The State of Feminism in the State of Denmark

Many British feminists have watched Danish Sunday night drama serials and decided that Denmark is the place for them.

Lund goes around fighting crime in flat shoes and thick knitwear, she never says “Ooooh, I shouldn’t,” in response to being offered a biscuit, men never repeat her jokes to greater laughter. Nyborg is prime minister of an entire country and no one says “Are you sure that is your colour?”, she never turns to her female colleagues and calls them ‘good’ for riding their bike.

The thing to bear in mind about these shows are they are fiction, British feminists. You already knew that. I am not trying to she-mansplain or anything. But they really are fiction. They are a cross between aspirational fiction and the sort of fiction we tell about the way things are right now that is coloured by our delusions. West Wing is a good example of that genre of fiction. What the fans back home would love to be true and almost is.

Lund is a cautionary tale. Meyer’s kids do not hate him for being a policeman at the top of the first season. Lund’s kid sort of does. Meyer’s wife is very much in love with him until the bitter end. Lund’s boyfriend chucks her in.

But let’s talk Borgen. When the first season of Borgen came out the prime minister was a guy called Lars Løkke Rasmussen. This is a video of him disgracing himself at the Conference of Parties December 2009 for climate change. (Connie Hedegaard (a lady), had been running ting in a very efficient and admirable way. He replaced her half way through the conference to everyone’s shock and dismay. And he did not know what he was doing.)  

This is a picture of his cabinet before the election.

Is yours a white person?
Is yours a white person?

Seven ladies and eleven chaps. Today it stands at 11 ladies, 12 chaps. So maybe aspiration works? What you need to know is that this has been a bit controversial.

Some Danish people will talk about how men are just naturally better at being in power and taking decisions and that having a gender balance just for shits and giggles can be harmful because you won’t get the right person for the job if you employ someone just so you have an equal number of men and women on board. (As opposed to the situation where only men are appointed just because. Obviously, the best person for the position is secured in that model*)

The current prime minister is a woman. Her name is Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Her father in law is Neil Kinnock, no joke. What you need to know about Helle is that there is a dirty tricks campaign to oust her from power. The campaign is working, she will not last long. The rumour is that she and her husband have been cheating on their taxes. This is because her husband works abroad and does not pay tax in Denmark (or only some tax in Denmark or something like that, not clear on the details. The rumours say they are liable to pay more tax, anyway) He was smeared in the press recently for being a gay. The rumour is that he is a gay, she is a beard and they have a marriage of convenience so he can look straight and she can look loveable. These rumours look like they will work and she will lose power.

Meanwhile, the rumours about Lars Løkke, that he is a drunk, never came to anything. Where, to my mind, having a drunk as a prime minister is hundreds of times worse than being a beard to a tax dodger. And these bloody rumours are probably not even true. In my opinion, Løkke was a crap prime minister, he staggered from incompetent situation to mismanaged scandal for several years. Thorning-Schmidt is doing a swell job, nothing special or amazing but still nothing terrible. She is someone I would not have a problem having a cup of tea with. She seems quite nice, in a way Løkke never did. (I don’t agree with either of their politics)

The guy before Løkke, Anders Føgh Rasmussen, his rumours were about cross dressing and rightly that was not a scandal because it does not matter at all. Completely inconsequential. But being married to a gay apparently is across the line? How are they even different accusations?

And the guy before him, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen just admitted to doping on cycling races.* Is anything sacred?

Let’s forget about politics for a minute and turn to day-to-day life for women. If you are a teenaged girl, you are likely to be called a “luder” (whore), at some point. That is the go-to cuss for girls. The go-to cuss for boys is “røvhul” (asshole) Girls have a lot of pressure on them to be smart and also hot. If they are too hot, they get called sluts. If you are a little girl, you will be encouraged to be pink obsessed. Barbies, make up dolls, pink toys, princess dresses… It is the same shit you get back in the UK.

Sexual violence is pretty high here, prosecutions low, punishments weak and Amnesty Goddamned International has criticised Denmark for its poor treatment of sex crime victims.

