Esther Larsen
Esther Larsen

Political Development

Party Affiliation

Profession/ Current priorities

Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments




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[ European Commission, DG V ]

© Jan 2001

European Database: Women in Decision-Making

Esther Larsen

Political Development

What made you decide to go into politics?
I was pushed into politics. At that time I was a housewife with small children - and giving only a few lessons as a teacher at the school. I lived in a small community where the local school was about to be closed down, because two municipalities had to be made one. In the local community one thought that I could solve this problem to try to fight for the school to survive. That was why I was urged to be a member of the school commission, and I was chosen as chair of the school committee. We succeeded quite well, and the school is still existing and functioning very well.
Afterwards I was urged to be active in politics at local level and be a candidate at the next election to the municipality. But I refused, because I at that time had small children and wanted to finish my university studies.
But after 4 years, politicians from the Party "The Liberals" urged me once more. They told me that I now had to go into politics and be a candidate at the next municipality election. I accepted and was elected.
When I had been a politician in the municipality for 4 years, the party asked me to be a candidate for the regional elections. I accepted and was elected.
Some years later the President of the Party asked me to become Minister of Health. It is an offer that you get only once in a lifetime, and I think that you just have to accept it. I used 5 minutes to make up my mind. When I was asked to become a Minister, my children were grown-ups. That is why I have not had the dilemma as many other women politicians have, namely to use much time at your political job at the same time as you have to look after your children. I was Minister of Health for 3 years - it is now around 10 years ago. I have the honour to be the person who has been Minister of Health for the longest time! Three years! It is a dangerous post. Now I am a Member of Parliament.
So that is how I have been pushed into politics. I had not planned it.

Do/did you have a role model?
No, I do not think so. I cannot think of anybody.

Does political involvement or policy making have a tradition in your family?
I would say both yes and no. My grand mother was one of the first Danish women in local policy. She was a member of the parish council. But it is a long time ago. In my father's family, which derives from the countryside, it has been a tradition that local problems should be solved at local level. Both my grand father and my grand uncle have been members of the parish council. They were part of the co-operative movement, where the members (e.g. the men) solved the problems in common. But when that has been said, there is no tradition for political involvement in my family, except that I have been brought up in a family who supported The Liberals, and for that reason I have been very familiar with liberal ways of thinking.

Have you been engaged in political grassroots activities before your involvement in party politics?
If so, in which function?

No. But after I was involved in politics at local level, I was very much engaged in general education. I was President of the liberal federation of enlightenment of the people (Liberalt Oplysningsforbund), when I was elected Minister.

Where there disruptions in your political career path and why?
No. But I changed my focus. I was on leave from local and regional politics, as long as I was a Minister. So when the Conservative-Liberal Government stopped (the Schlüter Government), and I of course also stopped being Minister of Health, I returned to my political career in the municipality and at the regional level. Some years later I was elected to the Parliament (Folketinget). At that time I dropped my political tasks at local level in the municipality. But I have kept my position as a politician in the regional parliament, where I am President of the Committee of Health.

Where there disruptions in your biography that have/had an impact on your political career?
No.

How and why did your objectives change during your political career?
I have used my life both in private and professionally on Education. It has been natural for me to work with school politics and cultural politics. I started with these two areas at local level, and they are moreover based on my education and profession as a schoolteacher and later as a teacher at grammar school.
When I was elected to the Regional Parliament, it was natural that I started to be involved in health questions, as it is the main task of the Regional Parliament to deal with the health sector. I guess that it was because of my engagement in the health sector at the regional level that the President of the Party asked me to become Minister of Health. I have continued to focus also on health questions, both in the Parliament and at the regional level.

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Party Affiliation

What was your motivation to join a political party?
When I was urged to be a candidate for the local elections for the party "The Liberals", I joined the party.

Which party do you belong to? Since when?
The Liberals (Venstre), since about 1974.

Does your party have an equal opportunities regulation?
No. We have in our party the liberal attitude that nobody should be elected or preferred on behalf of sex. That means that it is more difficult for women to create a political career, because women have to do better than men. I feel that it for many years has been natural that many posts have gone to men. If you as a woman should want to be elected to a post, you really have to demonstrate that you are highly qualified and well prepared. It is very characteristic of women that they are very careful with their work and well prepared.

Which function/offices did you hold in your party at the beginning?
When I first was elected to the Municipality, I was elected Chair of the Committee on Education and Culture. A little later I was a member of the board of my party's executive.
Then I became Minister of Health in 1989.
Later I have been Chair of the Committee on Health and also Chair of the Committee on Ethics in the Parliament. Moreover I am the spokesperson on cultural issues for my party in the Parliament.
At regional level I am now Vicechair of the Committee on Health and a member of the board of the federation of the county councils.

Do you have mentors within your party?
Yes, in a way. In the Parliament we make courses for three days for our new candidates. They follow the work of our parliamentarian group. And the party's group members are supporting the new members who become members of the same group working with the same issues. But we do not have mentors in the way that one of the experienced politicians is following and supporting one single person of the new members.

