Vikings were men who raided Europe from the late 700s to around 1100. They also explored the Atlantic Ocean and even made their way to North America far before Christopher Columbus ever set foot there, and they set up trading centers and routes around the Atlantic Ocean (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). Though the most commonly known figures in these societies were the Vikings themselves, most people were farmers, fishermen, shipbuilders, merchants, and other more common trades. In the ninth century, more and more men were sent out to create settlements and conquer other lands, leaving their wives and children behind (Graham-Campbell). Thus, in this age, women began to gain more power than they’d previously had access to. The extent to which these women gained power in the ninth century is great, though the Viking civilization itself was still very much based in patriarchy and subordination of women.
Though they had access to many rights that other women at the time were not privy to, women in ninth century Viking society in the Norse lands were oppressed and subjugated into domestic roles and sexual belittlement. Like many societies at the time, Norse Viking society was male-dominated. Women were reduced to domestic roles and considered only as accessories to men. The vikings also had a culture that celebrated the sexual subjugation of women, which led to the constant threat of sexual violence from men (Kershaw). One message carved on a wooden needle found in Bergen reads, "Smidr f*cked Vigdis of Snsldu farm". Women were married, or sold off, at around the age of fifteen, and marriages were often decided by the parents (Kershaw) with no input from the daughters. This suggests that women were entirely at the mercy of others, and their fates were not in their own hands. They were under the authority of their husbands or fathers, and they could not participate in the government or in politics. They could not be chiefs, judges, or witnesses, and they could not speak at assemblies (Short). Women were also forced into strict gender roles of domesticity and subordination (Short). Men did the hunting, fighting, trading and farming, while women’s lives centered around cooking, caring for the home, and raising children. Even in death, gender roles were enforced: The majority of Viking burials found by archaeologists showed that men were generally buried with their weapons and tools, and women with household items, needlework, and jewelry (Pruitt). It has even been speculated that the Scandinavian Viking community was that of polygyny, in which men hold several wives. This served to diminish even the domestic role of women into one more purely sexual. Therefore, the ninth century Norse Viking society thrived on the degradation and sexualization of its women.
However, despite its overarchingly patriarchal system, the Norse Viking civilization allowed its women more legal freedoms than other women of the time, and they were able to gain power through certain legal procedures. For example, any Viking woman could own property after her husband died (Kershaw). Wives also claimed the duty of commissioning their husband’s tombstones, and upon these tombstones made declarations of the men’s wills and detail who would inherit his estate - an honour often bestowed upon the man’s wife (Jochens). A wife was able to legally share in the wealth that her husband gained, and Viking law allowed a married woman to initiate a divorce (Graham-Campbell) on grounds like adultery, domestic violence, and transvestism (Kershaw). They also could reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended. Along with this, women managed family finances and ran the farms when their husbands were away. They were legally protected from sexual harassment and had penalties for anyone who unconsensually kissed or had intercourse with a woman (Short). The law, though devoted to enforcing gender roles, allowed women more privileges than those of other civilizations at the time.
In the same vein, women were able to gain power through the ways that society regarded them. They were mostly seen as inferior, but often in sagas and poetry women were admired for their wisdom. Women were commonly depicted as having the authority to judge the honour of men, and the importance of this virtue in Viking society made it evident that these women possessed much power (Spatacean). The female characters in sagas were also strong. They were praised often for beauty, but more frequently for wisdom. Many of the character traits regarded as positive in men, such as a sense of honor, courage, and a strong will, are also regarded as positive traits in women (Spatacean). As stated in Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, “...the Queen was a very wise woman, and far seeing in many things” (Snorasson). This saga was one of the most popular of the time, and the portrayal of one of its main women as wise and powerful is incredibly important. Therefore, though often seen as inferior and lesser than men, women could also be seen in this age as strong and wise, and through this public view they gained power over others.
Women could also become more empowered through managing properties, households, and jobs for their husbands while the husbands were either away or dead. Experts suggest that the increase of female power in Norway in the ninth century could be explained by the women taking over the management of the farm while their husbands, the heads of the households, were away on trading or pirating expeditions (Spatacean). Widows were able to take over from their husbands permanently. Most women in this age looked forward to finally becoming widows and being able to have power over their lands and households. One of the most popular examples of a widow’s power is from the Norse Laxdaela saga. A woman named Unnur djúpúðga, or Unn the Deep-Minded, was already widowed at the beginning of the saga. She felt that she must leave Norway and travel to Scotland. The story continues, “...she had a ship built secretly in a wood, and when it was ready built she arrayed it, and had great wealth withal; and she took with her all her kinsfolk who were left alive; and men deem that scarce may an example be found that any one, a woman only, has ever got out of such a state of war with so much wealth and so great a following” (Magnusson). After this, Unn took over the responsibilities normally held by the husband. When she died, she was laid in a ship in a burial mound, an honor normally reserved only for the most powerful and wealthy men (Short). Therefore, though men often had less limits to their control of the properties and households, women were able to take this control while the men were away.
While women in the ninth century in the Norse Viking society had many ways through which they were able to gain power, the civilization itself thrived on the subjugation and subordination of its women. Women were able to divorce their husbands and hold property, but the Viking society itself was in no way egalitarian. Women could gain power through widowhood, through the ways in which they were regarded in the eyes of society, through their legal freedom (Short). However, this power was gained only through men. The Viking society itself was overwhelmingly patriarchal, and men held power over women in almost every way, pushing them to become subordinate. Women could not hold government positions or participate in political conversations or rallies. Men were the heads of households, and women were held almost as property. Women’s roles were primarily domestic, and even then they suffered abuse from their husbands and were sold off under bride prices (Raffield). Therefore, though the extent to which women were able to gain power in the ninth century was great, the Norse Viking society was not rooted in egalitarianism or upholding of women’s rights, but the oppression and subordination of women.