Birgitta Odén was the first woman who, in 1965, was appointed professor at Lund university. She was also the first woman to hold an ordinary university professorship in history in Sweden. When, in 1973, she was elected into Kungliga Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities) she became one of its very first female academic members.
Birgitta Odén was born in Uppsala in 1921. She was the eldest child of Sven and Agnes Odén. Sven Odén was a chemist who specialised in agriculture. He became a professor of inorganic chemistry at Tekniska högskolan (the college of technology) in Stockholm and later served as the director of a national institute of agricultural research. Birgitta Odén thus attended school in Stockholm. Her siblings – Svante Odén and Angelica (later married as Hofsten) – both became scientific researchers and worked at Uppsala.
Birgitta Odén, however, opted to gain her qualifications in the humanities and social sciences, although she retained a love of flowers and other plants. Her mother certainly had a strong influence on her, being a woman of wide-ranging interests who was able to quote Shakespeare in English and read 19th-century German and French novels in their original languages. In addition, Sven Odén also delved into the humanities in his spare time and, as Birgitta Odén mentioned in an interview, it was precisely during his spare time that she saw the most of her father.
Birgitta Odén’s father died when she was just 13 years old. This was a traumatic family development presumably bringing the surviving family members closer together, both in Stockholm and at their beloved summer place in Grisslehamn. Birgitta Odén opted, however, to go somewhere completely different to continue her studies once she had gained her school-leaving certificate. She had heard of Sture Bolin, the Lund professor of history who specialised in the economic and social spheres. This piqued Birgitta Odén’s interest and so she enrolled as a student at Lund to read history, discussing her research with both her supervisor, Sture Bolin, and Sven A Nilsson, then a docent. Other interests included cultural geography, and so she became friends with Torsten Hägerstrand, as they had a mutual interest in urban planning.
Following a brief marriage to the lawyer Sten Gagnér, she married a second time. Her second husband was Major Uno Dunér and they had a son together named Mårten Dunér. At the time of their marriage Uno Dunér was already retired but he was also an artist and took a deep interest in the humanities.
During the 1940s and 1950s Swedish historians would have happily stuck with studying the economics of and political aspects of the pre-modern period. Birgitta Odén’s first three books on the 16th-century Swedish state’s economic and trade policies thus accordingly remained within these remits. Her thesis, entitled Rikets uppbörd och utgift, was published in 1955; her second book, Kopparhandel och statsmonopol dates from 1960; and her third book, called Kronohandel och finanspolitik, was published in 1966. As a whole these books represent an impressive analysis of the structure of the Vasa-era tax system and the conflict between the various regents’ military ambitions versus the financial reality.
From the 1960s onwards, following Birgitta Odén’s promotion to professor, and during the ensuing decades, the field of historical studies was confronted with new theoretical and methodological challenges. Initially these largely emerged out of social history, historical materialism theory or following positivist lines of historical models. This was then replaced by the polemics of women’s- and gender history and cultural history. Birgitta Odén’s professorship thus coincided with the first wave of an increased theoretical interest in historical research, and she did not shy away from standing her ground. She always defended history’s position as an element of the humanities, along with her demands that strict methodology be followed within the empirical side of historical research. At the same time she, much like her Uppsala colleague Rolf Torstendahl, believed that Clio – the muse of history – could easily align herself with the social sciences and their theories. Birgitta Odén’s own research engaged in a range of fruitful subject areas, several of which could be termed social-history or historiography. She was a master of chiselling out important issues. In her view they needed to be polished in order to allow for the criticism of old schools of thought and the emergence of new perspectives. When Birgitta Odén was interviewed just before she retired she claimed that although history was a generalised social science, historians must not forget to illustrate the range of historical realities. Her later works on aging and suicide, in particular, often combined broad perspectives with deep existential questions.
Following her significant contributions to the field of economics and politics in early-modern Sweden Birgitta Odén then focused her work in other spheres. She participated in debates on theoretical research concepts within emigration and migration studies. She shed light on historiographical approaches and research training in Sweden during the late 1800s and 1900s in a number of ways. Her historiographical work includes a 1975 biography of Lauritz Weibull, Lauritz Weibull och forskarsamhället, and a shorter publication on Sture Bolin, Sture Bolin. Historiker under andra världskriget, from 2011. Special mention should be made of her presentation of the French Annales school. Her project on research training in Sweden followed the lines of her socio-scientific interests. Further, Birgitta Odén produced work on university women for a couple of anthologies and contributed a couple of articles to the 1994 publication Clios døtre gennem hundrede år and to Kvinnor vid Lunds universitet, published in 2000. These works bordered on the didactics of history of which she was a supporter.
During her later years as a professor, and in the period following retirement, Birgitta Odén’s interest turned towards interdisciplinary projects, dealing both with aging populations and the history of suicide. Her publications included, for example, the 1982 work Äldre i samhället. Teorier och forskningsansatser, De äldre i samhället – förr. Fem föreläsningar, from 1985, Äldre genom tiderna. Åldrande och äldrepolitik som en historiker ser det from 2012, and the 1998 work Leda vid livet. Fyra mikrohistoriska essäer om självmordets historia.
Birgitta Odén’s belief in the skill of the historian and her strong feelings of duty led her to accept many jobs both within and beyond university. She was a dynamic dean of the faculty of philosophy at Lund university which included her support of research in environmental history and the establishment of a university programme for Middle Eastern and North African studies. She was active within Humanistisk-samhällsvetenskapliga forskningsrådet (research council of humanities and social sciences) for a number of years. Outside the university sphere she was, for example, a member of the Social Democratic government’s commission into the future led by Gunnar and Alva Myrdal.
Despite all her painstaking work in a variety of areas Birgitta Odén always had time for her research- and graduate students. She was an inspirational seminar leader and supervisor, as many of her research students have testified to. Significantly, her graduate students thanked her in a Festschrift for “her pluralism, her willingness and ability to support new approaches and to expand into new fields of research – to cross boundaries”.
Birgitta Odén was a pioneer although she herself never made much of the fact that she was the first woman to be appointed professor at Lund university. However she clearly felt that the position entailed a certain responsibility which she accepted. When, much later in life, she was interviewed by Bodil Jönsson and she was asked what advice she would give to female research students of history she said; “I would like to tell them not to forget that you are also women. It is important that you are there. And similarly that social spheres particular to women are brought to light.”
Birgitta Odén’s contributions were noted and made a difference, not just in terms of her being ‘the first’ in many contexts but through the radiance of her personality, her courage in engaging in important social issues through interdisciplinary work, and her encouragement of new theories and trends within research. In brief, it was through the generous, creative, and forward-looking aspects of her work that she made a difference.
Birgitta Odén died in 2016. She is buried at Kviinge cemetery in Knislinge parish.