Myrdal, Alva (1902–1986)

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Myrdal, Alva (1902–1986)

Noted Swedish sociologist and UN official who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for her work in the cause of international disarmament. Pronunciation: Moor-DOLL. Born on January 31, 1902, in Uppsala, Sweden; died on February 1, 1986, of heart disease in Stockholm, Sweden; daughter of Albert Jansson Reimer and Lowa (Larsson) Reimer; graduated from special girls' gymnasium (secondary school) in Eskilstuna, 1920; graduated from the University of Stockholm, 1924; further graduate study in Britain, Germany, the United States, and Switzerland, 1925–31; received master's degree from University of Uppsala, 1934; married Gunnar Myrdal (an economist), on October 8, 1924; children: son Jan Myrdal (b. 1928); daughters, Sissela Myrdal Bok (b. 1934) and Kaj Myrdal (b. 1936).

Met Gunnar Myrdal (1919); went on a study tour of the U.S. (1929–30); suffered severe illness during stay in Switzerland (1931–32); worked as psychologist at a Swedish prison (1932–34); published first book, Crisis in the Population Problem (1934); served as adviser to the Swedish government on housing and population (1935); founded Training College for Nursery and Kindergarten Teachers (1936); edited Labor party journal (1936–38); resided in the U.S. (1938–40, 1941–42); was a Swedish representative to International Labor Organization conference in Paris (1946); appointed director of Department of Social Affairs, United Nations (1949); appointed director of Division of Social Sciences, UNESCO (1951); was Swedish ambassador to India (1955–61); published The Game of Disarmament (1976); won Albert Einstein Peace Prize (1980); won Nobel Peace Prize (1982).

Selected writings:

Crisis in the Population Question (1934); Contact with America (1941); Nation and the Family (1941); (with Viola Klein) Women's Two Roles (1956); The Game of Disarmament (1976).

Alva Myrdal was a leading Swedish sociologist, social activist, and government figure. Starting in the late 1940s, she played a significant role in the United Nations as well. Myrdal wrote major works on such topics as school reform, women's roles in a modern industrial society, and nuclear disarmament. Much of her work was done in collaboration with her husband Gunnar Myrdal, the author of An American Dilemma, a classic work on American race relations. She has been widely recognized as an authority on early childhood education who urged that youngsters be given a loving environment in which their individual differences were respected and cultivated. Ironically, Myrdal has been portrayed by her estranged son Jan as a mother who could not herself provide a warm and nurturing family environment. Her elder daughter, Sissela Myrdal Bok , has painted a more sympathetic picture of her multitalented and energetic mother.

Alva Reimer was born in the Swedish city of Uppsala on January 31, 1902, the daughter of Albert Jansson Reimer and Lowa Larsson Reimer . Alva's mother came from a prosperous farming family in the village of Eskilstuna in the province of Sodermanland, about 60 miles southwest of Stockholm. Her father came from a poorer rural family with ties to Sweden's Social Democratic labor movement. Albert Reimer, an activist in the both Social Democratic Party and the Swedish temperance movement, was an insurance agent at the time of Alva's birth, but he went on to become a successful building contractor. In 1914, her father took the family back to the countryside near Eskilstuna to run the farm his wife had inherited. There his political sympathies soon emerged. He built cooperative houses for members of the community, selling them to local buyers for the lowest price possible, and he soon took on local political offices. The political opinions held by Alva's mother were more conservative than those of her father, and the young girl noted that they even subscribed to different newspapers.

Alva had to struggle to get her education, since the local secondary school was reserved for the boys of the community. At her urging, Albert Reimer arranged for a small girls' secondary school to be set up, and she moved swiftly through the course, completing two years' work in one. She graduated with the highest honors in June 1922. Alva's determination to pay her father for the cost of her schooling made money a constant worry for her. Along with her family's long-standing financial ups and downs—Albert's income varied sharply over the years—this experience made Alva, in Bok's words, "punctilious about expenses" and often "parsimonious."

At the age of 17, Alva Reimer met Gunnar Myrdal, her future husband, when the young man stopped at the family farm with two other touring university students. In a daring move, she joined the group for two weeks of train travel and bicycling through the Swedish countryside. Gunnar was so impressed with the depth of her reading that, as Bok later put it, "Alva caused him to abandon for good his condescension" toward women's intellectual abilities. Alva herself was struck by her new friend's deep belief, drawn from the 18th-century Enlightenment, that greater understanding of human life and social conditions would set the stage for a vast improvement in these areas. The trip also saw the beginning of sexual relations between the two young people.

