"I have, despite all disillusionment, never, never allowed myself to feel like giving up. This is my message today; it is not worthy of a human being to give up."
- Alva Myrdal, in her acceptance speech for the first Einstein Peace Prize.
Alva Myrdal: The Simpler Facts
Alva Myrdal, neé Alva Reimer, was born to middle-class parents in Uppsala, Sweden, on January 31, 1902. Alva grew to remember her childhood with great bitterness. Her mother balked at letting her pursue higher education, and feared germs to such an extent that she wouldn't allow Alva to bring home library books. She escaped into the arms of Stockholm University, graduating in 1924 with a bachelor of arts degree, and soon married Gunnar Myrdal.
Gunnar Myrdal himself became a brilliant economist, social engineer, and Nobel Prize winner. Their marriage was one of strong minds and strong wills, often stormy. Their daughter Sissela later said,
"In some ways their marriage was a conversation which started when they first met and really went on as long as it could be despite the ups and downs. My mother always used to say that she had never met another man who was as interesting to talk to, and that she felt to the end of her life."
The couple wrote together, most notably a book entitled (what in Swedish translates to) "Crisis in the Population Question" published in 1934, and worked on many theories of social engineering. They traveled to the United States several times. In the late 1920s, Alva became a Rockefeller Foundation fellow, studying current sociological theories of family decline and ideas of state schools as substitutes for the family.
Alva studied in both the United States and Switzerland before obtaining her master of arts degree from the University of Uppsala in 1934, by which time she was already considered an expert on child care, women's issues and population problems.
Her skills did not stop there. Alva Myrdal had many lives, including a twenty-year teaching career; nine honorary doctorates; seven years as chair of the Swedish chapter of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women and a nine-year stint as the entire Federation's vice chair (1938-1947); she held four peace awards; she designed collective houses, held many political positions, wrote many books, and became an international authority on nuclear disarmament.
In 1975, she described herself to the Christian Science Monitor: "All my life I have been championing the underdog. I have worked for the equality of children with adults, of women with men, of the poor with the rich, of poor countries with rich countries and of lesser powers with strong nations."
She was bedridden for the last two years of her life, hospitalized in January of 1984 with heart trouble, and had a brain tumor that intermittently prevented her from speech. She died in 1986 of undisclosed causes. During the prior eighty-four years, however, she lived not one but many lives, and lived them well....
Alva Myrdal: Sociologist
"....One of the great persons of our period. Though mostly known for her actions against nuclear war and her pro-human rights activities, she was very important in the social development of Sweden, a model, I would say, for everybody.
A humanist and a political person, she contributed very much to the shape of modern Sweden's social programs. Her husband, Gunnar, of course, was equally committed to all these things. He also was a strong person, and they made a fantastically powerful team." - Jerome B. Wiesner, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as quoted in her Boston Globe obituary.
Sweden is famous around the world today for its socialist economic and social policies; less well-known is the fact that Alva Myrdal was the creator of most of these programs.
In the 1930s, Sweden was in a state of crisis. The country had a severe housing shortage, and widespread poverty. Most of the globe was in a state of economic depression. Families were (over)crowded into tenements which often did not even have running water. Tuberculosis was running rampant.
Ikea notwithstanding, Swedish design has been a major part of the movement toward social equality. Like the Volkswagen bug, a German design meant to create cheap cars that were easy to fix so the automobile would become accessible to the masses, Swedish design has become a physical manifestation of Swedish ideals. As Sissela Bok remarked, "Swedish design really was part of the social reform movement that aimed at making it possible for people to live better. That went along with an encouragement of beauty and style, of color. My mother cared very much about that."
In 1933 Sweden's social housing committee began to develop a housing policy which would not be finished for about ten years. The state started subsidizing the construction of houses for large and low-income families. At least three children were required before a family could rent a one-bedroom flat in one of these houses. Twelve thousand such flats were built in the next fifteen years.
Alva Myrdal was literally a social engineer, or at least a social architect. Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other early feminists, she held a view of "material feminism" in which people's environments could be improved to change their lives. Much of Alva's work to liberate families came through designing such homes. She helped design a radical new home with features such as a moveable partition which could split the master bedroom into two rooms to provide partners with some privacy and personal space when needed. It was also designed so that the living room could turn into a bedroom via a sofa bed.
These houses were designed as affordable, if small, homes for the working class, and came to be known as "Myrdal houses."
Alva Myrdal also worked on group homes, which were partially intended to let families have private space but share child care so that they could more easily find and go to work. Radical architect Sven Markelius and she worked together to come up with principles for these solutions to Sweden's housing problems. They focused especially on families with working mothers or two working parents. Their collective housing ("kollektivhus") was aimed at middle-class families, spreading the housing solutions across a wide section of the Swedish population.
The main concept behind all of this was functionalism, which portrayed schools, families, and other social institutions as cogs in a machine or organs in a body. Each part contributes something to the functioning of the system as a whole, and each part can break down. Functionalists tried to figure out what role each part played, how to know when it was broken, and how to fix it.
Alva Myrdal even played a significant role in designing the Swedish embasssy in India. Her daughter later said, "She said she wanted it to be democratic, that is, in parentheses, cheap. She didn't want the Indians to have to be impressed by great luxury. And she filled it with the best of Swedish design. Swedish design really was part of the social reform movement that aimed at making it possible for people to live better. That went along with an encouragement of beauty and style, of color. She cared very much about that."
On the scary side, for a time she engaged in the then-popular Swedish pastime of advocating eugenics as a solution to population problems. In 1939, she described her nation's policies to the Birth Control Federation of America. She wanted to show them a governmental population policy unlike "the turmoil of contemporary fascist and communist experiments."
Sweden at the time seemed to face "a catastrophic decline in her population in the future." The plan, therefore, was to include both the carrot and the stick, making parenting easier through state-sponsored child care and other assistance, while deterring others. She stated that "a small bottom layer of society could rightly be regarded as biologically inferior... the scope for negative eugenics thus becomes narrow." In 1934, Sweden put into place a law which entailed forced sterilization "of persons suffering from grave hereditary character and themselves incapable of consent. So far," according to Alva, "these cases (had) not outnumbered 250 annually and (had) consisted mainly of mental defectives." She also felt it was important to consider the not-quite-"inferior." Sweden provided "voluntary sterilization" for people with different illnesses or deformities, including epilepsy, or who "would be incapable of caring for or rearing children." Alva Myrdal proposed a program of strong propaganda and birth control promotion for groups that the government considered "unfavorable to child rearing."
On the positive side, the programs that Alva as well as Gunnar helped create focused on:
Between the Depression and the impact of World War Two
upon the world, these programs were not funded and implemented until the 1950s
. According to Pelle Nilsson, "to a very large extent, the Swedish cradle-to-grave welfare state, applauded by some, deplored by others, is designed by Gunnar and Alva Myrdal."
Alva Myrdal: Political Leader
Her political positions included:
Member of Sweden's Parliament (1962-70)
Leader of Sweden's delegation to the UN Disarmament Conference in Geneva (1961-73) Minister of Disarmament and Church Affairs, and Sweden's third female cabinet minister (1967-73)
- Head of the Department of Social Welfare of UNESCO, and the first woman to be appointed head of a department in the United Nations Secretariat (1949-50)
- Director of the Department of Social Sciences of UNESCO (1950-56)
- Swedish ambassador (1955-61) to:
Feeling overwhelmed and behind schedule? Remember that she spent many decades deferring to her husband's career, and later remarked that "I had not held my first important position until I was forty years old."
Alva Myrdal's work in New Delhi from 1955 to 1959 gave birth to a close friendship with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and inspired her to broaden her social goals to world peace.
Her political work from that time on was focused on nuclear disarmament worldwide. In 1982, she and her husband were presented with the $10,000 Nehru Award for International Understanding, which is awarded "for outstanding contributions to the promotion of international understanding, goodwill and friendship among the peoples of the world." In her first speech as delegate to the United Nations Disarmament Conference, she spoke out for a nuclear test ban treaty, and continued this radical work through books, speeches, and political work for the rest of her life.
