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Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir, an entrepreneurial, professional woman

By Sigrídur Matthíasdóttir & Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir

Note: This article is drawn from a lengthy academic article exploring a little studied aspect of Icelandic emigration: single women who made the journey. A link to the entire paper is included at the end of this posting.

On 28 January 1909, Lögberg published an obituary of Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir (IR# I385296), who ‘passed away on November 6th at her home, 691 Victor Street in Winnipeg and was buried on November 9th ... in the Brookside cemetery’. Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir was born in eastern Iceland, in Bakkagerdi in Borgarfjördur in Nordur-Múlasýsla, in 1856. She was the daughter of Ketill Jónsson and Sesselja Jónsdóttir, who lived there ‘for quite a number of years’. According to her obituary, in 1878, when she was 22, she moved with her parents and siblings to the village of Seydisfjördur in eastern Iceland. There she met her future husband, Finnbogi Sigmundsson, ‘a skilful carpenter’, and in the spring of 1881, they were married. Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir lived in the village of Seydisfjördur for the majority of her adult life, some 25 years, until she emigrated to Canada. The couple had three children, two sons, and a daughter. In 1895, Jóhanna lost her husband, while her daughter had died at the age of only 2, ‘and that was the sorrow which she remembered most clearly’.

Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir with her husband and son. She emigrated as a widow from Seydisfjördur in East Iceland in 1903. The East Iceland Archives (Héradsskjalasafn Austfirdinga).
Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir with her husband and son. She emigrated as a widow from Seydisfjördur in East Iceland in 1903. The East Iceland Archives (Héradsskjalasafn Austfirdinga).

Jóhanna can be described as an entrepreneurial and professional woman who seems to have worked and thus supported herself and her family her whole life. Soon after their marriage, Jóhanna and her husband Finnbogi started a restaurant (greidasala), which they ran for some years. Clearly, she was not the legal owner of the restaurant, since married women were not considered financially competent at this time; however, it is equally clear that she ran it along with her husband.

The historian Lori Ann Lahlum, writing about businesses owned by single women, states that ‘Married women, too, owned businesses.’ She takes the example of a couple, Martin and Gertrude Poyeson, in Idaho who ‘owned and operated a boarding house’. The census, however, listed Martin as the “boarding house keeper’’, while Gertrude appeared to not be ‘gainfully employed’, due to the fact that ‘Gendered notions of work and proprietor-ship’ influenced how occupational status was recorded in censuses. Still, the success of a business such as a boarding house depended on the ‘skill with which the women completed ... domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. So, the person who ‘truly ensured’ that the boarding house business of the couple functioned successfully ‘was Gertrude Poyeson’.

Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir seems to have been a woman who enjoyed a good social position in Seydisfjördur. According to her obituary, she was seen as being ‘in the rank of the foremost women’ in the village ‘and she participated considerably in the social life’. It is a sign of her standing that, in 1898, when a hospital was founded in the village, Jóhanna was one of the women who applied to be a director of the institution. ‘That was regarded as a fine position of responsibility and the result was that her application was accepted.’

In the four years that she spent as the head of the hospital and ‘by her work there, she achieved the confidence and respect of the people’, not least of the hospital doctor, Kristján Kristjánsson, ‘who was cautious and successful’ and who ‘did not have other people than her to assist him with the anaesthetization of patients who had to be operated on, something which happened regularly’.

However, according to the obituary, it gradually became clear to Jóhanna ‘that this work did not suit very well to her health. It seemed to be too difficult for her to be a witness to diseases and death. And in spite of the fact that she felt well in many ways in these years, and took a keen interest in the welfare of the institution ... she resigned from her position in the spring 1903.’ Then, she began to think about emigrating to Canada. There she had a brother and her son, Sigurdur (who had arrived here two years before), who would receive her. At last she said farewell to everything which she held dear in her native country and moved this same summer here to Winnipeg with her son Guttormur who was 11 years old and lived since then with him and her brother Jón here in the town.

In an advertisement in Lögberg in November 1904, a woman by the name of Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir, living at 668 Victor Street, announced her sewing service, ‘especially for children and young people, for a fair price’, and also that she had space for two young women in need of board and lodging.

Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir from Seydisfjördur lived at 691 Victor Street and it is very likely that this was one and the same person.

Jóhanna Ketilsdóttir was a woman who was able to act on her own initiative to carve out possibilities and support herself and her family throughout her life. She was respected and acknowledged in Iceland before she emigrated and, hence, had cultural capital that facilitated her settlement in a new country.

To read the article in its entirety, click here.


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