In 1922, Alva joined Gunnar at the University of Stockholm, where he studied law and she immersed herself in a variety of subjects such as European literature. She had been forced to give up an initial ambition to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist because no financial aid was available to support women pursuing such a goal. The two of them married on October 8, 1924, by which time Gunnar had won his law degree and Alva had finished her studies to obtain the Swedish equivalent of bachelor of arts. Their subsequent studies in a number of other European countries sharpened their mutual desire to work for social reform.

Alva remained awed by her husband's intellectual brilliance, and she rushed to support him in moments of discouragement. For example, Gunnar plunged into depression shortly after receiving his law degree because he saw no way to use legal work as a means to further his passionate desire to understand society. Alva quickly convinced him to turn his talents to economics, a field in which he soon acquired international eminence. But relations between the would-be social activists were often strained. Alva was disturbed by her role as intellectual helpmate and the consequent need to put aside her own ambitions. Living in continual financial straits added to her discontent. A particular trauma during the early years of their marriage was the miscarriage she suffered in the spring of 1926. Happily, her first child, a son named Jan, was born little more than a year later. Despite the burdens of motherhood, Alva continued to work for an advanced degree in psychology.

In 1929, the Myrdals left for a year's study in the United States. Both had received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation; Alva's project was to study American methodology of social psychology. Gunnar's separate project was a study of American methodology in economics and the social sciences. In a decision Alva soon regretted, they left Jan with his paternal grandparents. In the United States, Alva Myrdal worked with the noted sociologist Robert Lynd at Columbia University; together, they set out a program for her to study American work in the field of child development. Her travels to examine this area took her from Yale University to the University of Chicago and on to the University of Minnesota. Lynd served as a key mentor in the young woman's intellectual life, encouraging her ambitions in a way no one else had so far done. Her work with Charlotte Bühler , a noted child psychologist from Vienna, likewise had a profound effect on Alva. The young Swedish woman had never before studied under a female professor.

That year in the United States saw that country suffering from the 1929 stock-market crash and the beginning of the subsequent Depression. The Myrdals were struck by the combined phenomena of economic deprivation and government inaction. Racial and religious prejudice in the United States also tempered their enthusiasm for the qualities in American life they admired: optimism, energy, and freedom of expression. For Alva there developed a new affection for Sweden's tradition of government action in the interest of suffering members of the population. According to Bok, "They both dated their adoption … of radicalism to their year in the United States." Condemning the concept of "tradition," they increasingly used the word "radical" to describe their desire for basic reforms in society.

When you talk about Alva Myrdal, people become inspired. To them, she signifies happiness about life's potential, a bright faith in the future.

—Kirster Stendahl, bishop of Stockholm

In Alva Myrdal's absence, changes in the faculty at the University of Stockholm had made her pursuit of a doctorate there impossible. For example, a sympathetic mentor who had encouraged her study of Freud's doctrines had been replaced by a firm anti-Freudian. Shortly after their return, Gunnar accepted a position at the University of Geneva. Alva planned to use the opportunity of living in Switzerland to study with Jean Piaget, a rising young expert in child development at the Rousseau Institute. Her plans were shattered, however, by a second miscarriage, which led in turn to a series of serious illnesses. For a time, her life was in danger. Even after their return home, her recovery required a number of years during which she could work only part-time as a prison psychologist.

During their time abroad, the Myrdals had become interested in the issue of population. Their perspectives differed, Gunnar approaching the topic as an economist, Alva as a psychologist. She claimed this was an advantage, writing to a friend that being "an economist and a social psychologist, united in marriage and authorship," the two of them "naturally combined to form a sociologist with the greatest of ease." Alva acquired the lasting belief that women were obliged to have children as a duty both to their country and to humanity. A young woman with only one child, she took the bold step of starting a course of instruction for parents based upon the new insights academicians had developed about child psychology. The lectures were her first experience in public speaking, and she found herself telling other, more experienced parents that their untutored instincts were insufficient to produce psychologically healthy offspring.

As her husband's career blossomed—he was appointed to a prestigious chair in economics at the University of Stockholm in 1933—Alva Myrdal found herself immersed in a combination of personal and professional concerns. Once again in good health, she had a second child, Sissela, in 1934. A third child, their second daughter Kaj Myrdal , was born in 1936. Pursuing her interest in women's social roles, Alva read deeply in the works of such writers as Virginia Woolf, George Sand , and Margaret Mead ; she also studied the lives of historical figures like Queen Christina of Sweden and the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai .

