In 1908, the Danish Minister of Justice, Peter A. Alberti, confessed to having embezzled millions of Danish kroner from a major bank. He was promptly arrested, and resigned, later to be convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

In the wake of his resignation, the affairs of government were in a disordered state, and the Danish (then-bicameral) parliament, the Rigsdag, was quite busy clearing things up, and carrying on with ordinary business. Among other things, 1908 was the year that Danish women were granted limited suffrage, receiving the right to vote in municipal (but not national) elections.

Despite this limited concession, Danish women still felt very much left out of the political process, and activism continued.

On August 19, 1909, the Folketing, the lower house of the Rigsdag, was in extraordinary session, to clear up some military appropriations bills, when a woman forced her way into the chamber, grabbed the speaker's bell, rang it, and began to speak.

The intruder was a Miss Mary B. Westenholz, who (according to contemporary newspaper reports) said:

"There sits in this hall a man who has brought shame to Denmark"

At this point, she pointed to the bench on which the ministers sat, and it was generally interpreted as a gesture aimed at J.C. Christensen, former Minister of Church and Education. She continued:

"You sit here, Danish men, bargaining and haggling, in the fullness of your power-madness and your selfishness, over the weal and woes of the country; yet it must be said in this place that Denmark's women despise ye and brand ye as a clutch of mercenaries without a fatherland, who have betrayed Denmark's honour."1

The speaker, Anders Thomsen, was somewhat taken aback at the events, and in his rather thin voice, he stammered:

"She took my bell."

Miss Westenholtz was soon escorted from the speaker's platform and from the chamber, but the disruption caused by her actions created quite a stir at the time - not least because it was near-unheard-of for a woman to speak in the Folketing. Rigsdagstidende, the official hansard of the Rigsdag, made no mention of the happening, but the newspapers had a field day. Anders Thomsen's remark became a catchphrase, and helped to establish him in the public mind as ineffectual and a weakling.

Denmark gave women full suffrage on June 5, 1915 - and the first woman to sit in the Folketing was the Social Democrat Elna Munch, who was elected to the lower house in 1918.


Note(s):

1Many years later, Miss Westenholtz publicly declared that she had been misquoted - that she had, in fact, not been pointing at any one person in particular, and that she had not said "despise" but "deny".

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