She was born into a poor family in Helsingør, where her father was a farm labourer. When she was 20 years old she married Oluf N. and, like many other young women at the time, she was pregnant on her wedding day; four months later she gave birth to their first child. In the course of 15 years the couple had nine children in all, of which two died in infancy.
Working to unionise working women
In order to contribute to the finances of her large family, Olivia Nielsen had to work outside the home, probably as a washerwoman and cleaner. The exact nature of her employment is somewhat vague but, according to sources who knew her, she was already trying to unionise women while she lived in Helsingør. In the mid-1880s the family moved to Copenhagen, presumably because job opportunities were better there. It is still uncertain as to where Olivia Nielsen found employment, but from 1891 she is recorded in the minute book of De kvindelige Arbejderforbund (KAF, Women Workers’ Union in Denmark) as a committee member, and in 1892 she was elected leader. At the time she had four children living at home, the youngest aged four.
Despite its name, at this juncture KAF was still working at a local level, having been established in 1885 as a trade union for washerwomen and female cleaners. By the following year, however, it had taken the name KAF and as of 1890 it was a union for women workers in the Copenhagen industrial sector. When Olivia Nielsen took up the post of leader, the organisation was a small ineffective trade union and she was elected with a total of 16 votes – which says something about the membership figures. This hitherto sluggishness was not due to any lack of ambition or energy on the part of the organising committee, but because women workers were very slow to take up the idea of unionisation. Matters were not helped by the fact that these women were the most poorly paid in the labour market and they also had home and children to look after. Meetings were often cancelled due to lack of attendance.
Initially, therefore, Olivia Nielsen concentrated on the task of getting women involved in the union. For the next few years, information meetings were held at which prominent figures addressed women employees from the industries – speakers included, for example, Johanne Meyer of Kvindelig Fremskridtsforening (Women’s Progressive Society), with which KAF worked in close collaboration, and the chairman of Arbejdsmændenes Forbund (Union of Unskilled [male] Labourers), M.C. Lyngsie, who became an active supporter of KAF. Olivia Nielsen also sorted out committee work by holding monthly meetings with formal agendas and collection of union dues. Gradually, union organisation spread to women in the breweries, printing works, ropemakers, match factories, cable factories and other trades, and then the time came to embark on wage negotiations and collective bargaining.
Trade union leader, politician.
Born: *7.11.1852 in Helsingør, †11.7.1910 in Århus.
Parents: Jørgen Christensen, farm labourer (c.1823-75) and Anne Marie Olsdatter (c.1825-1903).
Married: ~7.6.1873 to Oluf Peter Laurentius N., factory worker *24.10.1849 in Helsingør, †29.12.1902 in Copenhagen, son of Christian Diderik N., journeyman shoemaker, and Christine Caroline Bokelund. Marriage dissolved 1901.
Children: Jørgen (1875), Carl (1878), Christian (1882), Gudrun (1883), Asta (1885), Valborg (1886), Volmer (1888).
First wage agreement and strike
In 1896 KAF concluded its first wage agreement with an employer, the Tuborg Breweries. But in that same year negotiations with Jacob Holm and Sons Ropewalk faltered badly when the director refused to negotiate with union representatives and Olivia Nielsen – all of whom came from “the streets and alleys”, as he put it.
The union now undertook its first industrial action by calling a strike, which lasted seven weeks and resulted in considerable improvements to wages and working conditions. Before the strike, Olivia Nielsen, in her capacity as leader of the union, was involved in a court case when the director of the factory took legal action against her for “defamatory” articles that had appeared in Social-Demokraten (The Social Democrat newspaper). The union committee had indeed written a number of articles describing the intolerable working conditions at the factory. It is typical of the period that Olivia Nielsen had to be accompanied by her husband when she was summoned to court; according to contemporaneous marriage legislation, men were considered to be guardians of their wives. The court case ended in a settlement.