Initially the Myrdals hoped to present their developing ideas on population problems in the form of articles for a Socialist newspaper, but when these were rejected for being too lengthy, the couple began to collaborate on a book. Crisis in the Population Question appeared in 1934, treating such emotionally charged issues as sexuality, family planning, and blueprints for government-sponsored social change. In a tone that many found harsh, strident, and intellectually arrogant, the Myrdals urged social reforms such as free health care as steps to reverse the decline in Sweden's population. The book was widely discussed, and it made the two authors famous throughout their home country. Alva was subjected to intense criticism for dealing with such questions—considered indecent for a female to do at the time. In traveling to publicize the book, she found herself confronted by angry members of her audience urging her to stay at home with her newborn child. Nonetheless, Crisis in the Population Question led to a series of government actions. The implementation of her parents' views provided "the foundation for Sweden's welfare state," wrote Bok.

The aftermath of publication brought Alva Myrdal a combination of frustration and success. Despite their close collaboration on the book, she found that her husband was the one asked to serve in important posts such as membership in Sweden's Population Commission. She had to settle for a position as a consultant. Similarly it was Gunnar who was asked to run for the Swedish Parliament. She turned her restless energies to setting up and running a training school for teachers in early childhood education. Established in 1936, the school let her promote her ideas about a system of collective child care that featured well-trained staff members.

In 1938, the Myrdal family left for a two-year stay in the United States, where the Carnegie Corporation had appointed Gunnar to lead an ambitious study of American race relations. Meanwhile, Alva worked on a book entitled Nation and Family: The Swedish Experiment in Democratic Family and Population Policy. In it, she urged other countries to study Sweden's social reforms and to adopt them, in appropriate form, to their own conditions. The book specifically condemned the forms of family policy then prominent in Nazi Germany, and the author insisted that democratic means could be used to produce the necessary reforms. As Bok has noted, the book's tone was more restrained and its hopes for change more modestly stated than in the Myrdals' preceding 1934 publication. A notable theme in the book is the dilemma of modern women; unless they choose to remain isolated at home, they are forced to divide their time between their families and a working world that makes few accommodations to their needs.

In the spring of 1940, the Myrdals returned to Sweden. Now that World War II had broken out, their longstanding criticisms of Nazi Germany made them well aware their lives would be in danger if Adolf Hitler's forces invaded their homeland. They had considered remaining in the United States or, at least, leaving their three children with friends there. After deciding the entire family would go back, they found that the only passage available was on a Finnish freighter carrying a dangerous cargo of dynamite. Once at home in Sweden, they collaborated on a new book entitled Contact with America. In it, they urged Swedes not to abandon democracy. The book was inspired in part by the Myrdals' concern over such policies of the Swedish government as censoring anti-Nazi statements in the nation's newspapers. In these early years of the war, which were filled with Nazi military victories, the government felt itself forced to make such concessions to German sensibilities.

In 1941, after Gunnar had returned to the United States to continue work on his study of race relations, Alva Myrdal reluctantly joined him. She was tormented by the need to leave her children with relatives in Sweden, but she was also aware that her husband needed her help and companionship in America. The two were able to return only in late 1942, and she resumed her work at the training school while writing columns for a Stockholm newspaper. She also worked to aid wartime refugees in Sweden.

In 1947, the Myrdals relocated to Geneva where Gunnar took over the leadership of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Their daughter Sissela recalled her father's isolation from the family as Gunnar immersed himself even more than usual in his work. As Bok later wrote, "Gunnar forgot birthdays altogether and social life was determined by his official needs." Alva became increasingly depressed by the twin burdens of loneliness and inactivity.

But Alva Myrdal soon found herself receiving invitations to take up a post with the United Nations. She turned down an initial offer to become assistant director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris because it conflicted with her husband's career. In 1949, however, she accepted Secretary-General Trygyve Lie's invitation to direct the Department of Social Affairs of the UN Secretariat in New York. The position made her the most powerful woman in any branch of the United Nations, and it permitted her to address issues that had long interested her, such as educational and population questions, on a global scale. Accepting the post meant leaving both her husband and her children behind in Geneva. Now, at 47, notes Bok, "Alva felt that her real career had at last begun."

Rising in the UN hierarchy, Myrdal took over UNESCO's Division of Social Sciences headquarters in Paris in 1950. She also continued to turn her formidable energies to her writing. As co-author with sociologist Viola Klein , she published Women's Two Roles: Home and Work. It addressed the fact that women in advanced industrialized countries now had a life expectancy of sufficient length that they could both raise a family and subsequently play an active role in the working world. The book appeared in 1956, by which time Alva Myrdal had been appointed Sweden's ambassador to India.

Alva's relationship with her husband remained a difficult one. The two had lived apart for several years, and Gunnar had engaged in at least one extramarital affair. He had also been severely injured in an automobile accident in 1952, an event that sapped much of his energy and confidence and pushed him into prolonged depressions. He wanted to resume living with Alva, but she was uncertain; renewing the marriage might limit her new-found independence.

