Bodil Begtrup (1903-1987) worked on the international arena and blazed the trail for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was also an avid campaigner for the rights of women and children'
By Pernille Lind Olsen
The major part of Bodil Begtrup’s career took place in the international arena. With the fundamental purpose of serving the interests of women and children, her enterprising and conscientious approach gave international work a humane and female face.
Begtrup develops a taste for international work
She passed her upper secondary school leaving examination at Aalborg Cathedral School in 1921 – the only girl in a class of science students. That same year she began studying Art History at the University of Copenhagen, but quickly changed to the male-dominated Political Science course in order to combine her two main interests: social policy and international law.
In 1926 she went to Geneva, representing Studenternes Folkeforbunds Union (Students’ International Union, League of Nations), and in the Danish delegation she met the president of Dansk Kvinders Nationalråd (DKN, Danish National Council of Women), Henni Forchhammer. Her stay in Geneva thus also proved to be her introduction to women’s politics; upon her return home Bodil Begtrup became Forchhammer’s secretary.
In 1929 she both graduated in Political Science and married a widower, Erik Worm Begtrup, becoming stepmother to four children. Of these children, Birgit Begtrup followed her into women’s political activities, while Lena (m. Vedel-Petersen) was to have a major influence on Danish social policy. Bodil Begtrup and Erik Worm Begtrup had a daughter who was born with a heart defect and died shortly after the couple’s marriage was dissolved in 1936.
A champion of single mothers and their children
ambassador, politically active in women’s issues
Born: *12.11.1903 in Nyborg, †12.12.1987 in Copenhagen
Parents: Christian Adolph Andreasen (1867-1941), judge; Carla Sigrid Locher (1876-1938), teacher.
Married: 21.2.1929 (registry office) to Erik Worm B., doctor *2.1.1888 in Askov, borough of Malt, †13.7.1976 in borough of Vedbæk, son of folk high school principal Holger Christian B. and Johanne Lange. Marriage dissolved 1936.
Second Marriage: ~14.5.1948 to Laurits Bolt Bolt-Jørgensen, diplomatic representative *6.3.1882 in Roskilde, †6.1.1967 in Bern, Switzerland, son of Harald Jørgen Jørgensen, city engineer, and Bertha Christine Jørgensen.
Children: Marianne (1931).
The resources available to Mødrehjælpen continued, however, to be modest and the funding of, for example, babies’ clothing was still dependent on private means. In 1940, therefore, the association known as Vore Smaabørns Beklædning (Clothing for our Infants) was established, with BB as acting president. Clothing for babies and young children was collected under the motto “No child should freeze next winter”.
Bodil Begtrup was also concerned about children’s diet and in 1935 she was a co-founder of DKN’s committee Vore Børns Sundhed (Our Children’s Health), which distributed information about child nutrition and laid the foundations of the health visitor scheme. This committee also supported the system of school doctors and school nurses.
Save the Children
At the end of the Second World War, four women’s associations – DKN, Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund (Women Workers’ Union), Dansk Kvinders Beredskab (Danish Women’s Civil Protection League) and Danske Kvinders Samfundstjeneste (Danish Women’s Community Service) – set up a Danish branch of Save the Children Fund. This was carried out at the request of the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Social Affairs, H.H. Koch. Save the Children Fund provided emergency relief supplies and placement in homes and camps for the children of a Europe devastated by war.
Bodil Begtrup took part in this work and she was particularly involved in consignments of aid sent to children in Hungary. In 1947 DKN instigated the setting up of Dansk Husmødres Forbrugerråd (Danish Housewives’ Consumer Council), later Forbrugerrådet (Danish Consumer Council); Bodil Begtrup was president for the first two years.
For a number of years DKN had argued that one of Denmark’s three film censors should be a woman; in 1939 Bodil Begtrup was appointed the first woman film censor. She conscientiously fulfilled this role, which she considered to be a key element in social education, until 1948. She was particularly concerned about the influence of film on children; in 1947 she published the book Børn og Film [Children and Film].
