Ottesen-Jensen, Elise (1886–1973)

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Ottesen-Jensen, Elise (1886–1973)

Norwegian-born feminist and author who was the leading advocate of sex education and sex law reform in Sweden (1920s–1950s) and a leader in the international family planning movement. Name variations: (pseudonym) Ottar. Born in Jaaren [Jaeren], Hojland, Sweden (now Norway), on January 2, 1886; died in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 4, 1973; daughter of Immanuel Ottesen and Karen Ursula (Essendrop) Ottesen; had 17 siblings; married Albert Jensen, in 1931; children: one son (died two days after birth in 1917).

Elise Ottesen-Jensen, one of the major personalities in European family planning and sex education, was born in 1886 as the 17th of 18 children, only 11 of whom survived infancy. The daughter of Karen Essendrop Ottesen and Immanuel Ottesen, a Lutheran cleric, Elise Ottesen grew up in the Hojland area, on the west coast of Norway. Later in life, she would recall the "incredibly beautiful" coastal region, and the experience of walking through moors covered with purple heather. After a happy childhood, Elise entered adolescence and began to question her father's views. Although both her parents were relatively liberal for their day, even allowing their children to dance, Norwegians then tended to be pietistic and guilt-ridden, regarding even innocent pleasures as potentially sinful. When Elise's youngest, unmarried sister Magnhild Ottesen became pregnant, Immanuel, hoping to ward off family disgrace, sent her to Denmark to await the birth. Back home, having borne a child out of wedlock, Magnhild was barred from enrolling in a nurse's training program; thus, she could never advance beyond working as a nurse's aide. A few years later, after her child died, Magnhild's mental state deteriorated, and she was institutionalized in an asylum for the mentally disturbed. There, fixated by the loss of her child, she spent her time sewing baby clothes, and died in 1934, only 44 years old.

Ottesen-Jensen had wanted to become a physician, but family finances made this impossible, so she settled on becoming a dentist. While studying, however, she lost three fingers in a laboratory explosion, forever ruling out dentistry as a career. After working for a short time as a stenographer at the national Parliament, she decided to take up journalism.

Convinced that her nation was much in need of social and economic reforms, Ottesen found herself increasingly drawn to the labor movement. Unlike the Scandinavia of a generation later, which embodied model welfare-state programs designed to serve social needs from cradle to grave, early in the 20th century these nations were gripped by poverty and backwardness. Between 1815 and 1939, 1,250,000 Swedes and 850,000 Norwegians emigrated to the United States. Women, particularly if they were poor, lived in terror of unwanted pregnancies, and a 1910 Swedish law decreed severe penalties for those who had an abortion. During this period, Ottesen-Jensen quickly became a respected journalist. Using the pen name "Ottar," she covered the 1912 Olympic summer games, which took place in Stockholm. Her articles on the need for reform of Sweden's abortion laws, as well as her spirited advocacy of women's rights, including suffrage, made her well known in working-class circles. In 1913, she met Albert Jensen. A well-known Swedish syndicalist, Jensen espoused views that were progressive and often radical. Through him, Elise met and was influenced by Hinke Bergegren, a male radical who was unusually sensitive to the women's agenda of the day. Ottesen-Jensen was particularly struck by Bergegren's slogan "Love Without Babies," which advocated smaller families for workers, as opposed to the often grim reality of babies without love.

In October 1917, while living in Copenhagen, where she and Albert had found refuge after being expelled from Norway because of their opposition to World War I, Elise gave birth to a son who died two days later. She was gravely ill with puerperal fever for a time, after which she could no longer bear children. Soon after, she and Jensen moved to Stockholm, which was to be Elise's home for the rest of her life. Many of her friends in Stockholm were physicians, nurses and social workers, who often spoke of the need for limiting family size, as well as the need for sex education in the schools. In 1923, Elise Ottesen-Jensen published her first article on the need for parents to answer, in an honest fashion, questions about sex that were posed to them by their children. She also began to lecture and to write on the importance of every woman being educated in the details of contraception, so that only wanted children would be born.

