Nathalie Zahle was a fervent believer in women's right to education. Dissatisfied with the possibililities open for young women, she took matters in her own hand and opened her own school N. Zahle's School in Copenhagen in 1852.
Upbringing as a girl
Natalia was envious of her 18-month-older brother, ◊Peter Christian Zahle., and his boy’s privileges. The central characters in her favourite kind of reading were villains, heroes or heroines, such as in, for example, J.F. Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. She taught herself to read and write by copying out her father’s poems and sermons; his literary style left its impression on her writing for the rest of her life. Her parents died within just a month of one another in 1837, and Nathalia Zahle’s second home was to be with her maternal grandparents Böttger in Copenhagen. Her third childhood home was that of the zoologist ◊Professor D.F. Eschricht and his wife Mariane. Nathalia Zahle’s first actual schooling began in Copenhagen at the "Daughter’s School of 1795". After she reached confirmation age she had to support herself by means of working as a governess. During the next six years she thus worked for various families while energetically reading and educating herself, and experimenting with teaching techniques.
Working for women's right to education
The turbulent years at the end of the 1840s proved decisive for Nathalie Zahle’s patriotic and national-liberal disposition. She was diligent and principled, and she dreamt of creating better educational opportunities for girls. At the time, there was only one course of education leading to a qualification that was open to women: the so-called ‘school principal qualifying examination’, which restricted the holder to run a private school in Copenhagen.
Nathalie Zahle was of the opinion that women were a valuable resource for society and should therefore attend school, whether they went on to be housewives or to enter the job market. All that time, the opposite opinion was widespread: women were the ‘gardeners of home life’ and should therefore be brought up within the four walls of the home. Nathalie Zahle was supported in her view when she returned to Copenhagen in 1849 and entered Annestine Beyers og Emil Bojsens Højere Dannelsesanstalt for Damer [a higher educational establishment for ladies. Eds.] - a progressive school for women. Classes here included the newly introduced subjects of Danish and history, and teaching was influenced by the ideas of the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel.
Opening her own school
In 1851 Nathalie Zahle passed the school principal qualifying examination, whereupon she rented a five-roomed flat on the corner of Holmensgade and Hummergade in Copehagen, which she opened as a private boarding educational establishment for girls and women. One year later she had to close the school due to lack of pupils; she was just on the point of travelling abroad to work when she received an offer to take over Sophie Foersom’s school for girls. She had been recommended by Dean Balthasar Münter, a member of the Copenhagen education authority who had read the Plan for a Girls’ School that Nathalie Zahle had written for her qualifying examination. This plan was innovative in its bridge-building approach to the two central views of women’s education.
Nathalie Zahle accepted the offer and in 1852 N. Zahle’s School opened in Kronprinsensgade with 25 pupils. Shortly afterwards another 25 pupils were transferred from •Susette and ◊Carl Mariboe’s closed-down school for the upbringing of good, true Danish women and wives, Dannekvindeskolen. Ten years later N. Zahle’s School had 200 pupils. In 1856, the steadily expanding establishment moved to Gammel Strand.
During the first few years Nathalie Zahle implemented a systematic teaching plan, introduced new one-year courses and consolidated the idea of the school as a home. Her success cannot be attributed exclusively to her ideas, however; her organisational skills were legendary, and she had a flair for finding young, talented teachers. Many of her former pupils later became leading figures in their field – for example: pioneer of the folk high school movement ◊Jens Nørregård; church minister and folklorist ◊H.F. Feilberg; notable individuals in the music world ◊Henrik Rung and ◊Emil Hartmann, who established the school’s music tradition, for which it is still famous today.
Nathalie Zahle understood the necessity to draw on the professional knowledge of the trained teachers for the benefit of the school and the young, untrained schoolmistresses, who were not in themselves uneducated. On the other hand, she and her schoolmistresses built upon the pedagogic ideas developed by J.H. Pestalozzi – those of the mother as central to the upbringing of a child – by following the principle of the school as family fellowship; and she created a hitherto unseen balance between learning through the spoken word and through the disciplined silent study.
Innovative educational approach
Her strength was drive rather than theory. She developed her educational model through practical experimentation. Seen in a social class perspective, she demarcated education upwards towards the dwindling nobility’s standards and downwards towards the growing working class’s values. Seen in a gender perspective, she broadened the public view on the female pupils; girls should be brought up to pursue some of the traditional male virtues such as endeavour, initiative, strength of will and creative power, without, however, losing a ‘womanly’ aesthetic faculty. Seen in an educational perspective, acquisition of knowledge and proficiencies should go hand in hand with individual character-guidance. Academic proficiency and accumulation of knowledge were not enough.