Prostitution is legal, pimping is illegal but unlike the Norwegians (and I think the Swedes??), being a john is legal. This means there are a lot of abused, trafficked, exploited sex workers out there. In Norway, where it is not illegal to sell sex but it is illegal to buy sex, serious violent crime has gone down. In Denmark, it is still a problem. The Danish police did an advertising campaign to warn johns that there was a high chance that the prostitute they were visiting was trafficked and the employment of prostitutes went up. Because that’s the point of employing a sex worker for the majority who do that sort of thing.

The age of consent is 15 and there is no protection for girls of that age with “boyfriends” in their late 30s. (nor the rarer converse)

Domestic violence is quite common. (though, I am not sure how it compares with other similar countries)


Daycare is well funded by taxes. Daycare workers are well trained, well respected and reasonably well paid. And yet, being a Stay At Home mum or dad is frowned upon. The vast majority of people put their infants in daycare. Even if they are not employed. It is difficult practically to be a stay at home parent because no one else is doing it, so you do not get any adult company. Health care visitors, mother in laws and busybodies will tell you that you are doing it wrong.

Now, if you want to work after having children, all the more power to your elbow, you go girl (etc etc). But if you do not, how is it a “choice” to have to because everyone else does? This goes equally for men as it does women.

Childcare is undervalued, paid work is the only thing that is respected.

Meanwhile, and hardly anyone talks about this, meanwhile the daycare centres are understaffed, the childminders are depressed and children become neglected emotionally. Intimacy is not encouraged. I have heard Danish people remark that it is good for their infant to be brought up by someone that does not love them.

You see, women’s rights haven’t won this battle. Mothering is still despised, is still regarded as shameful. They just obliterated the role. Everyone is a “dad” now. As in a 1950s, behind his newspaper, gets you a bag of sweets at the weekend because he didn’t get to see you all week, sort of dad. If women’s rights had “won”, you would see a lot more part time work for both genders or government stipends for staying home.

Childcare is seen as something that needs to be done in large batches so that everyone can pay full tax. And not an important part of society that is critical to get right. Why else are there such high child-staff ratios in institutions? Why are two year old left to get attacked by four year olds by these well qualified, well respected, reasonably well paid experts? It’s a “women’s” issue, that’s why. Anyone can do it! You can raise six infants simultaneously no problems because it is easy. You don’t need that many daycare workers, for heaven’s sakes. Women’s work is just as undervalued as it is in Britain, it has just been outsourced as the solution, rather than its profile being deliberately raised.

Why else is the reality show Young Mothers not called Young Parents?

Women are not afforded full rights to religious expression. If they wear hijab, they are not allowed to work in certain shops, be spokespeople, have jobs other than cleaner. And then the Danes have the balls the wall brass necks to claim that these women cannot work because they are downtrodden by “their” men.



Let’s talk about the positive for a bloody change.

On the positive side, casual sexual harassment is low. I have been catcalled twice in the four years I have been here. Compare/contrast with the four times a week back home. I am not required to appear feminine. I can wear what I want without any comment. I rarely put on makeup and that is fine because no one else seems to either. I can wear flat shoes, no problems. The opposite can be a problem, if you wear revealing clothes and high heels, people will talk about you behind your back and say you work as a prostitute. That is interesting, isn’t it!

My body is not public property, no one tells me what to eat or that I am “good” for the amount of exercise I do.

Compliments are rare but always heartfelt.

Work life balance is pretty good. People finish work earlier in Denmark than elsewhere in Europe. Presenteeism is not a thing. People do their job and go home. Holidays are plentiful and well respected. So, it is a pretty good quality of life. If you do not want to be a stay-at-home mother or are thinking about you and your partner going part-time after the kids. Or if you do not want children at all.

As long as you don’t get raped or trafficked, your life as a woman in Denmark can be pretty good*. BUT. This only goes for Danish women.

