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Snapshot of Danish State Feminism 1947

Danish governmental officials were put to a hard test in 1947 when the UN asked the Danish government to answer a series of questions about equality.

Historian Jytte Larsen has visited the archives. She reveals the remarkable ignorance on matters of equal status legislation displayed by the officials of the day. This in despite of Denmark’s pole position on the issue at UN level, with Bodil Begtrup, Danish chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, taking the lead.


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs ought to appoint a committee of specialists to look at issues relating to equality of status, suggested Finn Friis on May 27 1948 in a letter to William Borberg. The two men knew each other from their days in the League of Nations, when Friis had worked in the secretariat and Borberg had been a permanent Danish delegate. Both were now working for the UN, Borberg in New York and Friis in Copenhagen.

At regular intervals Borberg had requested a reply to Questionnaire on the Legal Status and Treatment of Women, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had received on January 30 1947 from General Secretary Trygve Lie – to be returned as soon as possible, later specified to July 1. The case was routinely forwarded to the relevant ministry, in this instance the Ministry of the Interior, which did not return its answers until later in July and only responded to selected parts of the questionnaire. Equality was proving to be a tricky inter-departmental business! The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to forward the inquiry to four other ministries: Finance, War, Justice and Education. The replies were finally gathered together in March 1948, and even then the survey had not been completed satisfactorily.

The questionnaire would not appear to be complicated. It was clearly divided up in sections dealing with familiar political themes pertaining to women’s issues: voting rights, work, education, taxation, citizenship and other specified civil rights. Sensibly drawn up so that it would not require particular expert knowledge; for example, there was no enquiry as to whether gender was relevant in relation to pension schemes generally throughout the civil service.

The questionnaire had been designed by experts who knew where the shoe pinched and spelled it out: are pension levels the same for women and men? Do their surviving spouses enjoy the same rights? And so on. With the appropriate laws to hand, the case officers could thus go a long way by ticking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and making a note of the particular law they had used as their source. But in 1947 the Danish central administration had no overall picture of which aspects of the legislation were relevant to women. The official machinery thus took its starting point in the realisation that equality cut across areas of responsibility, and reacted by sending the questionnaire back and forth between various ministries and departments. When it finally dawned on someone that the categorisation of laws was of no use either, and that gender was an aspect of large swathes of the legislation… well, then it got swept under the carpet.

In deep water
The first question deals with general regulations concerning gender equality and if, in such instances, they are included in the Constitution, common law or treaties. The Ministry of the Interior answered ‘yes’ and referred to Law No. 100 of March 4 1921: Admittance of Women and Men to Civil Services and Professions. As its title indicates, and as is meticulously set out in the accompanying explanation, this law only covers jobs within the state sector and public services – but not even the whole spectrum of public services: the military was left out, as was the church until the June 4 1947 revision of the law opened the way for the employment of female clergy.

There was actually a general provision relating to equality. In September 1945 Denmark had ratified the UN Charter, in the preamble to which there is mention of “the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small” and under the Purposes clause of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. It is something of a mystery as to how the case officers could overlook the UN’s ‘constitution’, which just two years earlier, and with huge media coverage, had been launched as a paradigm shift in international – and Danish – politics. This is particularly curious in view of the fact that they were dealing with a UN issue, and the questionnaire referred directly to treaties as a possibility.

The explanation is not that the Ministry of the Interior kept within its own sphere of responsibility. Law No. 100 was issued by the Ministry of the State, revised by the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and was subsequently augmented by laws from several other ministries. Law No. 100 was probably quite simply the Ministry of the Interior’s best shot at identifying a general Danish law dealing with equal rights and, by so choosing, the Ministry thus set a precedent which all the others followed. Nor did the UN Charter come to anyone’s mind in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A few other laws with specific reference to equality turn up in the answers on the questionnaire, including the two laws pertaining to rights within marriage that had been passed, like Law No. 100, during the period following 1915 when women had gained the right to vote; these laws had been introduced in order to remove the remaining legal provisions that discriminated directly on grounds of gender. In addition, officialdom used a series of ‘ordinary’ laws: the constitution, and laws dealing with the administration of justice, civil service, tax and electoral procedures. All in all, 10-15 subsections, depending on how the revisions are taken into the calculation.

In the letter that accompanied the Questionnaire on the Legal Status and Treatment of Women, the General Secretary stressed that the survey also covered the practical implementation of legislation; and the questionnaire itself asked about the number of female politicians, public officials and students, and about the use of strategies designed to address personnel policies. When it came to these questions, the officials were in even deeper water.