Playing a key role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1938 Bodil Begtrup had taken over Henni Forchhammer’s place in the Danish delegation to the League of Nations, where she remained until the outbreak of the Second World War. After the war she was selected as an advisory member of the Danish delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. She was women’s representative in the delegation until 1952 and, from the very outset, she made sure that Danish women were kept informed, via DKN, of work undertaken by the UN. During negotiations regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bodil Begtrup was vice-chair of the committee that spent 85 meetings steering the passage of the text to adoption as a declaration in 1948. She had won this key role having been selected in 1946 as member and thereafter chair of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Thanks to the considerable efforts of Bodil Begtrup and others, this rapidly became an independent authority rather than a sub-group of the human rights commission. Bodil Begtrup was chair until 1948; she has described the assignment as being one of the most significant of her career. Among other initiatives, she was the originator of the Danish delegation’s proposal that UN member nations should be compelled to grant women the same political rights as men. This had the additional outcome that she secured, via the Danish prime minister Knud Kristensen, the final push towards equal voting rights for women in Greenland, which were introduced in 1948.
Denmark's first female ambassador
In 1949 Bodil Begtrup was appointed senior diplomatic envoy and authorised minister in Iceland, thereby becoming Denmark’s first woman ambassador. Her selection was not only unusual because of her sex, but because she was not part of the usual Foreign Office promotion ladder.
The job had originally been offered to her husband, Laurits Bolt Bolt-Jørgensen, who had been senior diplomatic envoy in several East European countries. But on the grounds that he would reach retirement age in three years time, he suggested Bodil Begtrup for the post – and thus her career would not be interrupted in favour of his. However, her selection should also be seen in the light of post-war pressure from women’s organisations for the appointment of women to top positions, and in 1953 Bodil Begtrup was joined by Agnete Vøhtz as first permanent secretary and Bodil Dybdal as first Supreme Court judge.
When Bodil Begtrup took up her post, relations between Denmark and Iceland were sensitive due to Iceland’s 1944 unilateral declaration of independence from Denmark. With her genuine interest in Iceland, along with a good portion of creativity and initiative, Bodil Begtrup helped to forge an equal relationship between the two countries. Her work there was symbolically rounded off when King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid visited the independent Republic of Iceland in 1956. Bodil Begtrup also worked in the service of women’s causes in Iceland, setting up Den Danske Kvindeforening (Danish Women’s Association) for Danish women with Icelandic husbands. There were many such couples immediately after the war as Icelandic students in Denmark had been unable to return home during hostilities and had therefore often married or become engaged to Danish women.
Pursuing a diplomatic career
After her return to Denmark, Bodil Begtrup continued her career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; in the period 1956-59 she was permanent undersecretary as well as Denmark’s permanent representative at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. She then took up the post of Danish ambassador to Switzerland, 1959-68, and subsequently to Portugal, 1968-73. The post in Switzerland had particular symbolic resonance as, at the time, Swiss women had yet to be granted voting rights to the Federal Assembly. In 1967 she was joined by her first female ambassadorial colleague when Nonny Wright was appointed Danish ambassador to Ghana. Back home in Denmark again, Bodil Begtrup took part in, among other initiatives, preparations for the UN international women’s conferences in 1975, 1980 and 1985.
Despite her career in the international arena, Bodil Begtrup always considered DKN to be her home port; indeed, she was an ambassador for women when representing Denmark on the world stage. She said that she had never considered herself to be a pioneer, but simply did what she found stimulating and natural. She received much acclaim for her work: in 1949 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Smith College, Massachusetts; in 1951 she was one of the first women to be conferred the Order of the Dannebrog: in 1955 the First Order, in 1962 Commander and in 1973 Commander First Degree. Bodil Begtrup was also awarded a number of foreign honours, including the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. Her memoirs Kvinde i et verdenssamfund [Woman in an International Community] were published in 1986.
Pernille Lind Olsen