If you are a foreign woman, all bets are off. I have been readily patronised and dismissed out of hand just because I speak Danish with an accent. I dread to think what will become of me if I have children here. If I had to deal with the borough, maybe because I needed support during unemployment or because I had a baby, I might find that I get a completely different experience than a Danish woman. As my friends have.

Bear in mind, British feminists dreaming of Denmark, I have been here for nearly five years. I have started to think like a Dane. At work, I am almost constantly on the brink of saying “Yes but here in Denmark we do it like this.”* I have got used to living a certain way. A man tried to get past me in a shop by saying something to me and I completely ignored him because I did not realise he was talking to me, I thought he was on his phone (In Denmark, you sort of push past or get really close until the person moves, it’s not “rude” as such here). When I go back to the UK, I find it incredibly hard to make small talk. I am starting to think of Denmark as home. I care about my town and making it better.

And yet. For every four people who are fine with me thinking like a Dane, one person will come and give me a metaphorical Cleveland Steamer for having the temerity of being permanently foreign in Denmark. I am never going to be accepted. I could do, as others before me have done, the whole “get fluent” thing but I will never be accepted in the way my friends in the UK from other countries were accepted. I will always be marked by my origins. People will always ask me where I am from, even if I live here for decades more than I have lived in the UK.

If you go to Danish class, you will find that women are encouraged into SOSU (like a care worker position but with none of the prestige) and men are encouraged to become manual workers. It is not me being paranoid, it’s the stated aim of Danish integration politics. Get immigrant women into careworker support roles. Immigrant men are filtered into other roles. It doesn’t matter what your specialism was back in the old country or where your natural talents lie. You are a pigeon and you must fill a hole.

My first Danish textbook was about Familien Jensen and their day-to-day lives. You will NEVER GUESS who out of Lise and Jan did the housework and cooking. Even though both of them have jobs and work the same hours. One of the government videos you may be forced to view as part of your integration process informs you that “feminism is completely irrelevant” in Denmark today!

Even if women’s rights had won here in Socialist Paradise Denmark, which they haven’t, you will find you are not considered a full woman with the same rights as the real women who live here. You will still be a second class citizen but because you are foreign, not because you are a woman. I am really not sure if that is any better.

(Unless you are rich, then you can do what you want. (But that is true in Britain too.))

I hear it is better in Sweden.*

*This is a use of “Danish humour”, I hope you enjoyed it.

22 thoughts on “The State of Feminism in the State of Denmark

  1. Especially when you’re Asian women. They think you’re stupid and have no education hence have to be patronized (read: told) what to do.

    Remember when I had lunch with my colleague from Aarhus, one of them (fifty-ish, married to a Thai) asked me how old my husband was. He would never ask that to a Danish female ever. Why? Because Asian women tend to marry old white fart. Well, not my problem if you have only met Asian women that way, dear colleague! GRRR.


  2. As for the prostitution debate (and knowing that it’s a controversial subject here) it might be an idea to ask the women who have decided to work as sex workers what they think.

    They normally do not think prostitution should be illegal or criminalized:

    (The article is in Swedish, but you should be able to read it.)
    To wit, the Swedish prohibition has meant that prostitution is far more marginalized, and as a consequence, the remaining sex workers are more often victims of exploitation and aggression.
    The best course against these things (and against trafficking) would be to normalize the profession with some caveats and regulate it strongly. That would make it far easier for the police to crack down on “bad apples” and ensuring that no trafficked women work in any of the legalized venues. This would also be an improvement in the sense that the state has little business interfering in the sexual behaviour of consenting adults. A normalization could erase trafficking and coercion from the equation if well done.


      1. What I know is: violence decreases under Norway’s model. The only violence that goes up is hair pulling and biting. This is violent enough to get the john off but under the threshold where the cops get called.

        I saw Borgen too.

        Obviously, asking sex workers is an important part of deciding how to make that area as safe as possible.

