(Exhibition text in English, referring to a QR code in the exhibition)

The Woman Fighting ‘Gender Laws’

Name: Elise ”Ottar” Ottesen-Jensen, née Ottesen
Born: 1886 in Højland, Norway
Died: 1973 in Stockholm

Journalist and debater who promotes the right to sexual education and abortion.

Elise Ottesen is the seventeenth of eighteen children in her family. Her father is a church minister. She works as a journalist, and the politics of sexuality is an early theme in writing. In 1914, she meets the Swedish syndicalist Albert Jensen. They move to Copenhagen and later to Stockholm, where Elise starts using the pen name Ottar in the 1920s.

Ottar’s worst enemy is the ’gender laws’. Abortion is illegal, which means that desperate women risk their lives to end unwanted pregnancies. Ottar’s belief is that women need to control their own bodies, and that both women and men need to know how to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Since 1910, it has been illegal to provide information about contraceptives and how they work – even though it is legal to buy and use them.

Through articles and lectures, Ottar defies these laws. She talks openly about sexuality and helps women get fitted for diaphragms. In collaboration with like-minded people from other countries, she helps found the World League for Sexual Reform in 1928. In Sweden, she is perhaps best known as one of the founders of RFSU (The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education).

”Without the liberation and improvement of women, it is impossible to build democracy”

Namne: Shizue Katō, born Hirota, married 1. Ishimoto, married 2. Katō
Born: 1897 in Tokyo, Japan
Died: 2001 in Tokyo, Japan

Women’s rights activist and politician campaigning for the spread of contraception in Japan.

Katō comes from an old, wealthy samurai family and marries a mining engineer at the age of seventeen. They settle near a coal mine where her husband works. There, Katō encounters extreme hardship. The miners’ families have more children than they can support, and many of them die or fall ill working in the awful conditions.

The couple moves to the United States for a time, where Katō meets and befriends the sex educator Margaret Sanger in 1920. Sanger will eventually participate in the research that makes the contraceptive pill a reality. Katō is inspired by Sanger and becomes convinced that contraception is the key to a higher standard of living for families as well as independence for women. Back in Japan, she starts a contraceptive movement. She publishes articles, gives lectures, and opens Japan’s first contraceptive clinic in Tokyo in 1934.

Official attitudes towards contraception in Japan are very negative and no major political changes take place until the 1940s. In 1946, Katō is one of the first women to be elected to the Japanese parliament, where she serves until 1974.

Venereal Disease Legislation

”When a disease is contagious and can cause harm to society through its spread, it is no longer the affected person’s business whether treatment is carried out or not, but a civic matter.”
Johan Almkvist, Venereal Diseases, simply presented in 72 figures, 1924

In 1918, the Lex Veneris Act comes into force in Sweden. This means that all men and women who carry an infectious venereal disease, such as syphilis or gonorrhoea, must report it to a doctor. Treating the disease is not optional.

Abortion Rights

Abortion, or ‘foeticide’, is an offence punishable by imprisonment or fine. Many people call for the law to be evaluated. It is no secret that women who fall pregnant out of wedlock turn to quacks for help. This is true on all levels of society, but according to critics, the law primarily affects the poor. Sometimes the procedures result in inability to have children in the future. In the worst cases, they lead to death.

”It is easy to get the impression from reading the newspapers that abortion only occurs among working women, maids and labourers’ wives. But this is not the case at all. The only thing is that those who can afford it can get qualified help, and are less likely to die or be hospitalised under suspicious circumstances.”
Tidevarvet magazine, 1924

Several motions are proposed in Parliament throughout the 1920s, but all are rejected. Abortion will not be allowed.

The World League for Sexual Reform

Under the leadership of physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, the revolutionary World League for Sexual Reform is founded at a congress in Copenhagen in 1928. Participants from more than 20 countries are present, including venereologist Alma Sundqvist and psychotherapist Iwan Bratt from Sweden.

The league has ambitious goals. Participants will cooperate internationally to promote gender equality, sexual education, as well as greater understanding of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

After four years, the league meets for the last time in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin is vandalised by the Nazis in 1933. The majority of the League’s documents are destroyed.


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