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The women’s movement in Denmark

Demonstrating for equal opportunies for work. Copenhagen early 1970s.

The women’s movement in Denmark has been through two major periods of activity: 1870-1920 and 1970-85

 
 
KVINFO.dk/ The women’s movement in Denmark has been through two major periods of activity: first-wave feminism, which peaked in the years 1870-1920, and second-wave feminism, which peaked in 1970-85. The women’s movement emerged at the same time as the labour movement, but while support for the labour movement grew steadily until it reached its culmination in the second half of the 20th century, the women’s movement has had more fluctuating fortunes.

The first feminist wave in Denmark was powered by numerous women’s organisations, led by Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society), and culminated in the revised 1915 Constitution, which gave women the vote, and a series of equal opportunity laws in the 1920s. Women were now legally equal to men, had the right to vote, access to education and work and the same marital rights and obligations.

Officially mandated equality did not, however, change the imbalance of political power. Up until 1945 the percentage of women in the Danish parliament fluctuated between a meagre 4% and 1%, in 1960 it reached 10%.

Beyond narrow feminist circles, women’s unequal opportunities as regards political influence, education and work were seen as a private issue. The general view was that the politicians had done their bit, now it was up to women themselves to make use of the right to education, paid employment and political involvement. From around 1920 the work of the women’s movement was put on the back burner.

Despite this atypical evolution, the women’s movement is today considered to have been the most significant political movement of the 20th century, because it led to a transformation of the entire existence of the whole population. This impact was largely due to a new perception of the connection between public and private spheres.

Women enter the labour market
It was not until the integration of women in the labour market became essential to the development of a modern welfare state that equal status again found its way onto the political agenda.

Following recession and unemployment in the 1930s and chaos during the Second World War, the 1950s saw a robust upturn in the Danish economy. Industry overtook agriculture as the principal occupation. Workers to operate the expanding urban trades were recruited from rural Denmark and from abroad. However, women proved to be the key factor in economic growth.

From 1960 to 1990 the Danish workforce increased by almost 1 million, of which roughly 850,000 were women. At the same time, it became acceptable for married women to undertake paid employment.

Until 1960 it had been taken as read that young women who had both an education and a job would leave the labour market upon marriage and would then devote themselves to the home. However, many housewives had been obliged to take on paid employment outside the home in order to supplement the family income, but this had not affected the general negative attitude to married women in the labour market and as these women had often held ‘irregular’ jobs they had not featured in the statistics.

The Danish author and journalist Lise Nørgaard (b. 1917) was a young woman in the 1930s and ’40s and in her autobiographical books Kun en pige [Just a Girl], 1992, and De sendte en dame [They Sent a Lady], 1993, she has described the difficulty inherent in breaking the norm as regards married women in the labour market. She has criticised, for example, associations promoting good housekeeping practice for their efforts to upgrade housework to a profession in line with other trades, because she saw this strategy as an attempt to force women to stay in the home. The price of pursuing a career was, according to Nørgaard, a relentlessly bad conscience. It was particularly hard to deal with the general belief that children of self-supporting women must be suffering from neglect.

The second feminist wave
The entrance of women en masse to the labour market during the period 1960-1990 led to many difficulties as the system had hitherto been structured according to the parameters of men’s lives. Now, for example, state and local authorities would be obliged to provide for the care of children, senior citizens and people suffering from illness. In addition, the transition from a single-breadwinner to a two-breadwinner model shifted the balance of power within the family unit and prompted discussions on a new division of work in the home.

The second feminist wave emerged in the charged transition from a structure in disintegration to a new evolving structure. It was instigated in the 1960s by the old women’s organisations, which now adopted terms such as gender roles and patriarchal society in order to update their strategies and trigger a gender debate of a scope that had not been seen since the suffrage campaign.

The debate really took off when, around 1970, new and radical women’s groups emerged, organised within Rødstrømpebevælgelsen (the ‘Red Stocking’ movement).

The Red Stocking movement peaked in the 1970s, to be succeeded by a modern equality policy in which state, local authorities, political parties and trade organisations gradually took over the role of women’s organisations as key players. This development led to what we can today call institutionalised feminism and the mainstreaming of equal opportunities.

Inspiration from abroad
The Danish women’s movement has always been open to ideas and methods from abroad. First-wave and second-wave feminism were both inspired by developments in the US.

During the Second World War, women in a number of the countries involved in hostilities had taken over men’s civilian jobs, while others had joined the armed forces or resistance movements. This work proved vital, as was recognised by the British prime minister Winston Churchill in 1945, for example, when he stated that women’s war effort had been crucial to victory. The immediate post-war period saw attempts to restore the traditional division of labour, but during the war women had confirmed the feminist assertion that women and men had the same intellectual and vocational potential.

Feminist writers demonstrated that gender differences were in the main a societal construct and not, as had previously been the general belief, exclusively a biological predisposition.

Pioneering works of the early days of scholarly feminist studies, Male and Female by the American anthropologist Mary Mead and Le Deuxième Sexe by the French philosopher Simone Beauvoir, for example – were also influential in Denmark. By studying a number of Pacific island societies, Mead was able to demonstrate that the meaning of ‘male’ and ‘female’ varied from culture to culture. Beauvoir reached the same conclusion in her historical, psychological and sociological gender studies: “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” Both books were published in 1949 and were translated to Danish in 1962 and 1965 respectively.

Internationalisation and equal opportunities in Denmark
While the first wave of feminism was part of an international movement, which also pressed to extend civil rights to other disadvantaged groups such as those in domestic service and underpaid workers, second-wave feminism was part of the international youth revolt.

The economic boom needed input from young people, both in the workforce and as consumers, and these young people used their new-found social position to make an onslaught on patriarchal values – just as women were doing. The rock and beat culture was the most visible manifestation of the youth revolution, which was politically effective at a democratic grassroots level in defiance of traditional political parties and the parliamentary system.

It started out in the US with the anti-establishment, countercultural hippie movement, which via experimentation with life styles, drugs, sexuality and relationship structures contributed to the radicalisation of the gender-role debate. At the same time, many young people, especially on university campuses, were mobilised by the campaigns against racial discrimination and Western imperialism. In 1968 these new forms of political action spread throughout the Western student movement which, inspired by Marxist ideology, had turned against authoritarian and elite management of the universities.

The prime period of the nation state came to an end with the Second World War. During the second half of the twentieth century more and more national powers were transferred to international organisations. Coherence in the new global community was based on shared values, of which human rights, including the outlawing of sexual discrimination, were central. Equal opportunity policies became an obligation when member nations signed up to the UN and Council of Europe declaration and convention of human rights, 1948 and 1950 respectively.

In 1973 Denmark joined what was known as the European Economic Community, now the European Union, which thereafter wielded the baton. Denmark was now committed to comply with EU legislation, which was more advanced in terms of being pro equal opportunities and anti sexual discrimination in the labour market than Danish lawmaking at the time.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch
 
Read more
Danish researcher Drude Dahlerup on
Women’s Movement and Internationalization  
 
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