Karin Westman Berg was a teacher and a literary scholar. She was a pioneer of women’s studies in Sweden and is often called the mother of Swedish women’s studies.
Karin Westman Berg grew up in an academic home in Uppsala. Her father, Knut B. Westman, was a doctor of theology and later professor of missionary history and East Asian religious history. Her mother, Ingeborg, was a housewife who had previously worked as a telegraph operator. When she was eight years old Karin Westman Berg and her family moved to Hunan, in central China, where her father worked as the principal of the newly-established Lutheran college from 1922–1928.
Karin Westman Berg gained her school-leaving certificate from the Lundell school in Uppsala and then read history of religions, English, Nordic languages and literature, with poetry, at Uppsala university. She also undertook study abroad at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center in Birmingham in 1935. From 1936–1937 she worked as a teacher at the Askov Højskole public college in Jutland, Denmark. In 1941 she gained her Master’s degree from Uppsala university.
It was during her university years that Karin Westman Berg met the man she would go on to marry, namely Sten E. Berg. They were both heavily engaged in fighting the racist trends of their day. At the famous Bollhus meeting in February 1939, at which Uppsala university students protested against their university accepting Jewish academic refugees, Karin Westman Bergman was the sole woman to speak out in favour of receiving them. She and Sten Berg set up the Internationella studenthjälpen (international students’ aid) group in Uppsala in 1939, for which she served as the organisation’s secretary for three years. They worked to support Jewish students and to help Jewish refugees escape persecution.
Karin Westman Berg married Sten Berg in Uppsala in 1940. In 1943 he was appointed fisheries inspector in Norrbotten and the family – including their daughters Birgitta and Lena – moved north to Luleå and settled there. Their son Einar was born in 1945. Karin Westman Berg combined her time raising toddlers with teaching at Luleå högre allmänna läroverk (advanced general school) from 1943–1949. She became painfully aware of how different the social and employment conditions were for women and men. Karin Algrim has described this as the emergence of a “women’s consciousness” in Karin Westman Berg.
Karin Westman Berg joined Fredrika-Bremer-Förbundet (association) in 1943. She served as the Luleå branch secretary from 1943–1948, and as its chair from 1948–1950. At that point she and her family moved back to Härnösand. She had also started a children’s studies circle in Luleå, which she ran until 1950. Once she had returned to Härnösand she worked as a teacher at Högre allmänna läroverket from 1950–1957 and from 1958–1968 she taught at the town’s Tekniska Gymnasium (technical high school).
She was an active member of the Fredrika-Bremer-Förbundet board from 1945–1977, submitted articles to its organ Hertha, and worked closely with several of the journal’s editors over the years, including Ying Toijer-Nilsson and Eva Moberg. She was a member of the Härnösand Fredrika Bremer circle and, in collaboration with principal Vendela Wester Wåhlström, set up the so-called Petrea circle, named after Fredrika Bremer’s alter ego in the 1951 novel Hemmet. Members would read and discuss both female and male authors and consider women’s issues. Karin Westman Berg led the circle from 1958–1975. She also set up the first women’s studies conference which was held in Norrland in 1957. Several notable women participated, including Emilia Fogelklou, Ester Lutteman, Barbro Alving, Asta Ekenvall, and Helga Stene from Norway.
Victor Svanberg, who had read Karin Westman Berg’s literature dissertation for her Bachelor’s degree, encouraged her to continue her studies and in 1957 she gained her licentiate in literature at Uppsala university. Five years later she defended her doctoral thesis in poetry with her notable work entitled Studier i C. J. L. Almqvists kvinnouppfattning. She traced Almqvist’s ideas to their Indian roots and to matriarchal communities. She became a senior subject teacher at Härnösand high school and set up both single mark and double mark courses in literature at Folkuniversitetet in Härnösand in 1964. She ran these courses until 1967. Given that she had a PhD she also sought to work at Uppsala university, where she was taken on as a docent in 1965. In order to cope with an expanding student body in 1967 she was called in to the literature department as a supplementary university lecturer. She commuted from Härnösand by train and taught on the foundational literature course but was not allowed to teach gender issues which she was keen to do. In 1972 she was laid off as student numbers had decreased, but during her five years of working at the university she had become a central figure within the emerging women’s studies sphere of both Sweden and abroad.
