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.

Thankyou, Ottar.

42 thoughts on “Ottar

  1. n this time of political turmoil, it is important to continue to find sources of inspiration, especially for women’s health. As always, Kate, I learn something when reading your blog. Thank you again.

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  2. Thank you for sharing the story of this truly remarkable woman! And what a lovely tribute you have given her. Sadly in the States she is little known.
    Julie

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  3. What an amazing heroine and inspiration Elise Ottesen-Jensen was for all of us. Thank you for introducing her to me. I always learn a lot from your most interesting writings and I thank you very much for all you are giving. I promise to share this info. with many.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this, Kate. I wasn’t aware of her at all before but feel utterly inspired by her work and attitude. What a remarkable woman. Anna x

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  5. Thank you for spreading the word about Elise Ottesen-Jensen! She was a truly remarkable woman. Being a Swede, I’m proud of her and what she accomplished.

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  6. I found this fascinating…I trained as a physio in the 70’s and so the thought of having a stroke has played on my mind!! So good to read about the standing device:-)

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  7. Thank you for sharing this fascinating story. I ‘ve never heard about Ottar and Etac. Your blog was so interesting.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this. It is amazing to find out about someone as courageous and inventive as Ottar. It is sad that we don’t know more about people like her, but with people like you bringing these stories to light, we learn. We learn that there is so much more wondrous and good in this mean and selfish (guess which country I’m from )-:) world. So much more good and caring and wondrous than we can imagine. Thank you for the reminder

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  9. One of my favorite thing about your blogs is that we learn about so many amazing things. I have never heard of Ottar and her important work but am so very glad that now I have! Thank you once again for the enlightenment your sharing brings, Kate,

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  10. I was very interested to read about Ottar and wish she had led the campaign for women’s reproductive rights in America during the 1920’s instead of Margaret Sanger, who was doing similar things at the same time. However, Sanger, who established what is now Planned Parenthood, the main abortion provider in America, had another agenda. Using the principles of racism and eugenics, Sanger’s purpose was to reduce the population of the poor, disabled and minority women with abortion and forced sterilization programs. It was a sad time for women in those days, but Sanger’s policies caused many of the problems Americans still deal with today.

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    1. Totally fascinating, Kathy. I feel like I should know that and a bit ashamed that I don’t. Can you recommend some reading? Thanks!

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      1. I really don’t have any books to recommend. I suggest you just do an Amazon or Internet search on Sanger’s life, but do make sure to read both sides. Sanger is both venerated by pro-choice factions and criticized by the pro-life side who feel she had racist motives because her clinics were set up in poor minority neighborhoods.

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  11. Loved article on Ottar. My sister and husband are in Scotland right now. I knit her the Owligan and she’s enjoying it as it’s a perfect weight for your weather.

    Doris Fishman

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  12. Wow, just wow! This piece takes my breath away — stupendous. I am so pleased to learn of Ottar and her work — she gives me hope in a very confusing and hazardous time. Thanks so much for your research, Kate.

    Liz in Port Townsend, Washington, US

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  13. As a neurophysio I use Etac turners with patients regularly. Thank you so much for the fascinating background information. It will be a great discussion topic with patients who may be interested.

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  14. What an amazing woman! We should all be inspired by the likes of her, to stand up for what we believe is right. Thanks for sharing her story and I can’t wait to read your book!

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  15. This was a pleasure to read, and I’m happy to learn about her. What an awesome woman. The fact that you’ve intersected with her history via your stroke seems so right. Thanks for this.

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  16. I read this with tears in my eyes. I´m swedish and of course I know about Ottar, but I realzed that I didn´t know very much about her background and her great importance. So very interesting too to read about your experience of products from Etac. I´m an occupational therapist and often provide patients with technical aids like the one in your picture. Great to hear how much that could mean to a person! Thank you!

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  17. Ottar’s face “lights up” even in the photographs. What a real pleasure to read about her. Thank you for bringing her to us.

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  18. What a wonderful story, what a fabulous person. I am half Norwegian (but have never lived in Norway) and had never heard of her before. My grandfather, who was about her age, maybe a little younger, was one of 14 (13 surviving) children. I have a photo of them all with their parents. We have always considered this extraordinary, but it would seem it was maybe more current than we thought.

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  19. What an amazing woman and how brave she was – or maybe not brave but doing what she knew was right – and that is easier than ignoring or doing the wrong thing – something which human beings have a choice about but often forget that we do ! Thank you for the words!

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    1. Regarding shedhouseblog’s comment … I think you mean it was harder to be brave and do what she knew was right – not easier. It’s not easier when you’re going up against what people then considered (and some still do) the “normalcy” of patriarchy.

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  20. Yet another wonderful woman to celebrate. Thank you for continuing to share the fascinating things your research is uncovering.

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