Alva Myrdal represented Sweden with distinction over a five-year period that ended in April 1961. She formed a cordial relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, India's prime minister, whom she considered one of the world's great diplomats. Believing that Sweden's transition from economic backwardness to prosperity earlier in the century held some lessons for India, she interested herself in the problem of bringing some relief from poverty to the Asian country's masses. Her sense of personal well-being grew since she was free of immediate family obligations with children now grown and independent. Gunnar had embarked on an ambitious study of Asian economics, a project in which she assisted him while fulfilling her duties as diplomat, and she saw him on his extended visits to India.

Returning to Sweden in April 1961, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal resumed their life together. They settled in the capital where Gunnar had just taken a position at the University of Stockholm. She continued to perform tasks for the Swedish foreign ministry, and one of these, a report on possible disarmament proposals the foreign minister planned to present the United Nations, turned her interests in a new direction. Although Myrdal had never before been especially concerned with nuclear disarmament, it now became her passion: "Once I had begun, I was never able to stop the search for the why's and how's of something so senseless as the arms race." Her election in 1961 to the Swedish Parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Party gave her an official position from which to present her views.

Now traveling throughout Sweden to publicize the cause of disarmament, Myrdal resumed the role she had begun in the 1930s as an prominent public speaker. She became disappointed at the lack of solid information available about the arms race, and she promoted a plan for a Swedish research institute that could fill the gap. The government-supported Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) was founded in 1966. She had led the planning group that conceived of the organization. Myrdal herself served as SIPRI's first chair, resigning only upon becoming minister for disarmament in the Swedish government in 1967. She also served as Sweden's chief delegate to the UN Disarmament Commission.

Myrdal retired from her Cabinet post and her role as official arms negotiator in 1973 due to poor health. Her years as a Cabinet minister had helped bring on a bitter split in the Myrdal family. Her son Jan, a longtime political radical, had been arrested by the Swedish police in December 1967 as a result of a demonstration against the Vietnam war. When his parents failed to give him the personal and legal support he expected from them, he broke off relations with a sharp comment about "Alva's government."

Alva Myrdal had been continually frustrated by the inability of smaller countries to have any influence on the United States and the Soviet Union as the two superpowers conducted apparently fruitless talks over armaments and arms limitations. Despite suffering from high blood pressure and heart disease, she began to write The Game of Disarmament, which appeared in 1976. The book combined a warning to the superpowers about the perils of the arms race to both their domestic and international well-being with a discussion of feasible measures to reduce the store of existing armaments. Instead of accepting royalties on the book, she saw to it that copies were sold at the lowest price possible. She also arranged for the book to go without cost to all members of the U.S. Congress, and to key government officials throughout the world. In addition, Myrdal founded a number of organizations such as the Swedish Peace Forum and the European-wide Women for Peace to further the cause of disarmament.

In 1980, Myrdal received an initial honor for her disarmament efforts in the form of the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, given for a significant contribution in preventing nuclear war. This was followed two years later when she, along with Mexican diplomat and UN official Alfonso García Robles, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on behalf of international disarmament. The Myrdals were now unique as a family with two Nobel Prizes won in different fields. Gunnar Myrdal had received his award in 1974 for his work in economics.

In the closing years of her life, Alva Myrdal suffered from a number of devastating ailments. Following a stroke in 1984, she developed a brain tumor that impaired her ability to speak, and thereafter she lost the ability to write even a simple letter. Brain surgery failed to alleviate the problem. In her memoir of her mother's life, Sissela Bok wrote eloquently of the panic that Alva Myrdal experienced in these last years: a woman who had depended heavily on her ability to effect change through her speaking and writing, she now found herself helpless.

The distinguished writer and public figure died on February 1, 1986, in Stockholm, at the age of 84. Gunnar Myrdal survived her only briefly, dying on May 17, 1987. First in Sweden, then throughout large parts of the world, their scholarly achievements and their concern for remedying social ills had made them famous as "the Myrdal couple." Although for decades she had devoted the bulk of her energies to her husband's career, Alva Myrdal emerged thereafter as his peer in respect and influence.


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

Carlson, Allan. The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1990.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1980.

Schlessinger, Bernard S., and Judith H. Schlessinger. The Who's Who of Nobel Prize Winners, 1901–1995. 3rd ed. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1996.

Wasson, Tyler, ed. Nobel Prize Winners: An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1987.

suggested reading:

Scobbie, Irene. Sweden. NY: Praeger, 1972.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California