In the autumn of 1967 Karin Westman Berg came up with what was later known as the famous Könsrollsseminariet (gender role programme) at Uppsala. The literary sociology seminar “Könsrollsdebatt i skönlitteratur” was organised by the Uppsala university course organisation. As the annual report from 1974 states this came about “despite the university’s suppression of research and teaching in subjects concerning women and women’s rights”. The course was open to all and the point was to study literary texts and gender roles. Karin Westman Berg ran the inter-disciplinary gender role seminar until 1977. It came to serve as a type of “barefoot university” for many women and some men as classes were held in the Västgöta student body cellars. The lectures given by invited guest speakers from Sweden, the wider North, the Netherlands, the USA and Germany, often concerned literature, women’s rights, as well as science. Karin Westman Berg collated these lectures and edited several important anthologies: the 1968 Könsroller i litteratur från antiken till 1960-talet, Könsdiskriminering förr och nu, from 1972, and Textanalys från könsrollssynpunkt, released in 1976, all of them Prisma publications.
The gender role seminar was written up in the daily press and became known throughout the wider North. In 1968 the idea behind Grupp 8 was born on the train home from Stockholm after a seminar. The seminar served as a network for early women’s studies in Sweden and across the North. Karin Westman Berg also organised symposia on Fredrika Bremer in 1972 with invited scholars from across the globe. During the UN’s International Woman’s Year in 1975 the first major Northern women’s studies conference was held in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, of which Karin Westman Berg was the instigator. In 1973 she was invited to speak at 15 universities across the USA and courses in women’s studies were set up and she forged useful connections. She wanted to set up similar courses at Uppsala university, but things moved slowly. The gender role seminar, the published anthologies, as well as her networking activities, were all significant in establishing what is now known as gender studies and the literary research into gender studies in Sweden.
Karin Westman Berg took a sabbatical from her high school teaching and during the 1972–1977 period she received a salary from Kursusverksamheten as well as a small stipend from Författarförbundet (the writers’ association) as her income. She was elected into the Nya Idun society in 1973 and she worked tirelessly within Fredrika-Bremer-Förbundet (association). There was opposition to women’s studies at the university and she was unable to get a position there. After lobbying and appealing to and petitioning the government and letters from other scholars to parliament she finally gained a personal research job in women’s and gender studies in 1978 within the faculty of humanities at Uppsala university. This job allowed her to start and to run the first women’s literature project in Sweden. The project title was “Kvinnolitteraturforskning – mönsterundersökningar av svensk kvinnolitteratur och dess villkor 1850–1940 samt bibliografi över kvinnliga författare till 1900”. It was financed by the Humanistisk-samhällsvetenskapliga forskningsrådet (HSFR) from 1978–1981. Apart from Karin Westman Berg herself, Birgitta Holm, Ruth Nilsson, Ingeborg Nordin Hennel and Cheri Register formed the core of the project. Its initial secretary was Gabriella Åhmansson, followed by Åsa Stenwall and Birgitta Onsell (acting secretary). Further participants included Carola Hermelin, among others.
The goal of the project was to develop new methods, theories, resources for feminist literary research, to undertake investigations into female writers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and to create a bibliography of female writers. Karin Westman Berg, who only had two years to go before retirement age, focused primarily on pushing research forwards for others. She travelled around to various universities across the North and gave talks whilst the project group held symposia and ran a couple of post-doctoral courses. The project produced several anthologies: Kvinnolitteraturforskning I-IV, published 1979–1983, and Mothers, saviours, peacemakers; Swedish women writers in the twentieth century, from 1983, as well as Birgitta Holm’s Fredrika Bremer och den borgerliga romanens födelse, published in 1983, Ingeborg Nordin Hennel’s Dömd och glömd, released in 1981 on Alfhild Agrell, and Biobibliografi inom svensk och finlandssvensk skönlitteratur, also from 1981.
Karin Westman Berg retired in 1981. She gave her parting lecture in the literature department at Uppsala university on 21 May 1982. She continued to run informal seminars at her home on Öfvre Slottsgatan 10. She was appointed professor by the government in June 1982. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Oslo university in 1986.
Uppsala university has awarded the Karin Westman Berg prize since 1983 as well as an annual stipend which is given to a female scholar and doctoral student who “has made a useful scholarly contribution in the spirit of Karin Westman Berg” at Uppsala university or at Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet (Swedish university of agricultural studies).
Karin Westman Berg died in 1997. She is buried at Uppsala cemetery.