- Crusader for Sex Education: Elise Ottesen-Jensen (1886–1973) in Scandinavia and on the International Scene
Elise Ottesen-Jensen, née Ottesen, was a seminal figure in sex education and sex reform. Born in Norway, one of fourteen children, most of whom died in infancy, her experiences as a child living under difficult conditions undoubtedly help explain her dedication to the poor and the down and out in her later life. As a teenager she became affiliated with the labor movement, and this became the real source of her education. It was through lectures sponsored for working men (and their wives) that she became convinced of the importance of bettering the condition of women. It was also through her labor connections that she acquired her platform expertise and her entry into journalism. Increasingly, she came to believe that the key to bettering women’s condition was better sex education and greater availability of contraceptives and abortion.
She made her real reputation in Sweden, where she eventually settled with her lover, Albert Jensen, whom she later married and who had been deported from Norway during World War I. She traveled up and down and across Sweden, hitting almost every rural hamlet, carrying her message of sex education, fitting women with diaphragms, disseminating tracts she had written, and in the process becoming admired and loved by increasing numbers of people. She broadened her horizon through her attendance at the 1928 Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform (originally organized by Magnus Hirschfeld), held in Copenhagen. With contacts made there she began to appear on the international scene, and after the destruction of World War II, these contacts allowed her to convene a conference in Stockholm in 1946 out of which came the International Committee on Planned Parenthood. The American Margaret Sanger served as the first president of the Committee, but Ottesen-Jensen was the second—and she used her presidency to make it a worldwide organization. Although she was nominated for the Nobel Prize, the subject of sex education proved too controversial to recognize (Sanger had been nominated several years before her). Posthumously, honors have continued to come to her, including a stamp issued by the Swedish government, study circles named after her, and a public statue of her.
Linder regards her book as the definitive biography, supplementing Ottesen-Jensen’s autobiography. It is a detailed year-by-year account of what was taking place in Ottesen-Jensen’s life, and is heavily based on primary sources. However, it fails to convey the grandeur and drama of the life of a remarkable woman.