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Pioneer with a passion for history

Dr. Bente Rosenbeck is a true pioneer within women's studies and gender scholarship in Denmark and one of our pre-eminent historians.Throughout her career, her ground-breaking analyses of the private sphere, the body and sexuality have challenged the bedrock of historical scholarship not only in Denmark but in the rest of the Nordic countries.



Dr. Rosenbeck has a passion for history. A passion that never fails to make an impression on her audience at lectures and conferences, or the reader of her scholarly work on Danish women's history. Her trailblazing study The Female Gender: The History of Modern Femininity 1880-1960 (1987) combined a broad range of concrete studies of areas such as reproduction, medical science, welfare and marriage. It provided a burgeoning Nordic research environment with significant signposts for at new vision of history. Dr. Rosenbeck has contributed to a vast number of anthologies and historical studies and her approach to history has contributed to incorporate the private sphere in a new interpretation of history in Denmark and Scandinavia.

Bente Rosenbeck is currently Senior Lecturer and head of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Prior to that, she was professor at The Centre for Gender Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Throughout her career she has worked for gender equality in academia and has been Chairman of The Humanities Research Council of Denmark.

Writing a women's history

The women's liberation movement was pivotal for Bente Rosenbeck's choice of academic focus. As many others of her generation, she was initially involved in student politics. However, she shifted her attention to the politics of women's liberation when this movement emerged in the beginning of the 1970s. In fact, she would never have become an historian, if the women's movement had not questioned the fundamental invisibility of women in history.

- My research career is a direct continuation of the women's movement's most important slogan: The personal is political. This was the springboard for insisting that everyday life, that the personal and private has a history and must be the subject of scholarly enquiry. Most of my research has been in this field. You might say that my slogan is: The personal is historical.

- To start off with my mission was quite clear: I wanted to study women's history. I thought the women's liberation movement was on an unending forward trajectory and could provide me with the opportunity of studying women's history after I got my degree. I wasn't too bothered about getting a job. You might say, I initially espoused the women's liberation movement, and when it more or less faded away, I got involved in another project, namely an academic project.

Bente Rosenbeck received her MA in history and philosophy in 1976. It quickly became apparent, however, that embarking on a career in research within women's history and the history of everyday life was not possible at Odense University. Her application for a scholarship at this university was ignored.

- Women's lives in the private sphere, fertility and sexuality were not at that time regarded as part of "real" history, i.e. political history, which goes on in the public sphere. Contemporary historical thought viewed the history of private life and everyday life as something The Department of Nordic Language and Literature could concern itself with. These fields were not the concern of serious historians.

Fortunately Aalborg University Center in Northern Jutland had a more forward-looking approach to the discipline of history and Bente Rosenbeck applied for and was granted a scholarship in women's history.

According to Dr. Rosenbeck, an understanding of the body was of crucial importance for a women's history to take shape, and this was where she started:

- I embarked on studying various ethnological analyses of food. One of these stated that the only bodily functions one performs in public is eating and drinking. All others are private. Then I started studying apparel. If one put "gender glasses" on, so to speak, and started to consider things from the point of view of gender, it was possible to tell a story about how the history of apparel was one of both regulating and liberating women's lives. The waist was, for instance, forcibly narrowed with the corset, but loosened by trousers, which gradually gained acceptance as suitable attire for women.

- Secondary sexual characteristics are accentuated in apparel. One thing is the sexual difference between men and women, but when you look at apparel in an historical perspective, you can see how this difference was alternately emphasized and de-emphasized. At the time it seemed a rather strange line of inquiry. However, if one interpreted apparel from the perspective of men and women, it became very apparent how clothes make gender. I was not the first to study the history of apparel; others just hadn't looked into it from the perspective of gender.

Hysterical women

The American historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg was an early inspiration for Bente Rosenbecks research. In Smith-Rosenberg's groundbreaking article from 1975 The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in the 19th Century she used letters between women to explore what was going on in the private sphere.

- Her material was completely different to what I later looked into, but the simple fact of actually exploring that world and investigating hysteria, menstruation and women's illness became my point of departure for exploring medical science alongside my exploration of food and apparel. I was convinced that medical science would be able to tell me something about women's bodies and femininity. Later this line of inquiry became a springboard for delving into the development of obstetrics and gynecology in Danish medical science, especially the later half of the 19th century.

This period is of particular interest, because it coincides with the emergence of industrial society.

- In my view, modern society started with the decline in natality and child mortality and not with the invention of the spinning mill. The former is much more vital to society also viewed from a global perspective today. Birthrate, population and demography are extremely important factors in society. Take for example fertility. In the latter half of the 19th century huge demographic changes were taking place which influenced the family and women's lives. Shifts in demography also serve to illustrate that fertility and sexuality are changeable. Thus the contention that the body and it functions belongs to nature and are static, just doesn't hold up to fact, says Bente Rosenbeck.

For the discipline of history to deal with a particular field it is generally a criterion that changes occur within that field. Twenty to thirty years ago historical scholarship viewed the private sphere as something completely unchanging.

- It is not that strange, really, because it is easy to envisage that having babies, getting married and the like are almost natural occurrences, and therefore outside the realm of inquiry for historical scholarship. Nevertheless, changes in relation to birthrate and child mortality thrust fertility and sexuality and by inference private life back into the arena of historical scholarship, because these issues are not nature and constantly changing.

From woman to gender

According to Dr. Rosenbeck many contemporary scholars consider the expression women's history as completely outdated. Nevertheless, women's history and women's studies were precursory for what we nowadays term gender studies.