The late 1890s saw the setting up of independent branches of KAF in the provinces – Randers, Svendborg, Næstved and Køge, for example – and a few trade sectors broke away to form separate branches, so that by 1897 KAF had assumed the structure of a federal trade union. In 1900 KAF had approximately 1,000 members. There was now a firm basis on which to establish a formal nationwide trade union, and this came about at the congress in 1901 with the launch of Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund i Danmark (KAD, the Women Workers Union of Denmark).
Leader of the women worker's union
This was the first women’s union congress to be held in Denmark, and Olivia Nielsen was elected general secretary. At the same time, she carried on her work as leader of KAD’s parent division, which was named Copenhagen Branch 1. Olivia Nielsen continued to hold both posts until her death in 1910 – by which point membership had reached 2,000. At its 1909 congress KAD set up an unemployment fund, of which Olivia Nielsen was made chairperson.
In 1898 De samvirkende Fagforbund (Federation of Danish Trade Unions) was formed; KAF was a member from the outset. Olivia Nielsen was elected to the council, where she was involved in the work of drawing up legislation. From 1907 she was a member of the executive committee – until 1909 together with Andrea Brochmann, leader of De kvindelige Herreskrædderes Fagforening (Women’s Union of Men’s Tailors); thereafter Olivia Nielsen was the only woman on the executive committee.
Working in local politics
In terms of party politics, Olivia Nielsen endorsed the Social Democratic workers’ movement. In 1899, when women addressed a May 1 demonstration in Copenhagen for the first time, she was one of the two to do so. Her speech dealt with the significance an eight-hour working day would have for women. The other woman speaker was Brochmann. In 1909, women were allowed to participate in local elections for the first time; on behalf of Copenhagen Branch 1, Olivia Nielsen was co-convenor of a meeting for women workers that had been arranged by the women’s trade unions. She stood as a Social Democratic candidate for election to the municipal council. To begin with she was elected as a substitute member, but shortly after the elections she moved into position as a regular member – along with, moreover, two other trade union women: Henriette Crone and Anna Johansen.
Olivia Nielsen was also ahead of her time when it came to her private life. Her marriage was not a happy one, and in 1901 she and her husband divorced. She was granted custody of the two youngest children, who at the time were 13 and 17 years old. The following year, Oluf N. died and Olivia Nielsen paid for his funeral. She had a lodger, Gustav Olsen, who is recorded as an official in KAD from at least 1901. He was a couple of years younger than her and separated from his wife. There is every indication that he and Olivia Nielsen enjoyed a personal relationship, even though it was never formalised. At the time of Olivia Nielsen’s death they had recently purchased a house in the Copenhagen suburb of Brønshøj; the property stood in his name, while most of the household effects belonged to her.
A true pioneering spirit
Olivia Nielsen was one of the pioneers and one of the most prominent figures working in the women’s trade union movement. With incredible strength of character and energy, but also encouraged by the general progress of the trade union movement in the 1890s, she succeeded in turning KAD into one of the largest women’s unions in Denmark and, through her dogged and determined negotiations, she managed to improve pay and working conditions for unskilled women workers. It is a fully justified accolade that she is considered to have created KAD. It also says something about her enthusiastic energy that she was one of the first 13 to sign up when KAF started a choral society in 1893.
In Lyngsie’s words, she was a fully-rounded character: robust, energetic, sometimes perhaps tough and uncompromising but, as photographs of her show, also with a gentle trait. She died on the job – a guest at the Union of Unskilled Labourers’ congress in Århus. On her deathbed she asked the executive committee to continue her life’s work, her “cherished Union”, and urged them to elect her daughter Gudrun Bodø, who sat on the executive committee, as her successor. After a few months, however, Gudrun Bodøwas succeeded by Sofie Rasmussen. Work in KAD continued in Olivia Nielsen’s spirit, but for the women’s trade union movement as a whole her death at such a young age was a great loss. KAD raised a monument to Olivia Nielsen in Bispebjerg Cemetery.