Myrdal, Alva

views updated May 29 2018

Alva Myrdal

Nobel Prize-winning Swedish diplomat and social reformer Alva Myrdal (1902-1986) worked to revolutionize her country's social welfare system, as well as to end the proliferation of nuclear weaponry in the second half of the twentieth century.

Swedish educator and diplomat Alva Myrdal was one of the most influential social reformers of the 20th century. Seeking to end inequalities among all peoples, she addressed these inequalities beginning with their root in education. In the 1930s she authored several books focusing on education, women's rights, and the role of the state in promoting human welfare, broadening her focus in the 1950s to encompass nuclear disarmament among the world's superpowers. Winner of the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize for her work as part of the U.N.-led disarmament talks in Geneva, Switzerland, during the 1960s, Myrdal's most esteemed book, 1977's The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race, proved influential with its forward-looking view of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and its strident argument for world peace.

Alva Reimer Myrdal was born January 31, 1902, in Uppsala, Sweden, one of five children born to middle-class parents Albert and Lova (Larsson) Reimer. Her father, a building contractor involved in local politics, was a staunch social democrat whom Myrdal admired; her relationship with her rigid, tradition-minded mother was more complex. From both her parents she gained a desire to contribute to the betterment of society.

An intelligent child, Myrdal fought with her mother to attend Uppsala's gymnasium, even offering to pay the costs with her own money. She won that battle, and went on to attend the University of Stockholm, where she earned her B.A. in Scandinavian languages and literature and the history of religion in 1924. That same year she married Karl Gunnar Myrdal, a freshly minted economist who would win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974. Alike in intellect and socialist leanings, the Myrdals would have three children—son Jan and daughters Sissela and Kaj—although their marriage was not an easy one due to Gunnar's demanding job and Alva's desire to be both responsible mother and supportive wife.

Promoted State-sponsored Childrearing

In 1929 the Myrdals traveled to the United States on Rockefeller fellowships, and Alva Myrdal pursued her interest in education by studying the nation's experimental schools, particularly a program of early education administered by Yale University professor Arnold Gessel. She returned to Sweden a year later inspired to study further, and from 1930 to 1931 attended the University of Geneva, ultimately transferring her credits toward a master's degree in social psychology at the University of Uppsala. Graduating from Uppsala in 1934, Myrdal worked as a teacher in Stockholm. Then, in 1932, she got a job as an assistant psychologist at the city's central prison. Returning to teaching three years later, she established a preschool teachers' training college, the Social Pedagogical Institute, which she directed until 1948, and through which she promoted her progressive theories regarding child care.

Myrdal believed strongly that the state should play a responsible role in the raising of Sweden's young, and that teachers of young children should be not only disseminators of facts; they should be trained in developmental and behavioral psychology. Opposed to punishment of any kind, Myrdal believed discipline and good habits could be instilled through repetition. She incorporated many of the methods used by Maria Montessori to achieve the latter goal.

As a noted educator, Myrdal found herself in a position to make changes in her country's educational policies, and the Myrdal home became a place where major intellectuals of the day would often gather to discuss such issues. Although she was an effective speaker, she more frequently put her thoughts into book form, a habit she would continue throughout her life. 1934's Kris i befolkinsfrägen (Crisis in the Population Question) addresses Gunnar and Alva's joint concerns over housing, poverty, and education prompted by Sweden's shrinking birth rate; the book was influential in directing the course of national welfare programs throughout Scandinavia. Her 1941 book Nation and Family would prove equally influential in the United States.

While continuing her role as director of the Social Pedagogical Institute, Myrdal broadened her concerns by the end of the 1930s, responding to the war advancing through Europe as well as a result of her exposure to new ideas at Columbia University, where she and her husband lectured due to Gunnar's receipt of a Carnegie grant from 1937 to 1942. A brief return to Sweden in 1940 left the Myrdals concerned over the pro-Nazi sentiment that was beginning to influence their country, and they wrote frequently on their concerns in an effort to counteract this fascist tide.

Developed Unique Feminist Viewpoint

The late 1940s found Myrdal increasingly active and influential in the diplomatic realm. The first woman to be awarded a high-level position at the United Nations, Myrdal was appointed principal director of the U.N.'s department of social affairs in 1949. For the first time she recognized that her job was as important as that of her husband, and she made the temporary move to New York alone. Two years later she moved from New York City to Paris to serve as director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s department of social sciences. Among her colleagues at the United Nations, Myrdal gained respect as a skilled, well-reasoned negotiator, a skill that stood her in good stead throughout her diplomatic career. She also gained an ever-greater appreciation of the problems faced by working mothers, particularly poorer, undereducated women, through her work in New York and Paris. In 1956 she would crystallize her thoughts on the changing role of women in her book Women's Two Roles, coauthored with British psychologist Viola Klein.

