[(essay date September 1994) In the following essay, Stecher-Hansen sheds light on Dinesen's feminist views through an analysis of her essay "Oration at a Bonfire" and her story "The Blank Page."]
In her "Oration at a Bonfire" of 1953, Karen Blixen categorically proclaimed, "I am not a Feminist."1 The speech had been delayed for fourteen years: the original invitation to speak had been issued in connection with a large international women's congress to be held in Copenhagen in the summer of 1939. In her speech Karen Blixen muses that the invitation may have been given "upon mistaken assumptions" and adds slyly that "the women may have evoked from me something of which they may make use." It does indeed seem curious that Karen Blixen should have been asked to address an international audience of leading feminists, unless it was hoped that she would be shamed into a defense of her own untimely opinions, her anachronisms, and her artistic aestheticism so completely removed from the burning social issues of the day. For in assuming a male pseudonym--Isak Dinesen--hadn't this Danish Baroness followed the outmoded practice of a long line of women writers such as George Eliot or George Sand, whose choice of pen name was in itself an act of negation of their own femininity as well as an implied acknowledgment of male superiority? And by setting most of her tales in a romanticized past among royal and aristocratic protagonists with an openly declared sympathy for the ideals of a patriarchal, even feudal, ancien régime, hadn't she thoroughly disqualified herself from contributing anything to a debate on equality between the sexes in an egalitarian age?
Dinesen's authorship has proved to be a challenge to scholars and critics. The greatest body of scholarship rests upon the premise of the author's supposed anti-feminism. Thus, in The World of Isak Dinesen, Eric Johannesson notes that in her fiction "the relationship between man and woman is like the relationship between master and servant";2 in 'Isak Dinesen' and Karen Blixen, Donald Hannah claims that "the writer begins where the woman ends";3 and more recently in The Life of a Storyteller, Judith Thurman maintains that, by the time of her Bonfire Speech, Dinesen's views on feminism "had grown considerably more conservative."4
Since the 1970s feminist critics have found in Isak Dinesen much "of which they may make use" to borrow Blixen's own words from "Oration at a Bonfire." In later years the author's works have undergone reevaluations: in the process, this self-proclaimed non-feminist's unique contributions to twentieth-century literature are finding their way into the canon of feminist literature.5 The often different interpretations, however, suggest that Dinesen's position in this canon is not once and for all defined. The present discussion is an attempt to contribute some observations toward a definition of Dinesen's feminism. To this end, it will take a closer look at the "Oration at a Bonfire" itself as well as the short story "The Blank Page," which was...