Signe Garling was a young Gothenburg student who, in the early twentieth century, protested against Sweden’s current marriage laws – the obligatory church wedding and the subordinate legal position of married women – by entering into a common-law marriage with a fellow student.
Signe Garling was born in Södertälje in 1882. Her parents’ identities are not known. The year after she was born she was sent to live with her foster parents, Vilhelmina Hägg and Adalbert Teodor Garling, in Gothenburg.
In 1901 Signe Garling sat her university-entrance exam as a private student at Högre latinläroverket, gaining an excellent mark. In the early autumn of that same year she enrolled at Gothenburg college (now Gothenburg university) where she studied philosophy, political economy and sociology, right through the spring of 1904. Signe Garling was one of the relatively few women to attend Gothenburg college at this time.
Signe Garling was an active student who held various responsible positions within the library board. During the spring and autumn terms of 1903 she also served as a deputy member representing the theoretical philosophy department on the same board. She also played a prominent role in the Frisinnade studenter (Liberal party students) association – a radical political discussion club – which was established at Gothenburg college in 1903. Signe Garling was a founder member who was on the committee which undertook the preliminary work in setting up the association and, subsequently, she was appointed as the association’s first secretary. The association set up a public education board which included a workers’ school intended to improve the educational standing of the town’s working class. Signe Garling was elected onto this enterprise in early 1904 and during that spring she ran the workers’ school Swedish classes, comprising essay-writing and reading literature, and more.
In early April 1903 Frisinnade studenter invited Ellen Key to give a lecture and discussion under the heading of “Ny äktenskapslagstiftning” (new marriage law proposals). The content of this talk largely coincides with the chapter entitled “En ny äktenskapslag” contained in the first volume of Ellen Key’s work, Lifslinjer, which summarised her philosophy of life and was published towards the end of that same year. This event probably served as a major contributing factor to an episode which occurred barely a year later.
On Saturday 20 February 1904 it was announced, in an advertisement in the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning newspaper, that Signe Garling had entered into a common-law marriage with fellow student Fritiof Palmér. The impetus for this development – namely, entering into common-law marriage and making this fact public – was the couple’s stance on the existing marriage laws. This was a form of protest against the required church wedding and women’s subordinate legal position vis-à-vis their husbands. The following week this announcement was further published in the Svenska Dagbladet, Upsala Nya tidning and Ny Tid newspapers and subsequently in a series of other Swedish dailies. Given that both students were enrolled at Gothenburg college the principal considered it necessary to step in and submit a piece in which the two students were encouraged to “as soon as possible have their marriage agreement legally recognised”. This public declaration became the start of a wide discussion which continued in the ensuing months, while lead editorial writers debated the reasons behind the principal’s action. The discussion continued in the daily press with readers tendering their own views whilst other student bodies and colleges also wrote in in protest.
Ellen Key was a highly trending and influential writer at the time of this debate on common-law marriage and a range of critical voices in the press pinpointed her as the source of inspiration for the two students’ behaviour. On 14 March 1904 Ellen Key wrote to Signe Garling and Fritiof Palmér, thanking them for their courage and for their belief in their own ideals. “It is by such acts of “madmen” that the world will eventually become a wiser and more accepting place for souls to inhabit”. This became the start of a correspondence between Ellen Key and the two students which lasted for several years.
Signe Garling and Fritiof Palmér refused to give in to the calls to have their marriage legalised. Although they were never presented with a formal expulsion order they were subject to a severe level of stress and in the summer of 1904 the couple left Sweden to settle in Paris. Towards the end of August that year their son Raoul Fri Signesson was born. The consequences of this common-law marriage nevertheless lead to an instant and lasting break between Signe Garling and her foster parents.
Following the move to France Signe Garling began to work as a correspondent for both Swedish and French newspapers and magazines. This included serving as Paris correspondent for the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, Svenska Dagbladet, Aftontidningen, Karlstads Tidningen, and Social-Demokraten newspapers. She also contributed to various magazines, including Morgonbris, Dagny, Tiden, and Varia as well as some French magazines such as Temps, Matin, and Petit Parisien. In 1905 she reported on the Swedish elections for Le Courrier européen. She also worked as a translator for the French ministry of justice, Office de Législation étrangère et de Droit international. Signe Garling served as a committee member of L’Association de la Presse Étrangère and as secretary of L’Union des Journalistes Scandinaves à Paris. She translated Swedish and wider Scandinavian literature into French and vice-versa. Between the years of 1916–1925 Signe Garling worked as a librarian for the Scandinavian section of the Sainte Geneviève library in Paris.
Signe Garling lived out the rest of her days in Paris. After 1925 there are not a lot of traces of her activities. Her common-law marriage with Fritiof Palmér ended in 1911 and so did her communication with his sister, Signe Palmér, who had been a fellow student with her in Gothenburg. Up until the late 1950s Viktoriagatan 23 in Gothenburg was still registered to the librarian Signe Garling. The two-storey wooden house had been erected in 1878 by her foster father Adalbert Garling and had served as her residence whilst she was a student in Gothenburg. The building was torn down in 1969, the same year that Signe Garling died.
Signe Garling is buried at Cimetière de Maincourt-sur-Yvette, a village near Versailles.