Women's Two Roles takes its title from Myrdal's belief, shared with Klein, that women in modern society are living, in essence, "two lives." Basing their argument on studies showing that the average life span of a woman in 1854 was only 45 years, most of that time spent raising six children; a century later women lived for 75 years, had three children, and gained approximately 30 years of quality life in which they could undertake a productive second career. Her theories connected with her earlier work as an educator, where she had realized that a revolution in child-rearing practices had the potential to free all women from a life of domesticity. While the book's controversial theories were at odds with those of American feminists, who did not view motherhood as the crucial task Myrdal believed it to be, as well as others who viewed a "second life" as a possibility only for educated, affluent women, Women's Two Roles was translated into several languages.

Resolute Advocate of World Peace

Returning to her native Sweden in 1955, Myrdal was appointed ambassador to India and minister to Ceylon until 1962, beginning a decade of ambassadorial positions that took advantage of her skills as a negotiator. While in India, she met the country's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose pacifist philosophy greatly influenced Myrdal to extend her efforts beyond Sweden and work for world peace. While she was sometimes criticized for her positions on universal compulsory community service in place of a military draft as well as her oft-quoted opinion that peace marches are used only by those who lack political power—which not surprisingly angered many politically active college students of the day—Myrdal persuaded many in adopting her own belief that in order to achieve world peace rhetoric was not enough: peace would only come through negotiation and the development of well-reasoned, concrete plans for action.

After leaving India in 1962, she served as minister to Burma from 1955 to 1958 and ambassador to Nepal in 1960. In 1961 the 59-year-old diplomat began a five-year stint as Sweden's ambassador-at-large. Returning home to Sweden, she requested an appointed special assistant on disarmament affairs, developing her expertise on the subject. As her expertise grew, so did her fear over the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. In 1961 Myrdal gave her first speech asking the superpowers to implement a nuclear test ban, and from that point on she was an outspoken critic of the cold-war policies of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), policies which by then had them aiming nuclear weapons at cities around the globe. Also elected to the senate of the Swedish Parliament in 1962, disarmament became one of Myrdal's central concerns in representing her constituency.

Nominated as a member of Sweden's delegation to the U.N. General Assembly between 1962 and 1973, Myrdal represented her country's delegation to the disarmament conferences held in Geneva, Switzerland. While in Geneva she spoke out, in representing the unaligned nations of the world, against the threat of destruction posed by nuclear aggression. As minister in charge of disarmament after 1966, she also chaired the 1972 U.N. committee on disarmament and development. When she retired a year later, many of her colleagues expressed their appreciation for her many years of tireless service in public tributes.

Following her retirement, Myrdal devoted her time to publishing work in the area of disarmament. In her 1977 work The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race she accuses the two world superpowers of fueling the arms race because of self-interest rather than world safety, and strongly criticizes their unwillingness to disarm. Other books include 1977's Wars, Weapons, and Everyday Violence, and Dynamics of European Nuclear Disarmament, published in 1981. Widely praised, Myrdal's books were distributed throughout North America, Britain, and Europe in their English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish translations.

Won Nobel Peace Prize

Myrdal was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for her advocacy of world disarmament; she shared the Prize with Mexican diplomat Alfonso García Robles. Among her many other awards were the West German Peace Prize, the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, and the People's Peace Prize.

Retiring from diplomatic service at the age of 70, Myrdal returned to the field of education, and taught sociology at a number of U.S. schools, among them the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wellesley College, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In her writings she went beyond national aggressions to focus on the roots of social violence. Her belief in science as a source of understanding led to her promotion of social science and psychological research in this area prompted her to help in the establishment of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. She also supported the work of the Myrdal Foundation in its additional efforts in this area. "The ruin of the planet is there for all to contemplate," she wrote in her preface to the 1982 of The Game of Disarmament. "But so, too, is its potential richness if we learn to cooperate."

An active, energetic woman, Myrdal enjoyed many hobbies during her eventful life, among them traveling, walking, and bicycling. She also enjoyed cooking and often attending the theatre with her husband. Throughout her life she read extensively in international affairs as well as enjoying fiction and poetry, which she read in the original English, French, German, and Spanish. Myrdal died in Stockholm in February of 1986; her husband died the following year.


Bok, Sissela, Alva Myrdal: A Daughter's Memoir, Addison-Wesley, 1991.

Carlson, Allan C., The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis, Transaction Publishers, 1990.

Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.

Myrdal, Alva, The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race, Manchester University Press, 1977, revised edition, Pantheon, 1982.


American Journal of Sociology, November 1957.

Boston Globe, February 3, 1986.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1986.

Change, November 1999.

New York Review of Books, March 5, 1992.

People, August 11, 1980.


Alva Myrdal Conference Web site, (March 6-8, 2002).

Nobel Museum Web site,

About this article

Alva Myrdal

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic