Alva Myrdal, the woman who helped transform Sweden from a poor country into an example of development – 06/07/2021 – Worldwide

“We have seen this competition, this race to build excessive and meaningless arsenals. My message here today will have to be that I believe the world is sick.”

This is what the Swedish Alva Myrdal (1902-1986) said with her typical frankness, in 1982, when she received the Nobel Peace Prize.

She was born at the beginning of this century, in a very different world, where there were no nuclear weapons and where Sweden, her native country, was almost unrecognizable: a land of farmers, poor and patriarchal.

“At the beginning of this century, Sweden was practically the poorest country in Europe, and Alva could not go to primary school because girls were not allowed (to go to school) where she lived in the countryside “, explains Kaj Foelster. , one of their daughters at the BBC.

His father, Albert Reimer, had received little formal education but was highly educated.

Young Alva devoured her library full of books by German and Swedish socialist authors and philosophers, which convinced her father “to support her so that she could study, but they had to pay teachers outside the school. school”.

In addition to what he learned in these private lessons, Alva learned about politics and social justice ideas from his father, one of the early members of the Social Democratic Party who would dominate Swedish politics in the past. mid-twentieth century.

Reimer was interested in new ideas, ideas that were soon absorbed by his eldest daughter.

“Since the age of three or four, she has sat under the table during meetings to listen to these men’s debates,” her daughter told BBC Witness History.

bike love

At 17, Alva met a student who changed her life.

While on vacation, Gunnar Myrdal rode a cycle path with friends and one day he stopped at Alva’s family farm.

“He thought he could brag about everything he knew, but when she asked him to read it [o filósofo alemão Arthur] Schopenhauer (1788-1860), he is surprised. This is how this great love began. “

They married in 1924, when Alva was 22, and they imagined it would be a union based on partnership, that they would live, study, write, and venture together.

Alva went to Stockholm to join Gunnar at university. He studied law and later economics, an area in which he would win a Nobel Prize. She studied librarianship.

In 1929, when they were offered the possibility of spending a year in the United States on a scholarship, they decided to accept, although they had to leave their son Jan, who was barely two years old, with his family. in Sweden (which, according to her other daughter, Sissela Bok, Alva would later consider one of the big mistakes of her life).

“This should not happen with Sweden”

For Alva and Gunnar, it was a turning point.

They arrived in the United States at the height of the Great Depression. And as they traveled across the country, what they saw surprised them.

“This is where they became really politically aware. They were terrified that there was so much poverty in the richest country in the world, and they were convinced that this should not happen with the Sweden, ”says Foelster.

A few years after their return to Sweden, Gunnar and Alva published a book that caused an uproar in the country.

The book dealt with a hot topic: how to improve the birth rate of the country, then the lowest in Europe.

In the book “Crisis in the Question of Population,” published in 1934, they argued that in order to encourage people to have more children, state help was needed.

There should be free medical care, contraceptives and free school meals; universal social benefits and better and more affordable housing.

Women should be free to work or study, creating places where their children can be looked after during the day.

Alva and Gunnar argued that once all Swedes feel they have a decent basic standard of living, they will choose to have children.

And it worked.

“They came up with ideas that would allow all young families to have a place in society. That way they would want to have children. It was the most read book, and almost all of these reforms have come true. This is called the Swedish welfare state, “explains Foelster.

the illustrious couple

She and her sister grew up when their parents were famous, a 20-year-old couple who defied old habits.

Foelster recalls that they “were attacked a lot … but my mother never got angry. It was a society steeped in political change.”

“We had wonderful discussions. Gunnar looked at the issues in depth and Alva was always looking for solutions; he said there was always something that could be done.”

Alva has been described as the most modern woman of her time. Like many today, she juggled work, children, and a successful husband who wanted her help.

But in the 1930s and 1940s there weren’t many women working outside the home. How did she manage to deal with this?

“Be very strict with the weather. From 6 o’clock sharp, it was our ‘family time’: for two hours, we could have it just to ourselves.”

At 8:00 am, the girl said, Gunnar’s voice could be heard calling her.

“She ran sort of a time saver.”

unequal relationship

Alva continued to campaign during these years: she founded the first school to train preschool teachers in Sweden. And she saw how, one after another, the ideas she and Gunnar had articulated were adopted by the new Swedish welfare state.

