To celebrate International Women’s Week we’ve put together a series of interviews with inspirational female figures. This time we spoke with Ritt Bjerregaard – Former politician for the Social Democrats, Lord Mayor Of Copenhagen and EU Commissionaire among many other things.
How did you get into politics?
I joined the Social Democrats when I went to the Teacher’s Development Agency for Schools (TDA) and became active when my husband, Søren Mørch, and I moved to Fyn. This lead to a phone call from Knud Friborg, the Mayor of Vissenbjerg, who asked if I wanted to run as parliamentary candidate for the Bogense Kredsen city council (a small city on Fyn). We were sure they would never accept a Social Democrat though. That place was completely under the control of the Liberal Party.
I accepted his offer, and thanks to personal voting and some very active members in our youth organization I was elected in 1971, and again in the following election.
Had you always dreamed of becoming a politician, or was there a point in your life where you thought “I’ve just got to try this”? What made you take the leap?
The TDA, where I was very busy making life better for children who didn’t get away from home too much, showed me that there were many things I could not change as a teacher simply because of legislation. I wanted to help improve the situation.
In all of my years in politics I have always been interested in the possibility for change.
The leap for me came with a phone call from Knud Friborg. This is when I chose to do what I could to get elected and become a professional politician. In retrospect I see that I didn’t really know what it meant, but I have never regretted my decision.
What challenges have you faced?
It has amounted to quite a lot because I was active in politics until 2010. That’s almost 40 years. So here’s a few of them: The public school reform that was supposed to get rid of “the black school” – Roskilde University – that I saved from closing with only one parliamentary vote. The environmental politics surrounding the mess people in agricultural made. Cost-cutting in the social area – it was hard, but necessary. The mad cow disease situation when I was appointed Minister of Food and had to ensure people didn’t get sick. The case with the Youth House and the cheap apartments when I was made Lord Mayor of Copenhagen.
And so many more. My life has been filled with challenges and even the hardest of them I have been happy to face. Maybe not so much when they were ongoing, especially during the 2006–2007 youth house riots in Nørrebro.
I am at my best when something is challenging.
What are your thoughts on gender equality in politics? Do you feel there is a difference?
Yes. There is a clear difference between genders. Female and male politicians are treated very differently. This was obvious during the VK government; Lene Espersen is a fine example. And you can see it in the S, SF, R political parties where Helle Thorning Schidt, our Minister of State, can be used as an example.
Women are judged completely differently with regards to their family lives and they are rated differently in terms of economy. My apartment was apparently too big. Mona Sahlin in Sweden can be used as a further example of the disparity.
Who is your biggest female inspiration and why?
There haven’t been that many women in politics. Very early in my career I met Golda Mëir, who impressed me. I was active in politics while Margaret Thatcher was governing the UK and she basically stood pretty much for the opposite of what I believed in.
I am very inspired by Simon de Beauvoir and her analysis of ”The Other”, the women being the other, the one who has always been seen in the light of the first – the man.
If you didn’t become a politician what would you have chosen?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a chorus singer like Birth Wilke. As a teenager I wanted to be a dentist and make a lot of money – we never had a lot in our family. I finally decided on attending the TDA. This decision was probably inspired by my class teacher from the first five years of school. Her name was Miss Petersen. If I hadn’t become a politician I would have continued as a teacher.
Do you have an advice for young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Yes, a very important piece of advice. They need to feel good about themselves because politics is brutal and they will repeatedly be told that they are no good. If they have received a traditional female education, one that exercises the saying that you are never good enough, it will be repeated time and time again. And that will be hard to endure. But I’ll also say that choosing to be a politician makes good sense because it means you’ll have a large influence on the development of our society. So it’s also a very exciting job – a job that brings power.