Charlotte Norrie (1855-1940) contributed to turning nursing into a professional and honourable career for women. She was also deeply involved in campaigning for voting rights for women
By Tinne Vammen
When she was a young woman, Charlotte Norrie noted in her diary that Queen Margrete I, who had formed the Kalmar Union of 1397 and thus united Denmark, Sweden and Norway, was her role model. Charlotte Norrie’s self-image from an early age was that of a strong-willed and power-seeking woman.
Her mother Louise Harbou, who was to become a prominent philanthropist, remonstrated with her eldest daughter for being domineering, over-intense and sometimes unable to grasp that people who did not share her opinions might also be in the right. A more robust character than her three sisters – Dagmar (m. Hjort), Alvilda (m. Harbou Hoff) and Inger (m. Wickström) – Charlotte Norrie felt the weight of obligation to her parents and the family tradition. And, like her sisters, she wanted to pursue a profession, which indeed also became essential when their father’s military career faltered after the war of 1864 and the family’s finances suffered.
Embarking on a nursing career
In 1877-80 Charlotte Norrie worked as a private governess for the Langkilde family at Juulskov manor on the island of Fyn. But she was already longing for a career teaching basic nursing skills and first-aid treatment. She wanted to run courses on which she would train women in the skills necessary to be hospital nurses and in preparation for motherhood.
Without regular wages or an actual job agreement, in 1880 she learnt nursing skills at Almindelig Hospital (General Hospital) under the auspices of consultant doctor L.I. Brandes. In 1881-82 she supplemented her training at Dronning Louises Børnehospital (Queen Louise’s Children’s Hospital). She had been in love with another man for several years, but at the General Hospital she met the man who was to become her future husband. In 1885 she and Gordon Norrie embarked on a companionable and contented marriage, which they combined with the pursuit of their high ambitions and many outside activities.
Her husband assumed a stable and participatory role as her adviser and from time to time also her co-author. Starting in 1883, for a number of years they ran courses in basic nursing skills and first-aid treatment, training more than 500 women – including volunteers from her mother’s philanthropic enterprises.
Speaking out for better nursing training
During the 1880s Charlotte Norrie called attention to the fact that nurses were in short supply in Denmark, and she criticised the existing hospital training for being outdated and inadequate. She also spoke out against Dansk Røde Kors (DRK, Danish Red Cross) for its ineffectuality in the area of education. In Charlotte Norrie’s opinion, DRK’s efforts were substandard when it came to training nursing staff who, in times of war, could perform their duties in the field and, in peacetime and during epidemics, could assist their colleagues and doctors employed by the local authorities.
Charlotte Norrie wanted to see the introduction of private fee-paying schools of nursing, run by voluntary associations with supplementary state funding, as an extension of the training opportunities offered by the hospitals. In 1888, writing in Ugeskrift for Læger [Doctors’ Weekly], she announced her plan for a school of nursing, but it was not until 1910, with the opening of Rigshospitalet (now the National University Hospital in Copenhagen), that the country got its first actual training school for nurses. The intention of Charlotte Norrie’s visionary plan was also to make nursing a more acceptable job for young middle-class women.
A commitment to philanthropy
In Charlotte Norrie’s family home, her parents’ liberal-minded conservatism went hand-in-hand with a strong philanthropic commitment, which left a deep impression on her. She helped her mother in efforts to open children’s sanatoriums and was her chief assistant when it came to organising the philanthropy and hygiene sector of Kvindernes Udstilling (Women’s Exhibition) in 1895.
Charlotte Norrie also joined the management committee of De gamles Spisehuse (Society for Old People’s Restaurants), which was Louise Harbou’s last philanthropic initiative in 1896. Inspired by her mother, Charlotte Norrie joined the council and management of Foreningen Kvindernes Bygning (Women’s Building Association), the idea behind which was to gather women involved in the women’s movement, the labour movement and philanthropic programmes under one roof in Copenhagen.
Charlotte Norrie became a committee member of the Copenhagen branch of Dansk Kvindesamfund (DK, Danish Women’s Society) in 1898 and she was deputy chair from 1900 until 1901, but did not stand for re-election. In 1899, along with British-born Elly Nienstædt, she was responsible for setting up Dansk Kvinderaad (Danish Council of Women), later known as Danske Kvinders Nationalråd (DKN, Danish National Council of Women).
Working for women's right to vote
DKN was a Danish branch of the International Council of Women (ICW), founded in 1888. The purpose of DKN was to assemble all women’s associations and societies with female members under one umbrella organisation. This idea of unification and of linking Danish women’s associations with international partners had long been discussed in DK, but it was put into action by DKN in the year of the first ICW congress to be held in Europe, with Denmark among the initial European member countries to sign up.