The only statistical data in the answers is found in the section on voting rights, where the Ministry of the Interior supplied basic figures of women’s representation in parliament and local authorities: “As far as women’s current situation is concerned, of the 225 members of parliament 20 are female and of the 11,488 members of local authority councils 345 are female.” The Ministry of Finance sidestepped the question of women on selection and promotion committees by commenting: “no legal provisions.” All the other ministries simply skipped the question of implementation.

“[…] a time-wasting and not very satisfactory procedure” is how Friis described the case work in a letter to Borberg – an evaluation that was shared by others in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The idea of seeking expert advice, however, came to nothing. The Ministry was at a decision point where it had to distribute resources among its new international commitments, and equal opportunities at home did not top the list. That a specialist committee was broached at all was undoubtedly linked to Bodil Begtrup’s fast-track career in the UN system.

A Danish UN-Queen
In her capacity as president of Dansk Kvinders Nationalråd (DKN, Danish National Council of Women), Henni Forchhammer had participated from the very outset in the Danish delegations to the League of Nations. At the 1926 session in Geneva she had spotted the talents of a political science student who was on a study trip to the city – Bodil Begtrup – and got her involved in the DKN. Begtrup went on to become DKN vice-president in 1931 and president in 1946. In 1938 Forchhammer handed over her seat in the League of Nations delegation to Begtrup, who had just enough time to get to know the Danish officials before the Second World War brought the League to a close.

Begtrup was thus up to speed in international affairs when she attended the inaugural General Assembly of the UN held in London, January 1946, as an advisory member of the Danish delegation; here she made such an impression that the president of the Economic and Social Commission handpicked her to join the Sub-Commission on the Status of Women, a committee under the Commission on Human Rights. As the first – and in this round, only – Dane with this standing in the UN system, she overtook on the inside the two official candidates, professors Hal Koch and Carl Iversen. Nor did her star status suffer when, at the first meeting of the committee in the spring, she was selected as chairperson, and she managed to get the committee upgraded to an independent commission.

The UN was motivated by an intense desire to prevent further global conflict. Outraged by the massive loss of life, the enormous material destruction and the total humanitarian breakdown, the new international organisation chose as its principal values: peace, international law, human rights, social and economic progress. And these values were to pertain to both sexes, thanks to the skill of the – very few – women involved in making the most of the contemporaneous desire for change.

Bodil Begtrup was an impressive networker, and she allied herself with, among others, General Secretary Trygve Lie. Together they made a plan to consolidate the Charter’s gender equality stipulations by introducing a resolution on women’s political rights – preferably to be tabled at the General Assembly in the autumn by one of the great powers if it could not be done by Denmark. In the end, Denmark, with Bodil Begtrup as spokesperson and the rest of the delegation as supporters, submitted the resolution. In her autobiography she writes of Borberg in particular as a man who was “a true advocate of women’s rights”. The resolution was carried unanimously and Begtrup was received like a Queen when she returned home to Denmark at Christmas.

Anti-feminism or simply lack of insight
At the government offices in Copenhagen, there was therefore every good reason to make an effort when filling-in the Questionnaire on the Legal Status and Treatment of Women, which had been instigated by the Women’s Commission. But there were just not that many men who were true advocates of women’s rights. The responses reflected mainstream anti-feminism on many levels: for example, the Ministry of Finance ticked ‘yes’ to equal pension payments, with the rider “although possible difference as regards cost-of-living bonus to the basic pension” – an extremely positive description of the actual circumstances; and answered “yes, in accordance with the nature of the circumstances, e.g. occupations such as nurse, midwife etc” to the question as to whether some job areas were set aside for the one sex.

But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the prize when it came to embroidering the practice and stereotyping gender. By referring to Law No. 100, the Ministry of Finance had confirmed that men and women enjoyed the same rights in the diplomatic service, but asked for this to be checked in the personnel department of the Foreign Service. The answer here was that the current commitments to postings abroad actually constituted an insurmountable barrier – at least for married women, who would be placed in a “conflict situation, which can most often only be resolved by resignation or divorce of the person concerned”. Also, a woman stationed abroad who married a foreign national would lose her Danish citizenship and thereby the right to employment in the civil services, whereas marriage to a foreigner had no influence on a Danish man’s citizenship. Nonetheless, it was not considered necessary to modify the Ministry of Finance’s answer.