        But sex work is not equivalent to any other sort of work. It is harder, it is more dangerous (in terms of violence and bodily fluids) and even out of the context of slavery, sex acts are coerced (as in, go down on this guy or you won’t have enough money for bills).
        Even high class prostitutes who write books about how fine it is, get the hell out of the industry as soon as they are able.

        If you are not a high class prostitute, you start at the bottom and work your way down.

        What no one said on Borgen was how prostitution is linked to/causes (not sure, it’s a bit chicken/egg), rape culture.

        All women are seen as sex toilets. In our culture, prostitutes MUST exist because men have urges and they must be satisfied or the man will explode into rape. Men *must* be allowed to masturbate into other human beings. Why can’t we change this paradigm? Why do we still have to accept it is just “nature”? If I fall on hard times, why is it an option that I take my clothes off or allow someone to deposit their bodily fluids inside me to make money? Why aren’t I seen as a full human being and above that?

        The problem is, some customers of sex workers are fine but the rest are fucked up rapist scumbags. Having a woman who HAS to do what you say is the kink. They don’t go to the nice bordellos or employ the lasses that come to their hotel. They go to Istedgade and they rape. For as long as that is legal, you are going to have a problem. You’re never going to get 100% of sex workers into a bordello situation, so someone is always going to get legally raped under the Danish model. “But officer, I had NO idea she was trafficked”.

        Meanwhile, in Germany, women on unemployment benefits are told to apply to brothels or lose their benefits. Why not? It’s just the same as any other line of work? What’s the problem? Etc etc.


  3. Etellerandet, you make a lot of valid points, none of which will however be addressed by banning prostitution. A ban will not make prostitution go away (or at least, I’m not aware of any Western country where this has happened), but it will force sex workers into unreasonable labour conditions and increase the likelihood of trafficking. As Linda Kristiansen (a feminist MF for De Radikale) writes in Berlingske,

    “I stedet for at beskytte prostituerede mod udnyttelse, så tvinger kriminalisering af mellemmandsvirksomheden prostituerede til samarbejde med personer, der udnytter dem, da legale forretningsdrivende takker nej til samarbejde med prostituerede pga. risikoen for kriminalisering. Netop fastholdelse af denne kriminalisering er skyld i, at prostituerede blandt andet accepterer at betale ågerpriser for lokaleleje. Vi giver dem jo ikke et alternativ.”

    If sex workers could hire guards and doctors legally and operate more openly (which they can’t in Denmark at the moment), it would also be easier to reach out to those who wish to leave the profession and help them. And the illegal and unsavoury aspects of prostitution, i.e. trafficking and rape, would be isolated, enabling the police to crack down. It’s really about harm reduction, so to speak. The problem with Istedgade is drugs prostitution, i.e. heroin dependency. That could be solved by reaching out to these people socially, securing them a place to live and a steady supply of the drugs they need to get by.

    This is not to say you’re not right when you say that prostitution is very different from other professions. It certainly is. But you could compare it to drugs policy. The “war on drugs” has not been helpful at all, for anyone. A “war on prostitution” would not be helpful at all either, and it would be especially disastrous for those (men and women) who actually work as sex workers. I mean: We need to look at what works, not only on the moral aspect. I contend that if the profession is properly regulated, and the drugs problem is addressed, nobody would have to exploited or raped in the sex profession but would be able to enter it or not enter it by choice.

    However, a continued illegalization (or semi-legalization as is the case in DK) ensures that the exploitation continues.


      1. That’s effectively the same thing, which is why the sex workers’ organization is against such a ban. I haven’t heard of active sex workers¹ who favour such a ban (which would not affect me personally, as I have never employed the services of a sex worker). I believe we should listen to the people affected and what they think.

        ¹Here I speak of active, voluntary sex workers, of course. Trafficked women is a different issue, but it’s already illegal to be the john of a trafficked woman.


  4. Apparently, it isn’t working very well in Norway:

    “Efter at Norge har kriminaliseret sexkøb, er forholdene for de prostituerede blevet væsentligt værre, mens der ikke er nogen dokumentation for, at omfanget af prostitution er faldet. Sexarbejdet er blot gået under jorden og de udsatte har fået endnu større problemer.