Alva Myrdal: Good Mother
"They tell me that they find they disapprove of what my mother did, while at the same time they are cheering her on. I think that may not be an uncommon reaction. I think there is a degree of sympathy. Women today have had to deal with those really hard choices and we all know that it's impossible to be two places at once. So we have to choose one place, and then face the consequences, which are never easy in either case." - Sissela Bok
Alva's first job with the United Nations was not the first time she had been offered such work, but she had always turned it down before. Part of the reason she put them off was that she had two daughters still living at home; she left for New York to become Head of the Department of Social Welfare when the elder of them, Sissela, was fifteen.
Sissela understood at a very young age that her mother was striking out on new paths for women in the world, and how she always saw her mother and her father as equals. Eleanor Roosevelt once asked Sissela if she was Gunnar Myrdal's daughter; Sissela answered that she was "Alva Myrdal's daughter as well."
Toward the end of Alva's life, Sissela wrote a book entitled "Alva Myrdal: A Daughter's Memoir." She speaks of the aching loneliess her younger sister Kaj felt at her mother's absence, the happiness and freedom Alva discovered on her own, the caricature that Alva and Gunnar's marriage had become, and the thriving relationship Sissela had with her mother as an adult.
As the Boston Globe wrote in their review,
"The book presents Alva Myrdal whole. Not as some kind of cardboard heroine, but as a woman who made compromises, a woman who pushed herself to grow, a woman who made mistakes and suffered for them, a woman who cared passionately about the fate of the world and who acted, albeit rationally, on those passions. Alva Myrdal not only lived life on a grand scale, a life peopled with characters like Ralph Bunche and Jawaharlal Nehru, but she also embraced the daily-ness of its details as women have from the beginning of time." (Men, one assumes, somehow embrace only major political figures.) "She cared about clothes, about her house, about food and her embroidery and what kind of wedding her daughter would have.... (Sissela) hopes her mother's life story will resonate for those readers, men and women both, who are grappling with the questions of how to make a life, how to weave the strands of love and work, how to achieve and maintain some balance and identity as an individual within a marriage, a family and a community."
Alva Myrdal: Bad Mother
There was a third child in their family: older brother Jan.
Jan struggled with his parents, especially with his father's egocentrism, and left home early. In some ways, Alva and Gunnar's family re-created the family Alva resented so much: both were (on the surface) progressive families with the latest in child-rearing theories. Jan viewed Alva as someone who knew what was best for everyone and how to fix every problem in the world except for her own. Gunnar was, by Jan's account, an extremely emotionally distant father; in one account, Jan describes getting his thumb slammed in a car door at age eleven, and Gunnar's hostile instruction that he hide his hurt thumb when they reach United States customs to avoid being thought syphilitic.
We can only guess at the antagonism roiling under the surface of a family in which Alva informed on Jan to New York McCarthyist immigration officials in 1953, whereupon his visa was revoked. He became even more alienated from his immediate family, speaking caustically of Sissela and loathing Alva and Gunnar. Often, Jan lived with (and loved, and was loved by) his grandparents during Alva and Gunnar's international trips. Eventually, he wrote his own book on their family, calling it simply "Childhood."
Of his book, the Boston Globe wrote,
The viewpoint of the child with its contrasts of vast space and the intimate detail of familiar rooms, its casual schoolyard cruelties and chance epiphanies (a Zeppelin glittering over the Alps, telephone wires singing), its web of prohibitions and fantasy systems, is acutely rendered. A chapter that begins, "One late winter day I drowned," blends hair-raising reality with the visionary. The boys of Stockholm play a dangerous game, leaping from ice floe to ice floe across the Karlberg Canal, and, when he was 5, Jan slipped out of the house at dawn. A reddish moon still hung over the canal; he jumped; the ice was porous and he went under. Even now he cannot say how he got out, nor how he could prove himself alive to parents for whom he was already invisible.
And of his sister's:
Bok has come to believe that people, by and large, invent their own childhoods. They remember what they choose to remember. They cast past events in certain lights depending on who they have grown up to become. Some people choose to focus on the pain, if there has been pain, and refuse to let it go. Others integrate what is past and move forward. But it is always a selective and deliberate process.
