Women, Power and Iron

This post comes from Niina Lehmusjärvi, MA, who is writing her PhD thesis in Cultural History in the University of Turku, Finland. She visited Centre for Gender History in the University of Glasgow in 2016. She is currently funded by a grant from the Emil Aaltonen Foundation.

Niina Lehmusjärvi (University of Turku)

The associations between iron, masculinity, and power are archaic. From Greece to Scandinavia, mythologies represent heroic smiths hammering weapons and building fortune bringing magical artefacts.[i] Up until recently the notions about metal and technology as a male domain have been strong. These associations have possibly gained strength from the relative invisibility of women from the history of the iron industries in Sweden.[ii]

Catharina Elisabeth Kijk, née Grubb. Painting by Lorens Pasch the elder. In Ekman, Karl. Ett gammalt herrgårdsbruks historia. Tykö Bruk 1686–1936. Tykö Bruks Aktiebolag. Helsinki 1937, 161.


Women are not invisible in the histories of iron anymore. Historians Gun Björkman, Svante Norrhem, Veli Pekka Toropainen, and Kerstin Westerlund have written about early modern women who took part in the birth of early modern iron industries in Sweden.[iii] While it has been well known that the early modern Kingdom of Sweden was the biggest iron exporter in Europe during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it is now also known that there has been over three hundred women owning and running iron works and manufactures between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Women were most active in this field from 1650’s to 1850’s.[iv]

In order to bring more light into questions of how these women could own iron works and run them, and especially how their work and ownership was related to questions of gender, power and class, I am currently writing my doctoral thesis about two such women. Countess Hedvig Eleonora Stenbock (1664–1729) and merchant Catharina Elisabeth Kijk (1721-1788) ran iron works in South West Finland, at the time part of Kingdom of Sweden.[v] My thesis contributes to the fields of gender and work -studies, but also discusses questions of women’s role in the economics from the point of view of property, power and leadership. As both countess Stenbock and Mrs Kijk belonged to the elite, albeit they had a different social status, the questions of privilege and gender are relevant.

While no detailed accounts or diaries have survived from these women, it is possible, thanks to the keen eye with which the Swedish Crown surveyed the iron industries, to find many documents concerning them.[vi] The archives of the Royal Board of Mines kept in the Swedish National Archives contain detailed protocols where comments of the board members can be found from their regular meetings. The Mining Inspectors sent in insights and evaluations in their reports and surveys about the iron works and the owners’ actions. The iron works owners views are in their letters and petitions, and the Archives of the Steel Producers’ Association reveal how iron works owners were organised. [vii] The National Archives of Finland preserve court documents, deeds and letters of privilege and reports concerning the iron works situated in Finland also from the time it was part of Sweden prior to 1809.[viii]

Countess Hedvig Eleonora Stenbock. Painter unknown. In Ekman, Karl. Ett gammalt herrgårdsbruks historia. Tykö Bruk 1686–1936. Tykö Bruks Aktiebolag. Helsinki 1937, 81.

The legislation affected the visibility of female owners in the documents, since it was the husband that represented the family property even when the iron works were purchased and created together by the spouses. It could even be the case that the iron works were part of her property, since in early modern Sweden married women could own property. But more is known about widowed, rather than married women, who owned and ran iron industries, since they could act independently.[ix] Alongside these documents I am also examining exactly what the legislation said about women’s property and rights, at the same time keeping in mind what Maria Ågren from the University of Uppsala has revealed from the variety and scale of the work and activities of early modern Swedish women.[x] 

The same sort of information and documents about female iron works owners can be found in the Swedish and Finnish archives as for male iron works owners if women were writing in their own name, or if one looks for the documents concerning a specific iron works either from the national or the local archives. In the case of gender and power the administrative documents are more revealing than mere ledgers would be, because they reveal the dynamics and attitudes between iron works owners, the Crown administration, and officials, the owners and sometimes even their family members, the iron works staff, and workers. Documents concerning early modern iron works are a relatively rich source of women’s, owners as well as workers, history.



[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sampo. Accessed November 10th, 2017.

[ii] Westerlund, Kerstin: Kvinnliga Brukspatroner. Tekniska Museet. Stockholm 2004, 208–212.

[iii] Björkman, Gun: Maria Sophia De la Gardie. Kvinna i stormaktstiden. Gyllenstiernska Krapperupstiftelsen. Krapperup 1994; Westerlund 2004; Norrhem, Svante: Ebba Brahe. Makt och kärlek under stormaktstiden. Historiska Media. Lund 2007.

[iv] Hildebrand, Karl Gustaf: Swedish Iron in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Export Industry before the Industrialization. Jernkontorets Bergshistoriska Skriftserie 29. Jernkontoret. Södertälje 1992; Westerlund 2004, 188; Du Rietz, Anita: Kvinnors entreprenörskap under 400 år. Centrum för Näringslivshistoria. Dialogos förlag. Stockholm 2013, 157.

[v] Ekman, Karl. Ett gammalt herrgårdsbruks historia. Tykö Bruk 1686–1936. Tykö Bruks Aktiebolag. Helsinki 1937.

[vi] Hildebrand 1992.

[vii] Swedish National Archives (SNA). Archives of the Royal Board of Mines; SNA. Archives of the Steel Producers’ Association.[viii] The National Archives of Finland (NAF). The Archives of the Board of Mines.

[ix] Westerlund, 2004; Du Rietz 2013, 40–47.

[x] Ågren, Maria: Making a Living, Making a Difference: Gender and work in early modern European society. Oxford University Press. New York 2016.


This post comes from Heleen Wyffels, who is a Ph. D. fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) and part of the Research Group for Early Modern History, KU Leuven. Her thesis is entitled: The printer’s widow: gender, family and editorial choices.

Heleen Wyffels, (KU Leuven)

[…] prynted now agayn at Antwerpe, by me wydowe of Christoffel of Endhoven In the yere of oure Lorde. M.CCCCC. and .xxxiiij. […]

At first sight, imprints like these are a dream source for every scholar doing research on early modern women’s work. They contain date and place of publication, and the printer and/or bookseller. In short, they provide information on the production of early modern books which makes it relatively easy to link products to producers. As the example shows, they even regularly mention widows. Catherine was the widow of Christoffel of Ruremund (also known as Christoffel of Endhoven), and published William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in Antwerp in 1534 and 1535.

Imprints can be a lot of fun too: not every printer wanted to be identifiable, especially not when printing illicit texts or images. They often pretended to be someone else, for example a colleague from another city, or they made something up. Books printed by “Common sense”, “Lucifer”, and “The printing house of the four chatterboxes who came down from the moon” are just a few examples that demonstrate inventive cheekiness and commentary on the printer’s part.[1]