Bodil Begtrup’s countermeasure to these predictable reactions was to create an alliance between the UN and the civic community, reasoning that this would put pressure on the government and administrative services. At council and committee meetings of DKN she urged that the DKN itself should collect relevant data and keep a watchful eye on the government’s handling of the questionnaires – and that this should happen in collaboration between the women’s movement, labour movement and research institutions such as the upcoming social research institute planned by Henning Friis, brother of Finn Friis.

The ultimate objective was for the government of each member state to set up “a commission to deal with the status of women in that country – a commission composed of representatives from the government, trade unions, women’s organisations and others. The task of these national commissions will be to identify disparity between conditions for women and for men, and to put forward proposals as to how these can be equalised.” Taken from a lecture she held in the US, this was an almost prophetic description of the Equal Status Council set up in Denmark in 1975, and which in 1946 Bodil Begtrup would not have thought was going to take 30 years to become a reality.

In an 80th-birthday interview in 1983, Bodil Begtrup said that she would have liked to be the Danish ambassador to the UN. That ambition was never fulfilled, but during the General Assembly of 1948, where she brilliantly discharged her duties as vice-chair of the committee that concluded negotiations for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – with even more provisions concerning equality than the UN Charter – she was appointed Danish ambassador to Iceland. She continued her diplomatic career in Switzerland (1959-68) and Portugal (1968-73).

After her appointment as ambassador, Bodil Begtrup continued for some years as Danish delegate to the UN and representative in the Commission on the Status of Women, but was unable to invest as much time and energy in the work as previously. Her successor in DKN, lawyer Helga Pedersen, was motivated more by realpolitik than visions, trained as she had been in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could now, without being called to account, lower the level of ambition for Denmark as frontrunner in international equality policy.

Seek and you will find
Friis’ idea of setting up a committee of equality specialists had been perfectly feasible. It would even have been possible to find experts on the issue in his own ranks: for example, at Danmarks Statistik (Statistics Denmark), which at that time was a department in the Ministry of Finance. Their standard publications contained much of the sought-after data: for example, higher education and public administration figures broken down by gender. But, indeed, this data was difficult to dig up, given that “women” was not a subject in any index. A publication from the year before Friis mooted his idea – Danske Kvinders Aarbog, 1947 [Danish Women’s Almanac, 1947] – redressed this problem, however, in an article that served up the gender-divided data in Statistisk Årbog, 1946 [Annual Statistics, 1946] on a plate.

If more detailed figures were requires, the department could also oblige on that score. The Danish statistical authority has a proud feminist tradition as one of the first government workplaces to employ women and to have close contact with the women’s movement – for example, two professional statisticians contributed to another book of data, Kvinden i Samfundet [Woman in Society], which had been published in 1937: the retired Hans Cl. Nybølle supplied population statistics, and Rigmor Skade, who went on to become the institution’s first female head of department, supplied industrial statistics. The survey also included summaries of legislation relevant to women, researched by Karen Johnsen and Kirsten Gloerfelt-Tarp, two of the prominent feminist members of what are known as DJØFers [members of the Danish Association of Lawyers and Economists].

A ministerial committee might perhaps have made for continuity in the documentation of data relevant to women, which, right up until 1960, was of an ad hoc nature as it was collated on a more or less private basis. The Danish Women’s Almanac project, for example, had to be abandoned after the first year of its existence, and Woman in Society was only updated once, in 1953. For many years from 1951 onward, Politiken publishing house issued Kvindens hvem hvad hvor [Women’s Who, What, Where], but this was primarily an annual report for housewives. The first viable seeds of a systematic approach to data collection were planted in the mid-1960s when the Royal Danish Library began the registration of literature relevant to gender, and in so doing laid the foundation for KVINFO, and when the Ministry of the State appointed a commission on women with the assignment of proposing new legislation to make for equality between women and men in Denmark.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch


Bodil Begtrup

Biographical data

1903-87, ambassador, politically active in women’s issues

*12.11.1903 in Nyborg, †12.12.1987 in Copenhagen

Parents: Christian Adolph Andreasen (1867-1941), judge; Carla Sigrid Locher (1876-1938), teacher.

Married 21.2.1929 (registry office) to Erik Worm B., doctor *2.1.1888 in Askov, borough of Malt, †13.7.1976 in borough of Vedbæk, son of folk high school principal Holger Christian B. and Johanne Lange. Marriage dissolved 1936.

~14.5.1948 to Laurits Bolt Bolt-Jørgensen, diplomatic representative *6.3.1882 in Roskilde, †6.1.1967 in Bern, Switzerland, son of Harald Jørgen Jørgensen, city engineer, and Bertha Christine Jørgensen.

Children: Marianne (1931).
Read more about Bodil Begtrup in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Danish Women

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