Alva Myrdal: Nobel Prize Winner
"In an impassioned address in Oslo on Dec. 12, 1982 -- two months after winning the Nobel Prize -- Mrs. Myrdal attacked both the United States and the Soviet Union by name for 'creating a cult of violence' threatening global war and breeding urban crime. 'There is no doubt that what the superpowers are planning . . . is precisely the preparation for waging war,' she said. . . 'The age in which we live can be described as one of barbarism.'" -
Alva Myrdal's work in the nuclear disarmament movement, above all else, earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. She shared the prize with Alfonso García Robles. The Nobel Committee chose to share the prize between two prominent leaders of the disarmament movement in order to best support and celebrate that cause, citing the hope that both of them had brought to the world through their work.
In 1981, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize but passed over in favor of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The outcry in Norway gave rise to a movement which raised $60,000 to present to Alva as the Norwegian People's Prize. While she always described the Nobel Prize as the peak of her career, she said the Norwegian People's Prize was dearer to her heart.
Alva had come to be called "The Grand Old Lady of Swedish politics" by the time she resigned her last position in 1973. She continued writing and lecturing on disarmament until her health began to deteriorate in the 1980s. United Nations negotiators called her "the conscience of the
disarmament movement," and all sides celebrated her upon her resignation. The United States negotiator said, "I bear many scars testifying to her effectiveness."
Let us close by visiting her acceptance speech:
My main purpose today is to express my warmly felt thanks to the Norwegian Nobel Committee for granting me this year's Nobel Prize for the cause of peace.
I also extend my thanks to the large groups of people who have, due to a new awareness, brought forth a strong popular movement for peace. Now sounds the cry "Down with nuclear weapons!"
My gratitude also goes to those great numbers of experts and authors in many countries who have destroyed false misconceptions and provided us with powerful arguments for a cessation of this competition in overarmament.
All mankind is now learning that these nuclear weapons can only serve to destroy, never become beneficial. And thus we can hope that men will understand that the interest of all are the same, that hope lies in cooperation. We can then perhaps keep PEACE.
America's Role in International Social Welfare (1960)
Den största felräkningen : kapprustningen i världen (1975)
Dynamics of European Nuclear Disarmament (1981)
The Game of Disarmament: How the United States & Russia Run the Arms Race (1976; revised 1982)
Nation and Family (In print; 1965)
Population Crisis (with Gunnar Myrdal, 1934)
War, Weapons and Everyday Violence (1977)
Women's two roles: home and work (With V. Klein; 1968)
Alva Myrdal: A Daughter's Memoir (Radcliffe Biography Series)
by Sissela Bok (In print)
Alva: ett kvinnoliv
by Sissela Bok (In print)
Alva Myrdal: "Förnuftet måste segra!"
by Lars G. Lindskog
Alva Myrdal: från storbarnkammare til fredspris
by Brita Åkerman
Childhood by Jan Myrdal
De tre löven: en myrdalsk efterskrift
by Kaj Fölster
Elin Wägner och Alva Myrdal: en dialog om kvinnorna och samhället
by Margareta Lindholm
Talet om det kvinnliga: studier i feministiskt tänkande i Sverige under 1930-talet
by Margareta Lindholm
Resources and References
A picture, and some slight information from the Nobel Prize website: http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1982/
Heroines of the Nobel Peace Prize: http://www.nobel.se/peace/articles/heroines/
Review of "A Daughter's Memoir" and interview with Sissela Bok in the Boston Globe: http://www.boston.com/globe/search/stories/nobel/1991/1991z.html
Review of Jan Myrdal's "Childhood":
Alva Myrdal's obituary: http://www.boston.com/globe/search/stories/nobel/1986/1986z.html
An article on An American Dilemma and the Myrdals: http://www.amren.com/964issue/964issue.html
A paper examining Alva Myrdal's social housing work: www.pcr.uu.se/myrdal/pdf/kirsi_saarikangas.pdf
Alva Myrdal and eugenics: http://www.eugenics-watch.com/roots/chap11.html
The Myrdals as social engineers: http://www.geocities.com/pelle108/history/part12/part_12.htm
Press release for a Nordika Museet installation on Swedish design: