Alma Norsell was one of the few young women who was an active trade unionist in Stockholm around the turn of the twentieth century.
Alma Norsell was born in Järfälla in 1870. She came from a simple background. Her father worked as a miner and farm labourer, which were both low-paid forms of employment. Having completed basic schooling, Alma Norsell began to work as a maid, initially at a farm in Bromma and then for a family in Stockholm. She became a seamstress when she was in her 20s. She joined the Sömmerskornas fackförening (the trade union of seamstresses), which had been established in 1890. From 1892 to 1897 she was the trade union secretary. She then became treasurer of the Kvinnliga herrskräderiarbetarförening (the female men’s wear workers’ association) from 1898 to 1902, an association which had been set up when women began to work in men's wear. During the 1890s trade union activism mainly involved setting up trade unions and women faced two-fold opposition in this sphere – not only from employers but also from male-dominated trade unions. The Swedish trade union of tailors initially only supported male workers. Eventually female workers in men’s-wear were allowed to join, but at the 1901 conference Alma Norsell was the sole female participant. This did not stop her from enthusiastically vocalising issues important to the female members at the conference.
In 1901 Alma Norsell was elected as the trade union representative on the committee for female activism, “Agitationskommittén”. Various trade unions dominated by women and two Social Democratic women’s clubs in Stockholm (Allmänna klubben and Södra klubben) had come together to form Agitationskommittén. In 1902 it was decided that the committee would be turned into a trade union called Kvinnornas fackförbund (the Women’s Trade Union). Alma Norsell was selected as one of the representatives on the steering committee when it was set up in 1903. The Women’s Trade Union grew and successfully campaigned for increases in their members’ wages. Alma Norsell participated in both a strike and a lock-out before she moved away from Stockholm in 1903. At that time she was also active in Södra Kvinnoklubben, where she served as the chair in 1903.
Alma Norsell’s promising political and trade unionist career was disrupted in 1903 when she left Stockholm and married Anders Norsell. Anders was a tailor who was also a travelling agitator and a union representative for local Social Democratic newspapers, initially in Borås and subsequently in various localities in Värmland. Alma Norsell travelled with her husband, had children with him and set up women’s clubs. Their first son was born in 1906 in Borås, where Alma Norsell had established a women’s club. Their second son was born in 1908 after they had moved to Arvika and Alma Norsell had founded another women’s club. This pattern was repeated in Karlstad, where she became the chair of the newly-established women’s club in 1908 and then two years later, in 1910, gave birth to her daughter.
During the major strike of 1909 Alma Norsell was the chair of Karlstad women’s club and organised meetings with female workers. She was the main speaker at a mass women’s demonstration in Karlstad which had 1000 participants. A few years later she helped to set up Värmland’s kvinnodistrikt (a non-profit organisation for women). In addition she also participated as a delegate at several of the Social Democrat women’s conferences in Stockholm, where she made known the views of countryside women. There were often great difficulties in reaching and organising women, something that Alma Norsell believed that the Stockholm-based leadership of the women’s associations was not always aware of. It also proved to be hard to get women from the countryside interested in suffrage.
Hulda Andersson (later married as Flood) – who later became the first female deputy secretary of the Social Democratic party – served as chair of the Karlstad club for a time. She became a close friend of Alma Norsell. They were both seamstresses. Alma Norsell had returned to her former occupation in 1912 in Karlstad, presumably as a seamstress who worked from home. She continued to travel and agitate for the cause, now officially appointed as the women’s club’s agitator. When the kvinnodistrikt of Värmland was established in 1915 both Alma Norsell and Hulda Flood were in the steering committee. Alma Norsell was the chair and Hulda Flood was the secretary. Alma Norsell remained the district chair, with a brief interruption, until 1935. She also served on the county council and the local municipality.
Women first gained the right to vote in the 1921 national election. Both the Social Democrats and the women’s clubs relied on agitation amongst the female population. According to one source 25 women were active in the centrally-organised election campaign. The Social Democratic women who were most prominent were those who were running for a seat in parliament, namely, Agda Östlund and Nelly Thüring. Alma Norsell was also constantly out and about and motivating women to vote. Her husband was also running for a seat in parliament for the Social Democrats in the election. He won a seat in the second chamber and remained active there until his death in 1935.
As Signe Vessman, the chair of the women’s club, wrote in Morgonbris on the occasion of Alma Norsell’s death, Alma was “clever and modest, warm and motherly”. Alma and Anders Norsell’s marriage was viewed as unusually egalitarian at the time. Alma Norsell had continued to work after moving away from Stockholm, albeit more politically than unionistic. She died in Karlstad in 1948 and is buried at Rud cemetery.