1974 onwards. Amongst other things they co-authored Kvinnorna i männens samhälle, in 1974, in which they highlight the two spheres which exacerbate the difficulty in establishing equality between men and women to a particularly high degree, namely the labour market and the family.
Gunhild Kyle’s research into industrial working conditions was made within the framework of the Kvinnorna i industrialismens samhälle research project, led by Gunnar Qvist. The latter was appointed a professorship by the government in recognition of his research. Following his demise in 1980 it was decided that the professorship would be advertised and after specialist investigation Gunhild Kyle was placed at the top of the list. She was appointed professor of women’s history at Gothenburg university on 8 March 1984. She was the sole professor in the field in Scandinavia.
Gunhild Kyle’s role included running the women’s history programme, supervising doctoral students, teaching undergraduates, and undertaking research. She also took her responsibilities as a popular educator very seriously. She viewed her engagement in Kvinnofolkhögskolan (women’s adult college) – established in Gothenburg in 1985 – as a natural element of this. She was on the institution’s board for many years. Gunhild Kyle’s life revolved around learning and education and she wanted to share it with others.
Gunhild Kyle only served as professor in the history department for three years, and these were difficult years for her. There was a dismissive attitude towards women’s history, female teachers and female students. Although this opposition was not of a personal nature it impacted on structural conditions which were hard to take: “Those were hard years and I am pleased they are in the past and that I survived.”
The brief period which Gunhild Kyle spent working as a professor of women’s history is well-encapsulated in the title of one of her most famous publications. She herself was a ‘guest-worker’ in a male society, who nevertheless left deep imprints on the research and amongst the researchers.
Gunhild Kyle died in Stockholm in 2016. She lies at the memorial garden in Stampen cemetery in Gothenburg.