Did you ever change party affiliation?
No.

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Profession/ Current priorities

How does your profession correspond with your political work?
Well. So educational and cultural issues at the political level go hand in hand with my professional knowledge and interests. The interest for health issues are not directly based in my profession, but the interest and knowledge has grown together with my involvement in regional politics.
It is much work to be a politician both at regional level and at parliamentarian level. I am only doing it, because politics is so thrilling that you cannot say when your are at work, or when you are not. I am also doing it, because I have the privilege.

What kind of vocational training, degrees or other professional qualification do you have?
I am educated as a schoolteacher. Moreover I have a university degree in Danish and literature. I have given lessons both at primary and secondary level, and also taught adults. I have been a lecturer and I have published books and educational material for both children and adults. I am very much involved in cultural issues and questions of general education. I am the President of the liberal federation of enlightenment of people (Liberalt Oplysningsforbund).

In what kind of jobs did you work?
Before I became a politician I was a teacher. When my children were small, I had the privilege to look after them at home and only teach part time. Besides, I took my university degree together with bringing up my children. It was only when they were adults and moved from home, that I accepted to go into politics on a full scale.

Are you linking both your professional and your political career?
Yes (see above).

In which areas do you see your special competencies?
I have a very good knowledge on issues on Education, Culture, and Health, and I am very occupied in the debate on issues and to change things. Moreover, I think that I am good to listen to peoples' needs and to disseminate knowledge so that the message is being heard and understood.

Which are your political priorities?
My priorities lie within the areas: education, culture, ethics, and health.

Which are your main fields of action?
My main fields of action are within the health sector.
I think, that the health sector's treatment possibilities are a great challenge, and I work hard in practice to find money enough to be sure that people should have a treatment, which is up-to-date and gentle.
I am very preoccupied with the ethical perspectives of our health system. I work actively to have better ethical discussions in society on the issue: What can we do, and what can we not do with human life and human beings. And I am very much engaged in the area of artificial fertilisation, the use of animals' organs, and the re-use of human beings' organs. So that is why I am very happy that we now have a system of ethical committees, which make sure that experiments with human beings always will have to be approved and controlled, before they are getting started. Moreover, I am very satisfied with the result that we now have introduced the principle of "the free choice of hospitals" in Denmark.

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Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments

Which objectives would you like to achieve through your political work?
Within the health sector I want to contribute to having a better health system, where there is a focus on ethical values, ensuring that people are treated gently and all modern equipment are being used.
Concerning cultural issues I am working on disseminating knowledge on our common cultural values. I want to see that a proper handling over from one generation to the other has taken place. Our children and grandchildren should know our songs, stories, and myths, so that they know from where they derive. Otherwise they are getting rootless. Our societies are these days getting more and more globalised. That is why we now have a stronger need to know our roots and our cultural values. It is primarily the school, which has the obligation to transfer these cultural values.

How and why did your objectives change during your political career?
See the answers above.

Do equal opportunity strategies - in your opinion - have an impact in your country to promote women in decision-making?
I really do not know what has had an impact on the promotion of equality - and what has not. But I think that the quota system is a bit dubious. When I was a Minister I met more or less the same women managers and head of units in the different committees, commissions and boards. There were not women enough to fill the posts. That was why I saw the same women again and again, when the legislation on a gender-balanced composition of members of committees, commissions, etc. had to be considered. It was not the best use of these women's political talents, when they had to attend all these different committees, etc.

Did you benefit from these strategies?
No.

How do you judge these strategies?
The quota system is in my opinion not any good in this respect. Our problem is that we should make politics more attractive for women. One way of doing this is to support part time work for women with small children. And another way is to involve men in taking more responsibility in caring for their children.

Do you see direct or indirect discrimination in "conventional" policy making?
No. I do not think that I can say that there is "discrimination". I feel that the problem is to get women to be interested in politics and take on responsibility. Generally, it is throughout the country difficult to find people who are willing to go into politics. It is difficult to persuade them to do a political job. Politics is a tough business nowadays. Many ask the questions: Why choose to be a target for the press and the public? And why choose a difficult job, which is less paid than other easier jobs in the society? I can understand these questions, even if I do not agree. Politics is exciting!

What is it that keeps women from committing themselves to politics?
One of the reasons is the very long working days - that is specifically a reason, which has been mentioned by some women I know. They ask me when I am urging them to be active and consider becoming a candidate: Why should I work as much as you do?

What are the major obstacles that women need to overcome in their endeavour to participate in political decision-making?
They should leave some of the obligations for children and home to their husbands, and they should be more educated to tackle the male culture in politics.

Which are the obstacles you had to fight in your own political career?
My good, middle-class upbringing as a girl has been my greatest obstacle (for instance: wait to say something till you have been asked, you should not talk when others are talking, you should never propose yourself to take on responsibility). I had to work hard to change my good manners - my own culture!

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