This can be called Nathalie Zahle’s two-pronged strategy, and it is also apparent in her views concerning the emancipation of women. She refused to choose between the classic emancipation movements, the strategy of disparity or that of equality. Ambiguity and the application of opposites were her hallmarks, both in her school practice and in her few theoretical writings, for example Om Kvindens Uddannelse her i Landet, 1-2, 1882-83. She deliberately placed herself not between but on two stools; she was a pragmatist and wanted to create a basis for freedom of choice by means of the schools she established.
An uncommitted feminist
Her schools produced the first feminists in Denmark and also many of the pioneering women working in the fields of politics, the professions and education. Augusta Fenger, Anna Hude, Ida Falbe-Hansen, Lis Jacobsen, Ingrid Jespersen, Erna Juel-Hansen, Th. Lang, Ingeborg Simesen and Henriette Skram were all Zahle pupils. Her relationship with the organised women’s movements was uncommitted, and she had no actual ‘feminist’ programme because she did not want to take a public stand on controversial issues. Nonetheless, her educational project was one of the key undertakings to pave the way for women’s emancipation in the 19th century. She was a member of Kvindelig Læseforening [Women’s Reading Society] and Dansk Kvindesamfund [Danish Women’s Society], but took no leading role in the organisations.
However driven she might have been, she did not act in a societal vacuum, but in step with women’s need for education. The Danish government made no attempt to reform legislation with regard to education for girls over the age of 14 until after 1900. Nathalie Zahle was therefore fishing in troubled waters when she embarked on her school enterprise.
And her projects were many, and she gathered them under the umbrella name N. Zahle’s School, the composition of which represented the first implementation of a unified school system in Denmark. The pupils could start in the primary school, then take a rest year, after which the 15-16-year-olds could choose whether they wanted to study for matriculation, to qualify as schoolmistresses or governesses, to sit the common preparatory examination, or they could conclude their schooling with what was called a continuation class.
Nathalie Zahle thus built up a number of schools within the overall framework: teacher training school 1851, boarding establishment 1852, primary school 1852, schoolmistress training college 1860, continuation classes 1861, these being forerunners of both the folk high school 1877 and the higher girls’ school examination 1904, music school 1869, matriculation course 1877, common preparatory examination 1882, physical education 1864, health education 1880, home economics school 1882, government-approved teacher training college 1894, teaching practice school attached to a training college 1895. These courses were organized in three main categories of school: teacher training, primary and secondary, and specialist.
Finishing her educational empire
During the second part of the 19th century, N. Zahle’s School developed into an educational empire which, in 1877 was housed on Nørre Vold; Nathalie Zahle had assumed the role of contractor and had overseen the construction of a complex of school buildings which were at the cutting edge of contemporaneous design requirements, both in terms of pleasing aesthetics and monumental school architecture. In 1885 she turned the school into an independent institution, thus ensuring its continued existence beyond the limit of her lifetime.
Of political persuasion, Nathalie Zahle was national-liberal, patriotic and loyal to the Crown. She had a strong religious belief of the traditional Lutheran, but Grundtvigian-influenced, variety. She stuck to her views throughout her life, and therefore could seem highly conservative after the breakthrough of cultural radicalism, socialism and feminism in the last quarter of the 19th century. But here too her non-judgmental humanity and pedagogic pragmatism came to the forefront and she never deviated from the principle that cultural, religious and political attitudes to which she did not herself adhere should nevertheless have a place in the teaching at her schools.
In her private life, from the 1850s onwards she was at the centre of an expanding household consisting of her foster daughters – Anna Paulsen, Hansine Gerdtzen and Henriette Skram – and her companion: first Ulrikke Rosing, who died before they could become truly settled, then Povline Govl, and finally, for the rest of her life, Ingeborg Vinderen with whom she shared a home for 34 years. Until the end of the 1860s, her private household also included several other schoolmistresses and pupils. She organised her private life with herself as ‘master of the house’, her companion as housewife and the foster daughters as children. For leisure, culture and inspiration, she arranged foreign travel both for herself, her Norwegian friend Mary Archer, to whom she was close for 40 years, and for the rest of her entourage.
Nathalie Zahle was a complex figure, a charismatic personality who inspired love, respect and fear. She made rigorous demands of herself and those around her, who she in return provided with security and at times forthright merriment. She was exceptionally ambitious, strong-willed and self-disciplined, but also restless, impulsive and volatile. This complexity led to the making of many a myth about her person, both before and after her death. In 1891 she was awarded the Gold Medal for Meritorious Service.
Translation: Gaye Kynoch