Nina Bang was Denmark’s first woman cabinet minister and one of the most prominent female political pioneers of the 20th century. She was a Marxist and ardent Social Democrat, but she had an ambivalent attitude to women’s issues, and she was no feminist. She was the seventh of nine children and grew up in a conventional Conservative middle-class family of modest means.
Her parents were German immigrants and her father made his living as a bugler/horn player in the army. In 1868 he was appointed conductor of a military band and the family moved to Helsingør. Even as a child Nina Bang had strong political opinions – she later recalled that her father often called her “the red”. Despite meagre resources and their mother’s early death, all the children attended private school and several of Nina Bang’s sisters became teachers. One of her brothers was H.O.G. Ellinger, professor and Conservative politician.
One of the few women at university
Nina Bang was one of the few women at the time to receive an academic education. Having been taught by private tutors in Hillerød and Helsingør, she sat her upper school leaving examination in 1889 at the University of Copenhagen (as an independent examinee). She was one of only eight women out of 314 students to pass the examination and later that year she began reading history at the university.
She moved to Frederiksberg, a suburb of Copenhagen, and financed her studies by teaching at Schneekloth’s Grammar and Modern School and Laura Engelhardt’s School. At the history department of the university she met Gustav Bang, a clergyman’s son five years her junior, and thus started a lifelong love affair and a close working partnership. In 1892 they published a history of Denmark for school children, Lærebog i Danmarks Historie [Textbook of Danish History], written from a historical materialist perspective.
Through her studies of Karl Marx’s writings and her collaborative work with Gustav B, by the mid-1890s NB had acquired a Marxist view of society. The couple married in 1895 and both joined the Social Democratic party, which was an unusual step for academics at the time. Although they both came from Conservative backgrounds, Gustav and Nina Bang saw Marxist philosophy as the guiding principle of their political work.
History and statistics
Nina Bang completed her history studies in 1894, gaining the equivalent of a Masters degree. She had specialised in 16th-centry trade, and her research had given access to the Danish National Archives’ extensive source material relating to tolls paid by ships passing through the Øresund [the Sound between Denmark and Sweden, ed.]. She thought that this material revealed an important historical perspective on Great Britain, the Netherlands and the Baltic powers. In accordance with her Marxist view of history, she could also use the Sound toll ledgers to explain how the economy was the cornerstone of societal development.
Analysis of the Sound toll accounts was a major project which took up much of her time, and she worked on it alongside all her other activities, only taking a break during her tenure as government minister. Her objective was to set out a statistical trade analysis of international scholarly quality, as she considered statistics to be an essential factor in objective and precise historical narrative. She later became a diligent advocate of statistics to support arguments in political matters.
The first volume of Tabeller over Skibsfart og Varetransport gennem Øresund [Tables of Shipping and Transport of Goods through the Sound] was published in 1906. In 1911-12, via Professor Schäfer in Berlin, she applied to a number of state, city and trade organisations for contributions to a fund that would safeguard the continuation of the project. This fund-raising proved successful, and in 1922 the second volume was published. The project produced seven volumes in all, but Nina Bang was only personally responsible for the first two. After her death, publication was continued by the economist Knud Korst and the project was brought to a close in the 1950s.
Class issues more pressing than women's issues
In 1898 Nina Bang got a job as a journalist on Social-Demokraten [The Social Democrat newspaper]. During her first years there she mainly wrote about the conditions of working men and women under the capitalist system. She later concentrated more on issues to do with the political aspects of trade – speculation, for example – and with foreign policy, particularly in relation to the First World War.
Besides her work on the newspaper, she wrote extensively for other publications. For example: she translated Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital in 1900; in 1915 she collaborated with Emil Wiinblad, the dynamic editor of Social Democrat, on Arbejderklassens Liv og dens Kamp [Life and Struggles of the Working Class], a selection of articles by Gustav B who had died earlier that year; in 1918 she wrote a biography of Karl Marx; she regularly contributed articles to a variety of journals. In addition to all this, she undertook many speaking engagements.
During the early years of her career, Nina Bang concentrated primarily on matters relating to the conditions of female workers and she thereby contributed to evolving the Social Democrats’ policy as regards women. However, she made no secret of the fact that she considered the class issue to be of paramount importance and thus more pressing than women’s issues per se.
She saw the specific predicament of women as an element of the general political struggle, as many women belonged to the underprivileged sections of society. On those grounds she was also an opponent of independent women’s factions – within the Social Democratic party, for example.
No time for ladies of the bourgeoisie
She worked to strengthen women’s trade unions and attached great importance to women being unionised both in the labour market and politically. She also supported women’s campaign for the vote and, once it had been achieved, she energetically encouraged women to make use of it. She vigorously disassociated herself from the middle-class women’s movement, which she thought neither could nor would benefit working-class women, and she raised objections to those “ladies of the bourgeoisie” who called their programme the “women’s cause”, as it did not speak on behalf of all women.
She also found it problematic that some aspects of demands made by the women’s movement obscured class issues. For example, in demanding the same right to education as men, the middle-class women’s movement was, according to Nina Bang, ignoring the fact that not all men had this right either.
However, based on the conditions endured by working-class women, she set out central demands to improve women’s situation generally. She considered paid employment to be an inevitable consequence of progress, and was of the opinion that women ought to take up paid work in order to ensure the economic independence that was a prerequisite of happy married life. She did not, however, think that paid employment for women was unproblematic and she made a clear distinction between the situation of women and that of men. Women, unlike men, did not have fixed working hours – after their day of waged labour, the housework would be waiting for them.