But it was also clear that the partnership on which the union with her husband was to be based was one-sided.

Gunnar was a brilliant economist, but he was also a petulant and demanding man. Everything was subordinate to his job, including his wife.

When the Carnegie Corporation chose him to conduct their monumental study on “The Black American Question,” there was no doubt that his wife would be leaving Social Education Seminary to look after him in the United States.

When in 1945 it seemed likely that Gunnar would be appointed Swedish Minister of Commerce, Alva withdrew his name from the list of candidates for the post of Minister of Education in order to avoid a conflict.

When Julian Huxley asked Alva the following year to be director of the new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), she refused because her husband did not want to move to Paris, agency headquarters.

However, he wanted to head the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva and asked his wife to express interest in his rejection letter. He got the job.

True to his principles, however, it was not until after World War II that Alva felt able to leave him to make his way on the international scene.


In 1949, she was the first woman to be invited to a managerial post at the UN: head of the Department of Social Affairs in New York.

The following year, he went to Paris to head the Division of Social Sciences at Unesco.

In 1956, she published, in collaboration with the Austrian sociologist Viola Klein, “The Two Roles of Women”, an influential work published before the advent of the second wave of feminism, but which anticipated many of its arguments.

And ended up also inadvertently prophesying a suffering that would await them.

“Since in the realm of parenting there is the extraordinary situation of the product being able to judge both the producer and the production process, it is almost useless to aspire to perfection.”

“Once they are old enough to read psychological literature, many children, however, will accuse their parents of having committed one or another or both sin.”

But before those words spill over into her own story, she still:

She was chosen as envoy from Sweden to India, where she remained until 1960; He wrote Our Responsibility for the Poor: A Social Front for Development Problems; She was elected to Parliament as a Social Democrat; He planned and then chaired the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Become the only disarmament minister in the world; Won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But above all, for two decades, she devoted her passion and energy to one of the great themes of the Cold War: nuclear disarmament.

And in 1962, the Swedish government named her the country’s top negotiator on the Eighteen Nations Committee on Disarmament.

army against madness

For her, the growing arms race was irrational and dangerous.

“She was not a radical pacifist,” her daughter said, “but she said she did not understand how some people could be so mad that they saw the arms race as a solution.”

She insisted that disarmament would bring much more security both to the superpowers and to all the peoples of the world.

“She liked the idea that there would be a whole army of opposition against this militarization,” adds Foelster.

With a powerful women’s movement backing her, Alva has assembled a coalition of non-aligned voices to advocate for concrete disarmament solutions, such as nuclear-weapon-free zones and a total nuclear-test ban treaty overseen by stations. earthquakes and satellites.

“She started out optimistically because she believed no one could be so crazy, but after ten years she wrote the book ‘The Disarmament Game’ to tell the world what she had seen: that the two big powers had neither the desire nor the intention to stop, ”recalls Foelster.

“I cannot give you good news on the disarmament negotiations. The truth is that what we have seen is a game, nothing more than a game,” said Alva Myrdal disappointed.

As there was no real disarmament after the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1971, it viewed its efforts as a failure.

However, she had demonstrated the leadership skills of women in a technically complex and crucial area of ​​Cold War diplomacy, and her proposals subsequently bore fruit.

But she didn’t see

“In the other environments she had worked in she saw progress, but in this one she didn’t. And when she won the Nobel Peace Prize she was very tired; she said that it was a little too late, “says her daughter BBC reporter Louise Hidalgo.

The prize was awarded to him for his work in the field of nuclear disarmament at the age of 80.

A few days after the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced her choice, she had to endure the pain of seeing her son turn publicly against her and her husband.

Jan Myrdal, 55, author of fiction and political literature, has published a book whose title can be translated as Childhood, but also as The Verdict of the Child.

And that was really what it was.

The book spawned a series, was read on the radio on weekends, and several reviews appeared in Swedish newspapers with headlines like “I hate my mom and dad because they never got me. given love “.

Alva Myrdal died four years later, in 1986.

In 1991, the writer and philosopher Sissela Bok published Alva Myrdal: Memoirs of a Girl, a clear response to the dark shadow that her brother had cast over her mother.

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