- Since the 1970s and 1980s greater diversity surrounds the field of inquiry that started as women's history. Disciplines such as the history of sexuality and sexuality scholarship emerged; masculinity is a key discipline along with ethnicity. Subjects such as gender and sexuality conflated and a queer perspective came into view. One might say that women's history and women's studies have become part of a broader construct. It is interesting to use the term gender, because it has a wider focus. That is why it is our department now is called the Centre for Gender Studies rather than Centre for Women's Studies. In my opinion, however, is it still important do research and write specifically about women, says Bente Rosenbeck.

The shift in focus from women to gender has been quite controversial, and for Dr. Rosenbeck it is important to not to forget the origins of gender scholarship.

- The younger generation of scholars has been in the forefront of changing the name of our research centre from women's studies to gender studies. Of course this change caused a lot of debate, and it was one that I participated in. In my classes I stress that our approach originated in something called women's history and women's studies. There is no reason to forget that, say Bente Rosenbeck.

The shift from women to gender is also an expression of a shift in women's studies from activism to academia, because women's studies originally were founded in the women's liberation movement.

- Fortunately women's studies have evolved during this process and become a much broader field that incorporates many more people – for instance men – than when it was specifically about women, states Bente Rosenbeck.

According to Dr. Rosenbeck this shift in focus from women to gender also enhances the possibility of challenging the very foundations of science and scholarship:

- One can perhaps contend that women's history or women's studies constitute an additive endeavor by adding something to existing scholarly tradition. Gender studies, however, challenge the very foundations of scholarship. How do you get women into the mainstream? Not just by adding them. To get women into the mainstream of scientific inquiry, one must consider why science and historical scholarship have been structured in such a way as to marginalize women. Why are women not central to the understanding of what history and other disciplines are all about? This realignment is what is happening now.

When the focus is on gender rather than women it is, according to Dr.Rosenbeck, a completely different series of questions can be asked of the discipline of history.

- Many years ago when I shut the public sphere out of my mind as irrelevant to women, since they were in the minority there, it says a lot about gender. The minute you use the word gender rather than women then what goes on in male gatherings is also about gender. Men manage many areas that have to do with women. There is a gender aspect to male groups and a gender aspect to what they do. With a gender focus it is possible to study everything rather than confining oneself to a traditional women's sphere.

The politics of the body

Bente Rosenbeck's early interest in the body was a precursor for the enormous interest the body generates in research today. It is hardly surprising because one of the women's liberation movement's groundbreaking works was on the body.

- It started with the Danish book Kvinde kend din krop from 1975 which was inspired by the American book Our Bodies Ourselves from 1970. It represented a paradigmatic shift because in a sense the book removed the body from solely being the concern of doctors and medical science: It states that the body is also our concern. The body becomes a cultural and historical construction. This paradigmatic shift started as activism and as part of a larger political movement, later the academic world started to take an interest in these questions. Sexuality research has much the same history, in that it arose from the Stonewall riots in 1969 and the subsequent gay movement. It initially started in the 1970s as homosexuality research and in the 1990s evolves into queer research, which also focuses on heterosexuality.

- It is impossible to describe a society without being very mindful of how that particular society manages sexuality. It is not just something people do at home between eight and ten in the evening. Sexuality is central to our understanding of a society. The significance of sexuality is receiving new attention in contemporary Danish society because new populations, who deal completely differently with sexuality and related issues, have entered into a hitherto very heterogeneous society. If anything this demonstrates that you cannot speak of sexuality within the context of "nature". Sexuality is not something people have performed in the same way in all cultures. It is managed very differently, says Bente Rosenbeck.

It is Bente Rosenbeck's clear opinion that daily life, which women's historians started to uncover, is extremely relevant both on a political and scholarly level.

- At the moment I am teaching a class on the politics of the body and thus also on sexuality and intimate citizenship. Here we explore problems in the private sphere such as violence against women, sickness. But we also explore positive developments such as new kinds of families, changing motherhood and fatherhood, the rights of homosexuals and transsexuals. All these issues have come much more into the fore, says Bente Rosenbeck.

In fact, Dr. Rosenbeck sees clear indications of a sea change in historical scholarship. She mentions the British historian Anthony Beevor's book Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (2002) as an example of this. In it he recounts the mass rape of Berlin's women after the city fell.

- He sheds lights on a completely different side of war history and not because he has studied feminist theory, but because the discipline of history has evolved. One considers the situation of women in Berlin after the fall and the presence of many men and pose the question: Did anything happen? It takes somebody to think about it as a problem before you can start to find relevant sources and then discover that there was indeed mass rape.

Subversive history

Bente Rosenbeck has several research projects in the pipeline dealing with reproduction.

- On a global level many researchers have worked with the private sphere, demography, fertility and sexuality in an historical perspective. Now the contours of what the American researcher Mary Hartmann calls "a subversive view of the Western past" is taking shape. The subversive view is challenging ingrown notions that it is what different individuals and groups of individuals, most often men, do out side the family that moves history.

According to Bente Rosenbeck subversive history is to be found in demography and points to her contribution to the history book Det europæiske hus, which she co-authored with historian Karin Lützen. Their contribution used demography as its gateway to a history of Europe namely the decline in natality and child mortality, and the emergence of a new family.

- At the time it was extremely controversial because we didn't write very much about for instance the First and Second World War. What I am doing now is actually returning to something I have also wanted to work with, namely a new version of Denmark's history.

Many researchers who work with gender studies have a very interdisciplinary approach. Bente Rosenbeck, however, maintains her historical approach and roots, although she is “On the Edge of History”, as the title of the festschrift in celebration of her 60th birthday indicates.

- Classical fields such as Danish literature and Danish history are not very popular at the moment. However, everything that goes on in these disciplines trickles down to primary and secondary education by way of teachers and text books. Therefore it is very important to concern one's self with these subjects. I am an historian. At one point it was my ambition to give women back their history. Now it is to change the very narrative of Danish history.




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