No nightshifts for women
In Nina Bang’s view this double work load situation had consequences both for women’s personal freedom and for the wellbeing of the whole family. She took the view that a husband and wife should have no other duties than to love one another, be faithful and be good parents to their children. She supported maternity leave, but at the same time thought that a number of practical duties in the home could be collectivised by, for example, setting up communal canteens, laundries and kindergartens.
As to the question of outlawing nightshifts for women – one of the most controversial women’s issues of the day – she was in very visible and firm opposition to Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) and sections of the women’s trade-union movement, including Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund (Women Workers’ Union) and particularly Henriette Crone, general secretary of De kvindelige Trykkeriarbejderes Fagforening (The Women Printworkers’ Union).
Opponents of the ban maintained that it would put women at a disadvantage in the labour market, and representatives of the women’s trade-union movement in particular feared that in some trades women would be driven out by the men. They also thought that, if a ban was introduced, it should apply to women and men alike.
On this issue Nina Bang was in complete agreement with the Social Democratic party line and also her female Social Democrat colleague in parliament, Helga Larsen. The government should safeguard women against the extra exploitation of night work, because physically and socially women were weaker than men. Nina Bang also saw a ban on nightshifts as a means to restore a rational division of labour between the sexes.
Nina Bang’s actual political career started in 1903 when she became a member of the Social Democrats’ executive committee – the only woman on the committee until 1918, when she was joined by Marie Nielsen [who was she???]. Only three women had been members of the committee before Nina Bang – Jaquette Liljencrantz, Signe Andersen and Nelly Hansen – and only for brief periods.
Nina Bang was a member of the municipal council 1913-17, where she participated in processing a number of key social and economic issues such as housing conditions and the exodus of taxpayers. In this period she was also an active participant in congresses of the Second International, and during the First World War she worked zealously to set up a socialist peace conference, which was held in Stockholm in 1917.
She periodically deputised for the leader of the Social Democrats, Thorvald Stauning. In the 1918 parliamentary elections – the first in which women could participate, following the change to the Constitution in 1915 – NB was elected to the second chamber, Landsting; she was re-elected in 1920 and again in 1924. She was full of optimism as she threw herself into parliamentary work, determined to campaign for improvement in the conditions of the worst-off members of the community.
Nina Bang was on the Finance Committee and was party spokesperson in financial areas such as banking legislation and company law; 1922-24, she was a member of the committee dealing with custom duties; she was also party spokesperson in matters pertaining to improved conditions for women and children; and she was an active participant in debates covering a broad spectrum of political issues. She travelled abroad on many occasions as party representative and was, for example, part of the Social Democrats’ delegation to the international socialist conference held in Geneva in 1920, where she worked energetically to re-establish a Social Democratic International. Her activities vis-à-vis international issues made an impression on party colleagues abroad, and she built up a wide-ranging network providing her with access to leading international socialists.
The world's first female cabinet minister
When the first Social Democratic government was formed in 1924, Nina Bang was appointed Minister of Education – the world’s first female cabinet minister. Her primary goals were to democratise the school system and improve teacher training. She introduced a number of bills, based on the findings of the major schools commission of 1919, relating to the management and inspection of the folkeskole (primary and lower secondary school), designed to make the school “Folkets Skole” (“the people’s school”), and relating to the improvement of teacher training, designed to make teachers better equipped to teach socially-related subjects and languages.
The only proposal to be carried, however, was a change in the law pertaining to the statutory delivery of newspapers to national archives. Furthermore, she instigated a circular to the teacher-training colleges directing teachers to give lessons in sexual hygiene, so as to provide the pupils with instructive guidance. Her first ministerial measure, however, was a crackdown on the management of the Royal Danish Theatre, reducing the number of executive directors from six to one and appointing a new administrative director.
In so doing she demonstrated that the newly-appointed woman minister had a determined hands-on approach. Shortly afterwards she named her party colleague, the educationalist and atheist Vilhelm Rasmussen, principal of Danmarks Lærerhøjskole (Danish College of Education), a move which was greeted with great indignation. She became even more embroiled in controversy on the occasion of a performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Royal Danish Theatre’s new building in 1924, with the King in attendance, when not only did she ban the playing of the overture to Elverhøj (Elves’ Hill, a festive royal tribute of 1828 by Johan Ludvig Heiberg) and the national song Kong Christian (King Christian), but then, as a staunch republican, she refused to stand when a group of Conservative students started singing the song anyway.
This incident illustrates the uncompromising attitude and fighting spirit that characterised her political activities and which led to her being called either “Our Lady of Denmark” or “the only man in the cabinet”. Both as a socialist and a woman minister she was particularly vulnerable, and she was indeed vigorously criticised by Liberal politicians and the bourgeois press. References to her were often of an ironic nature and she was one of the most frequently caricatured public figures in the country.
An inspiration for the coming generation
During her last period as cabinet minister Nina Bang was incapacitated by illness. After the general election of 1926 she continued as a member of the upper chamber, but her presence at Christiansborg (the parliament) was severely restricted. She dies in 1928 at the age of 61. She was extremely industrious, both in her academic and political activities, and there can be no doubt but that she exerted a major influence on the Social Democratic party at a time when it was developing into the nation’s leading political force.
She campaigned tirelessly for her convictions and belief in socialist policies. She worked vigorously throughout her adult life to improve the conditions of the working class and, not least, women workers. More than 20 years were to pass before the next woman minister, Fanny Jensen, was appointed in 1947. Nina Bang has been of great symbolic significance to the female politicians who have succeeded her.
Even though she was not in favour of women-only groupings within the party, her name was still used for one of the Social Democratic women’s groups of the 1970s. In 1999, on the 75th anniversary of Nina Bang’s selection as the first woman cabinet minister, Nina Bang-Prisen (the Nina Bang Award) was instituted, to be presented annually to a young up-and-coming woman politician.