Working on a book can be full of surprises. I did not think, when I set out to write a chapter about tools and objects and the way my attitude to the material world changed after my stroke, that I would end up being inspired by an amazing feminist anarcho-syndicalist . . . but weirdly that has turned out to be the case. The amazing feminist anarcho-syndicalist in question is Elise Ottesen-Jensen.
If you are Swedish or Norwegian, I am sure you are likely to have already heard of Elise Ottesen-Jensen, or Ottar, as she called herself. In the English-speaking world, my sense of things is that Ottar and her revolutionary work are not so well-known, so here’s a short introduction.
Born in 1886 in Høyland, outside Sandnes in Norway, Elise was the daughter of the local priest, and the seventeenth of the eighteen children to whom her mother was to give birth. Six of her siblings died in infancy, and as a child, Elise saw how the women in her family suffered through repeated pregnancies, births and deaths. This was most notably the case when her sister conceived a child at the age of 15, and was sent away to Denmark to give birth in secrecy. After the distressing experience of a pregnancy she did not fully understand, and the forced removal of her baby, Elise’s sister was interred in a psychiatric hospital where she eventually committed suicide. Elise, meanwhile developed a spirit of independence, resisting the patriarchal and religious dictates of her father’s household. She questioned biblical dogma, refused to be confirmed, and determined on a medical career.
But, at the age of 17, her scientific hopes were dashed after she was injured in an explosion in a school laboratory, losing both her thumbs. Interested in progressive politics, she decided to become a journalist instead, working with the radical press in Trondheim and Bergen, and later travelling to Sweden with anarcho-syndicalist, Albert Jensen, with whom she lived. Elise worked with radical American author and activist, Upton Sinclair, translating his novels, and wrote for several progressive publications. Adopting the pen-name “Ottar”, for her articles and the column she wrote for the newspaper of the Swedish workers movement, SAC, Elise began to develop an appreciative audience among radical circles, and a name for herself as an expert on women’s rights. Ottar campaigned for and wrote about women’s sexual equality, reproductive rights, and education and in 1923 decided to take her campaign out on the road.
Under Swedish law in the 1920s, it was not only illegal to supply contraception, but to supply information about contraception. Flouting these laws, and observed and criticised by local police and priests everywhere she went, Ottar tirelessly took her message to the women of rural Sweden. In village halls up and down the country, she told women about diaphragms, condoms and pessaries, and helped them to acquire them. She told women about sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect themselves, provided information about newly-developed methods of pregnancy testing, and spoke frankly about issues like marital rape, abortion and homosexuality. Young gay women approached her after her lectures, and she encouraged them to read Radclyffe Hall’s then controversial Well of Loneliness and other lesbian texts. She campaigned for sex education in schools and, in 1933, whe she was delivering over 300 lectures a year, formed the progressive organisation the RFSU.
With the RFSU, which she headed until 1959, Ottar campaigned continually to reverse laws which criminalised abortion and homosexuality and to promote women’s sexual equality and reproductive health worldwide. In 1938, the Swedish laws against supplying contraceptives were finally repealled and, in order to support its work, RFSU began to sell condoms and other contraceptive products, as well as to develop sexual aids, and supply services like pregnancy testing.
It was the products that the RFSU devised to support its educational projects that led me to find out more about Elise Ottesen-Jensen. That’s because in 1973 (the year in which Ottar died) RFSU created a new company – RFSU Rehab – whose aim was to develop adaptive aids to transform the lives of disabled people. RFSU Rehab created innovative wheelchairs and transfer devices, and the profits from these life-changing products went back to promoting the organisation’s now global work in sexual health and education. RFSU later evolved into a new company – Etac – and in 2010, I encountered one of Etac’s innovative devices when I found myself on a neurology ward, unable to stand or transfer myself independently following my stroke.
(Image reproduced courtesy of Etac, and their wonderful product manager, Kristin Törnkvist)
It is no exaggeration to say that the effect of this turning device on me and my recovery was truly revolutionary. Etac’s important work continues, and though things have changed a lot since the 1970s, RFSU still hold minority shares in the company, and a proportion of profits continue to be used to support the important work which Elise Ottesen Jensen began in the 1920s.