Alongside sloyd, Swedish gymnastics (The Swedish system/ The Ling system) is Sweden’s most significant contribution to the history of education. Invented by Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839), and refined by his son Hjalmar Ling (1820-86) among others, the purpose of this system of gymnastics was to systematically exercise each part of the human body. While mostly featuring free-standing exercises, it also involved some apparatus work, and was marked by a high degree of formalization. Promoting manliness and nation-building, the Swedish system soon won a significant following across the world.
Using the Benedict Anderson’s conceptualization of nationalism and Michel Foucault’s analysis of discipline as starting point, this paper explores the comparatively under-studied issue of how the physical education of girls was construed in the Swedish system during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The main issues that this paper will address is the societal and individual problems that girls’ gymnastics was to solve, the strategies and techniques that the Swedish system employed for this purpose, and how the Swedish system’s effects on the girls was to be understood.
Focusing on the works of Anton Santesson (1825-92), who along with Hjalmar Ling was the main author on girls’ gymnastics in Sweden, I will show how girls’ physical education was conceptualized as a response to a nation in social, cultural and physical crisis, that in part was the result of the detrimental effects of schooling on girls’ bodies and minds. By establishing a nation-wide network of state gymnastic inspectors, and implementing a system of gymnastics that was adapted to the un-manliness of the female body, the Swedish system would foster girls that were both adapted to the demands of a modern nation, and the virtues of traditional society.
International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE 38), Chicago, USA, August 17-20, 2016