    Det norske Pro-Sentret vurderer i 2010 omfanget af købesex til at være uændret, og i 2012 lyder det, at antallet af gadepiger, ikke mindst migranter, er steget med 70 procent siden forbuddet. Samtidig rapporteres der om meget slemme trafficking-hændelser, og der stilles spørgsmålstegn ved loven fra mange sider. Læs dokumentation nedenfor.

    Der bruges massive politiressourcer, som ved at jage de prostituerede og afsløre deres kunder, skal sørge for at mindske synligheden af sexarbejde i de store norske byer, selvom det ikke ser ud til at have den store effekt. De fleste af de gadeprostituerede ser ud til at være udlændinge. Mange rapporter tyder på, at indendørsprostitutionen stiger.”


      1. Indeed. Apart from this point, where we obviously disagree, you’re only too right about the state of feminism in Denmark. During the previous government, I think our “ligestillingsminister” stated that men and women in DK are now equal, we only need to stimulate the immigrants to move out of their antiquated way of living.

        In the meantime, her own government was blocking all initiatives towards real equality, and the wage gap is as big as ever, or at least as in the last several decades. There’s a long way to go, and DK is no ideal.


  5. As a London-based male with female expat friends living in Denmark, I must say this piece very much echoes their thoughts on the myths of equality (both gender and racial) created by the Danish and consumed and believed by us here in Britain (and presumably elsewhere too). I wish that a decent newspaper like the Guardian would publish a piece like this to provide just a little bit of balance for all the utopian mythology that seems to emanate from that country.

    Having said that, however, I still believe the various Danish TV dramas that have made it onto UK screens are to be admired for all kinds of excellent qualities that are too rarely found in British cop or political dramas. They may be fictitious but the fiction presents the viewer with strong, complex, believable female characters of a kind not encountered enough in British productions.

    The most irritating thing to me about the way these dramas have been received in the UK is the insistence by the British press on making such a big deal out of Sarah Lund’s knitwear. Too many journalists here have chosen to characterise successive series of The Killing as the adventures of a knitted sweater inside which there happens to be a female detective.


    1. I pitched an article to them. They were unmoved.

      I really enjoy Danish Sunday evening drama. It’s very well made and entertaining.

      Lund’s jumper is personified because chicks get objectified but her boobies aren’t available. Borgen – it’s all about the hair and scarves.

      Saying that, I told my Danish bf I was enjoying the Killing and he said “the show where the police inspector wears a jumper? I think I saw an episode once” so I don’t know what to think!


    2. At least the Danish broadcasters aspire to show equality. It may be fiction, it may be glossed over, it may not be entirely accurate, but at least it’s an ideal that’s valued.

      Apart from that, I agree with everything in the original post, with the exception of most people putting their infants in daycare. That’s not true in my experience. Most families have a year of maternity/paternity leave, so the kids are toddlers when they are put in daycare. My children have been 14, 18 and 22 months old, before anyone but myself and my husband took care of them during the day. It’s still too young, in my oppinion, but they were hardly infants.


      1. Infant is up to and including toddler, right? I think you stop being an infant when you have to get your own seat on a plane?? IDK. Yeah, you’re right, it’s at about 14 months… Though I’ve heard of 3-6 months. I’m like :-o


      2. Not being a parent, I don’t feel that qualified to comment on the childcare aspect of this debate. At the same time, though, it is interesting to me to observe some parallels between the Danes’ alleged desire for and practice of having their children brought up by other people/organisations and the British middle/upper classes’ dependence on the nanny, prep school and public (ie private) school systems to rear their children at arm’s length, in preparation for their destiny of running the country.

        Isn’t it interesting that socialist states and the wealthiest individuals in capitalist countries both believe the best results are achieved by offloading their offspring to the care of others at the earliest opportunity — whether or not the economic circumstances of the parents play a part?


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