Charlotte Norrie was the first Secretary of DKN, from 1899-1904, but was in effect acting President as the formal leader, Ida Falbe-Hansen, suffered from very poor health. Charlotte Norrie was the official President 1906-09.
In 1898 she co-founded Danske Kvindeforeningers Valgretsudvalg (DKV, Suffrage Committee of Danish Women’s Associations), from 1904 known as Danske Kvindeforeningers Valgretsforbund (Suffrage Union of Danish Women’s Associations). Charlotte Norrie advocated that not only tax-paying, self-supporting women, but also dependent wives without paid employment should have the right to vote.
Ousted from the Danish Council of Nurses
As a delegate at ICW’s 1899 congress in London, Charlotte Norrie was a co-founder of the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Before she left for the congress, she had started gathering support from Copenhagen hospital nurses for the idea of forming an organisation to raise the status of their profession and to improve work and training conditions. But a powerful opposition of nurses came out in protest at Charlotte Norrie’s role in the project.
After a few months she had to give up the post of chair in the newly-formed Dansk Sygeplejeråd (DSR, Danish Council of Nurses), as the hospital nurses wanted a fully-qualified nurse as their leader. Nor did her plans for the newly-organised nurses to join both DKN and the international nurses’ organisations win support. She was deeply disappointed and severed connections with DSR, but she nonetheless doggedly and arrogantly hung onto her role as Danish delegate at the ICN and she stuck to her belief that basic nursing skills should be put into practice as a form of women’s community service. In 1924, 25 years after the foundation of DSR, Charlotte Norrie was made an honorary member of the organisation.
In 1904 Charlotte Norrie and her friend Dagmar Schmiegelow travelled to Berlin where they took part in setting up the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. In collaboration with inter alios the Højre (Right, renamed Conservative in 1915) party supporter and wholesaler Wilhelmine Rerup, Charlotte Norrie was a co-founder of the Copenhagen Kvindevalgretsklubben Valgerda (Valgerda Suffrage Club), affiliated to DKV.
Women protecting the country
Women’s voting rights and other issues began to slip into the background in 1907, the year in which Charlotte Norrie was the dynamic instigator of Danske Kvinders Forsvarsforening (DKF, Danish Women’s Defence Association). As chairperson until 1915, she put her organisational talents to very good use and was one of DKF’s most industrious campaigners in the provinces. DKF was a nationalistic and pro-military enterprise set up in response to the long-drawn-out national defence policy negotiations, alarm at Germany’s growing military might and increased tension between the great powers.
Charlotte Norrie’s strategy was to assemble women on a non-party-political and cross-societal basis in order to intensify the call for national defence and to pressurise the parties and government to seek expert military advice as the basis on which to increase funding for the Danish armed forces. Despite the declared non-party-political agenda of DKF, Charlotte Norrie and other members campaigned for Højre and Venstre (Liberal) parliamentary candidates who were in favour of increased defence measures.
By 1912 the organisation had set up a comprehensive network of regional branches and had a national membership of approximately 50,000. DKF had a greater pull on women than the contemporaneous women’s suffrage organisations as they approached the culmination of their efforts. In Charlotte Norrie’s opinion, of all her activities it was her work for DKF that had been most beneficial to the cause of Danish women. In 1915 she was ousted as chairperson, yet again due to one of the many personal disputes which littered her career. The following year she resigned membership of DKF in protest over the new chairperson, Agnes Slott-Møller, who Charlotte Norrie publicly accused of flouting the association’s non-party-political line.
Party political activism
In 1915, together with the future alderwoman Anna Johanne Frydensberg and others, Charlotte Norrie started Kvinde-Vælger-Klubberne (KVK, Female Voters’ Clubs), being chairperson until 1920. KVK was an attempt to bring together women from Højre and Venstre in a political information campaign, which would make them more qualified to cast their votes and stand as candidates at elections after the franchise had been won in 1915. Political campaigning had long held Charlotte Norrie’s interest and as early as 1903-06 she had been on the executive committee of Copenhagen’s Venstre association.
In 1920-27 Charlotte Norrie resumed her educational activities with the Ejra School, which provided training in nursing and first-aid treatment. This grew from an idea she had already been advocating in the 1880s: community service for women. Charlotte Norrie contended that women’s demands for equal rights went hand in hand with corresponding obligations to state and society. She was of the opinion that women as citizens ought to take part in various forms of unpaid and voluntary community service without trespassing on the professional nurses’ domain. This community service would be a counterpart to men’s compulsory military service – which she also thought should be extended to include women.
Charlotte Norrie was an exceptionally hard-working, energetic and enterprising woman. Her talent for leadership was, however, weakened by her habitual problems with reaching compromise and making sure that she worked with people who could keep pace with her forceful personality. As a self-assured dynamo, her self-awareness and psychological insight did not seem to have matched up to her manifest need to parade around like a battle-hardened Major General’s daughter.