Today is the birthday (1830) of Mathilde Fibiger, noted Danish campaigner for equal rights for women, novelist, and professional telegraph operator. She was born in Copenhagen. Her first novel, Clara Raphael, Tolv Breve (Clara Raphael, Twelve Letters), published in 1851, championed women’s rights. It is the partially autobiographical story of a young woman, Clara Raphael, who works as a governess in the provinces. It is based in part on Fibiger’s experiences as a private tutor on the island of Lolland in 1849. The novel consists largely of letters written by Clara to her friend, Mathilde. Clara’s ideas about women living an independent life run counter to the beliefs of the local population, and she resolves to make women’s emancipation her life objective. The book created a great deal of controversy on its publication in 1851. The Danish literary establishment was sharply divided between those who supported her and those who felt that her ideas were too radical, but they all agreed on the literary merit of her work. She was only 20 when the novel was published, and, in doing so, she was the first public figure in Denmark to champion women’s rights.
Countering public opposition to women’s rights, Fibiger published two pamphlets, “Hvad er Emancipation?” (What is Emancipation?) and “Et Besøg” (A Visit). Her later novels included En Skizze efter det virkelige Liv (A Sketch from Real Life) (1853) and Minona. En Fortaelling (Minona: A Tale) (1854). En Skizze efter det virkelige Liv is the story of two sisters who are orphaned at an early age, and the men with whom they develop relationships. The older sister rejects her suitor, feeling that men are weak, while the younger sister falls in love. Minona created new controversy with its complex plot involving unwed mothers and incest. Minona, the chief character, overcomes her incestuous attraction after converting to Christianity.
While Fibiger’s novels generated critical acclaim, they were not commercially successful, and she began to look for other means to support herself. She supplemented a meager allowance, received from the state, by dressmaking and translating German literary works. In 1863, she began training as a telegraph operator for the Danish State Telegraph service, which had recently decided to hire women as operators under the management of Director Peter Faber. In 1866, she completed her training at the Helsingør telegraph station, and became the first woman to be employed as a telegraph operator in Denmark.
After two years in Helsingør, she was transferred to Nysted in 1869 to manage a newly opened station. Not surprisingly, she encountered resistance from male operators, who saw the employment of women as operators as a threat to their livelihood. In spite of her managerial position, her pay at Nysted was scarcely sufficient to enable her to pay her expenses. The following year, she applied for a transfer to the telegraph station in Aarhus.
She continued to experience difficulties in Aarhus, where the station manager had opposed her assignment. The problems she experienced in her telegraphic work began to affect her health. She died in Aarhus in 1872 at the age of 41. She is remembered today in Denmark not only as a pioneering feminist who wrote in support of women’s rights, but also as the woman who opened the door for the employment of women in the Danish State Telegraph service.
Because of her prominence in early efforts in Denmark to gain equal rights for women, the Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) created Mathildeprisen (The Mathilde Prize) in her honor. The Mathilde Prize was established in 1970 and is awarded to both men and women in recognition of work that advances gender equality. Recipients of the prize includes Suzanne Brøgger, Joan-søstrene, Kenneth Reinicke, Anja Andersen, and Anja C. Andersen.
Also, a small garden square adjacent to the Women’s Museum in central Aarhus is named Mathilde Fibigers Have in her honor, and a Danish stamp was issued recognizing her importance in Danish history.
Danish cuisine tends to be a bit on the basic side even though there is a strong emphasis on good, natural flavors and local ingredients. Denmark is world famous for its butter and pork products, dairying and pig farming having been natural complements for centuries. Stegt flæsk med persillesovs, pork belly with parsley sauce, as of 2014 is the official national dish of Denmark, after a popular vote. You don’t really need a recipe, but I’ll give you one. Stegt flæsk literally translates as fried pork, but the pork in question is pork belly. Some people translate flæsk as bacon, but that is incorrect. Stegt flæsk uses either plain or salt cured pork belly, but never smoked. The difficulty in many countries is getting plain pork bellies. When I lived in New York I used to get them from butchers in Chinatown. The pork slices need to be about ¼ inch thick. Nowadays, Danish cooks often roast the pork slices in the oven, but traditionally it was fried, and that’s how I prepare it.
Stegt flæsk med persillesovs
600 g sliced pork belly
1 kg potatoes
3 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk (approx.)
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and white pepper
Boil the potatoes whole until they are soft (about 20 minutes). I like to use small potatoes that can be served whole. I boil them with skins on and then peel them after they have cooked.
Dry the pork thoroughly and season it with salt and pepper to taste. If it is salt cured it will not need more salt. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and fry the pork in batches, turning frequently until they are golden and crispy. Pat off excess fat with paper towels and keep warm in the oven.
Make a white roux with the butter and flour. Begin by melting the butter over low heat in a pan. When it has melted, but before it starts to bubble, add the flour and whisk to combine. Do not let the roux take on any color. Add a little milk and whisk well to blend. Continue adding milk a little at a time and whisking over low heat. It will be very thick at first, and will still be thick when you have added all the milk. Let it simmer gently for a few minutes, then add the parsley, plus salt and white pepper to taste. As far as I am concerned, you cannot add too much parsley.
Serve slices of pork belly with the parsley sauce poured over the potatoes.