Susanne Malchau Dietz, Køn, kald og kompetencer. Diakonissestiftelsens kvindefællesskab og omsorgsuddannelser 1863–1955. [Gender, Vocation, and Professional Competencies. The Danish Deaconess Foundations’ Female Community and Caring Professions 1863-1955], København 2013.

Susanne Malchau Dietz, Køn, kald og kompetencer. Diakonissestiftelsens kvindefællesskab og omsorgsuddannelser 1863–1955. [Gender, Vocation, and Professional Competencies. The Danish Deaconess Foundations’ Female Community and Caring Professions 1863-1955], København 2013, 344 p. Nyt Nordisk Forlag. ISBN 978-87-17-04329-9, 349.95 DKR

Reviewed by: Prof. Dr. Susanne Kreutzer, Münster University of Applied Sciences, Germany, December 2014


This book was published as a Jubiläumsschrift (Jubilee volume) for the 150th anniversary of the Deaconess motherhouse in Copenhagen in 2013. It is the result of a multi year research project and a prosopographical study of the common characteristics of the 1,846 deaconesses who formed the professional workforce of the Danish Deaconess Foundation. Spanning a period of 150 years, from the foundation of the institution in 1863 until the post war period, the guiding questions for the investigation were: Who were the deaconesses? Where did they come from? What career choices did they have?

Susanne Malchau Dietz tracks the development of the organisation with its social institutions, the formation of a community of sisters sharing a collective identity, and the gradual professionalisation of the deaconess training. The source material for the book, which the author analysed and evaluated in detail, are publications by the institution for deaconesses, unpublished correspondences on the organisation of the motherhouse and the training of the nurses, and the personal files of the sisters. This variety of sources allowed her to reconstruct the social structure of the deaconess motherhouse. In addition there is an extensive appendix containing statistical data on the development of this Sisterhood and the Sisters’ work domain.

The title of the book Gender, Vocation and Competencies(Køn, kald og kompetencer) already lists the key terms used for the analysis of the history of the work and life model of a Danish deaconess: As religious women the sisters did not merely follow a vocation, they also entered a profession and received a thorough training that included nursing and social welfare, a general education, and a focus on religion. With this structure, the motherhouse in Copenhagen in principle followed the German ideal of the institution for deaconesses in Kaiserswerth near Düsseldorf. Yet, there were some fundamental differences: The ‘patriarchal’ leadership structure typical for Kaiserswerth, with its theologian Principal and a Mother Superior, was established in Copenhagen only in 1913 after many years of conflict. Until that time the motherhouse had followed the Strasbourgian model, i.e. the management of the motherhouse had solely been in women’s hands. Furthermore, Dietz argues that from its beginning the Copenhagen training programme put a stronger emphasis on the nursing of the patient’s body than on the religiously motivated care for the soul.

Dietz tells the history of the deaconess motherhouse in the Nineteenth Century as a success story. The number of its members significantly increased from only six in 1865 to 257 Sisters in 1900, and the motherhouse in Copenhagen became the seventh largest member of the Kaiserswerth network of motherhouses. During the entire period, the typical deaconess was a young woman from the lower middle classes, born and raised in Middle Jutland in a family of farmers or craftsmen, and a member of the Danish folk church (the Evangelical Lutheran Church). The training to become a deaconess lasted approximately five years after which she was consecrated as a full member of the community.

While the membership numbers rose, the motherhouse simultaneously expanded its broad spectrum of social institutions, especially hospitals and welfare provision for children and poor people. The hospital that was affiliated with the motherhouse served as a training institution for the deaconesses. In addition, the sisters served as nurses in public hospitals and attended to patients as private carers. In 1914 the sisters worked in 122 locations in addition to the institutions that belonged to the motherhouse. Some sisters were even sent to work in other countries.

In addition to examining the diversity of deaconess activity and vocation in the period, Dietz convincingly shows how this initially highly successful model of Protestant welfare and health care was subject to an increasing pressure for professionalisation at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The deaconesses had been pioneers in Denmark during the Nineteenth Century in creating a thorough training programme in nursing. Yet the emphasis here had been to provide well-rounded practical schooling and religious education. Especially the religious training, Dietz argues, was crucial for the formation of the collective identity of the deaconesses. By contrast theoretical instructions in nursing had occurred more sporadically and less systematically. Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century the motherhouse could no longer compete with non-religious institutions that trained large numbers of people and based their programmes on professional nursing standards. The foundation of the Danish Nurses’ Organization (Dansk Sygeplejeråd), in 1899, enabled secular nurses to form their own organisation which would become a significant voice supporting the call for the professionalisation of nursing.

Dietz shows that at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the deaconesses were surprisingly willing as a matter of course to adhere to the continuously growing demands for a structured and theoretically sound training programme. In matters of education the motherhouse collaborated closely with the Danish Nurses’ Organization and, beginning in 1908, regularly adjusted its training regulations to fulfil new requirements. Moreover, the motherhouse systematically began to train nurses who did not want to become deaconesses. These training reforms not only affected the training practice but the configuration of the hospital as a place that provided practical training to nurses. In 1919 a medical department was newly formed when the Danish Nurses’ Organization demanded that the students should be educated for eight months in such a department. This speaks to the close relationship between the history of nursing and the rise of the hospital.

A particularly impressive example of the openness of the motherhouse towards modernity was when it named Sister Victoria Jensen as its new principal in 1914. Sister Victoria was not only an honourable member of the Danish Nurses’ Organization, she was also very active in the women’s suffrage movement. The collaboration between the Danish deaconess movement and the women’s movement differs fundamentally from the German situation where both groups were strongly opposed to each other.

The expansion of the Danish welfare state finally posed another challenge. Social legislation introduced in 1933 resulted in the Danish state largely assuming the responsibility for the welfare of its population. Those benefits that had been previously regarded as charity now became obligatory welfare state benefits that the state had to provide. Dietz explores the impact of these changes on denominational welfare services such as the Deaconesses, and shows that the Danish welfare state could only achieve its new mandates with the help of motherhouses and the Protestant nurses. At the same time, the deaconess motherhouse became more dependent on the state as it began to receive state funding for its institutions and needed to follow new professional standards that the state mandated. On the one hand the motherhouse benefited from the expansion of state social benefits, and on the other hand it had to adapt to the new state requirements, e.g. in the area of nursing training. Thus, Dietz argues, the deaconess motherhouse increasingly lost its autonomy.

With this book Dietz has provided a well-written study full of details that shed new light on the internal conflicts and debates on the configuration of the Sisterhood of deaconesses, the organisation of their work domains, and the training of nurses. Furthermore, Dietz successfully masters the double challenge of presenting both a Jubiläumsschriftand an academic monograph. For that reason this book will be of interest to readers who want to find out more about the specific history of the motherhouse and its institutions, as well as to those readers who are curious about the superordinate issues, including the history of gender, religion, nursing, and the welfare state in Denmark over the last two centuries.