Ottesen-Jensen was a charismatic public speaker who made a powerful impact on her audiences. Indefatigable, she traveled up, down, and across the nation in her Ford automobile, sooner or later making an appearance in virtually every town and village. Many of these areas, remote and impoverished, resembled what in the post-1945 world has been designated as "underdeveloped." She often shared the crowded dwellings and simple food of her working-class hosts. She would fit women for diaphragms in outhouses and even in her Ford, which served as "a traveling clinic." Despite censure, resistance, and lingering taboos about discussing sexuality in public, she continued her work. The state-supported Lutheran and Dissenter churches were critical of her activities, regarding public discussion of birth control as "immoral," something that served to encourage "sinful" behavior. At times, criticism went beyond verbal attacks, as when she was spat on while riding in a streetcar in Bergen, Norway. She spread the message through clearly written pamphlets, including Unwanted Children (1926) and Tell Your Child the Truth (1945). She also published a periodical devoted to these social problems, which she believed was essential in an environment in which both "society and the state had defaulted" and in which many Swedes, men and women alike, continued to regard sexuality as an area of life that was unclean and must be kept hidden at all costs.

Elise Ottesen-Jensen's idea of sex education was all-inclusive, and she often would discuss subjects that were then even more taboo, including masturbation and homosexuality. Her view was that masturbation in a healthy adolescent was a normal activity that did no harm. On homosexuality, she stressed that it was a biological phenomenon and should not be stigmatized as a criminal offense. In speeches and writings, she argued passionately that the existing statutes against homosexuality should be scrapped. She also refused to condemn premarital sex, noting that it was simply a fact already taking place, and to continue to do so—as the clergy and social conservatives did—only served to add a psychological burden on young people, as well as stigmatize those children who had been born out of wedlock.

By the end of the 1920s, Ottesen-Jensen was broadening her horizons beyond Scandinavia. In 1928, she met many of the world's leading advocates of birth control when she attended the international congress, held that year in Copenhagen, of the World League for Sexual Reform. In 1929 and 1930, at birth-control conferences held in London and Zurich, Elise met fellow pioneers Margaret Sanger , and Abraham and Hannah Stone . These personal contacts would deepen over the next years. During the 1930s, Ottesen-Jensen was busier than ever. Personally, however, all was not well. Although she and Albert were finally married in 1931, after living together for almost two decades, their relationship showed signs of tension. In the spring of 1935, returning home from a lecture tour, Elise found her husband in bed with a young woman who had been staying with them. Although they did not permanently separate until September 1937, their marriage was doomed from that point on.

Despite the travails of her private life, intense work kept Ottesen-Jensen on track as a reformer. Her most important tasks during this decade were her many activities on behalf of Sweden's National League for Sexual Education (RFSU), an organization she played a key role in founding in 1932. A decade later, in 1942, she could point to many victories achieved and others clearly within sight. Elementary school curriculums began to incorporate sex education into their lesson plans. In that year, "Ottar House," named in honor of Ottesen-Jensen, opened its doors as a home for unwed mothers and their children. Wrote a journalist at the time: "Elise is one of Sweden's greatest sex educators" and a woman with a powerful personality "who never swerves from doing what she views as right." During World War II, Ottesen-Jensen provided assistance to Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi-occupied Norway and Denmark. In several instances, she lobbied for official permission to authorize the employment of Jewish physicians in birth-control activities. In later decades when she visited Israel, Ottesen-Jensen was warmly greeted by those she had helped during the difficult war years.

In 1945, sex education became obligatory in Sweden's school system. The following year, Ottesen-Jensen convened an international conference in Stockholm that resulted in the founding of the International Committee on Planned Parenthood. America's Margaret Sanger was chosen as first president of this organization, which was to become the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) at a conference held in India in 1952. At this meeting, Dorothy Brush identified "the five outstanding women" of the international birth-control movement as being Margaret Sanger, Elise Ottesen-Jensen, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, Shidzue Kato , and Constance Goh Kok Kee . Few birth control activists were surprised when Ottesen-Jensen was elected as the organization's second president in 1959. In 1963, certain that the IPPF had been able to define its goals clearly and was in good hands, Elise resigned as founder-president, retaining the title of president emeritus. In 1972, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She had already received an impressive number of awards, including the Lasker Award in 1945, the Illis Quorum gold medal from the Swedish Medical Board in 1951, and an honorary doctorate (in medicine) from the University of Uppsala in 1958. In Israel in 1966, both a street and a child-care center called Ottar House was named in her honor.

After being ill with uterine cancer for several years, Ottesen-Jensen died in Stockholm on September 4, 1973. In a newspaper tribute, her friend Greta Bolin recalled how as long ago as 1933 Elise had said: "I dream of the day when every child that is born is welcome, when men and women are equal, and sexuality is an expression of intimacy, pleasure and tenderness."


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Elise Ottesen-Jensen Papers, Labor Movement Archives, Stockholm, Sweden; International Planned Parenthood Federation Archives, University of Cardiff.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Ottesen-Jensen, Elise (1886–1973)

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