Bok, Sissela. ALVA MYRDAL: A Daughter’s Memoir. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. USA.

Alva Myrdal by Sissela Bok - Book Review by Theresa Wolfwood

“The greatness in being human lies not in giving up, not accepting one´s own limitations.”

“…:that by whatever means they choose, all human beings can and must struggle to resist propaganda and falsehoods; and that this resistance is never more important than for those who have thought and language as their professions.”

Called by some, the mother of Swedish social democracy; it is her work in nuclear disarmament and peace issues is what Alva Myrdal is now usually remembered for; the work that earned her the Nobel Prize in 1982 when she was eighty and already suffering from the effects of a brain tumour that killed her four years later. Yet even then she wrote and managed to deliver a powerful acceptance speech without showing her aphasia.

This memoir by her daughter is a personal and political narrative of a long and fruitful life of one of Sweden´s and the world´s inspired and inspiring women and her wealth of contributions to our ideas of social democracy, human rights, equality, justice and peace.

Myrdal started very young refusing to accept limitations least of all that she was female. And throughout her amazingly productive life, she challenged the limitations imposed on women, wives, mothers, workers, and citizens from a small country. She believed in humanity, that problems could be solved by study and discussion.

“All her life, Alva Myrdal had taken for granted that it was possible to explain oneself and to explain human problems in such a way to offer scope for imaginative responses. If only she could make some difficulty dramatically clear and suggest practical steps for resolving it, then how could people refuse to take action?”

It was this faith that motivated Alva Myrdal in all aspects of her life. In 1934 she co—authored with her husband, economist and writer Gunnar Myrdal, a book on family planning that advocated policies on housing, family law, education, the rights of woman and children and medical care. The government responded to these ideas and the resulting changes in Swedish laws and attitudes became the basis of Swedish social democracy.

She was active in politics in the Social Democratic Party and was responsible for formulating post—war government policies and international aid and reconstruction after 1943. The new United Nations called her and she worked in creating social policy for the UN and was the chair of UNESCO´s social science department, at the time the highest ranking woman in an international organization. In 1955, she became Sweden´s first woman ambassador and not to a small quiet country, but to India and all its neighbouring countries. She became a good friend of Nehru, but at the same time she spent much time and energy meeting with women and women´s groups.

In 1962, her life took a new turn when she was asked to be Sweden´s representative at the Geneva disarmament conference. She also became an MP in Sweden; in 1967, as a member of the Cabinet, she was assigned to disarmament. Under her leadership and with great skill and diplomacy the group of non—aligned nations pressured the then super powers to make real progress in disarmament. She later wrote a book, “The Game of Disarmament”, about the failure of the nuclear powers to seriously consider the international concerns. She became totally devoted to that cause, learning about all political and scientific aspects of disarmament.

“…all humankind is now learning that these nuclear weapons can only serve to destroy, never become beneficial…First and foremost arms are tools in the service of rival nations, pointing at the possibility of a future war …The age in which we live can only be characterized as one of barbarism. Our civilization is in the process not only of being militarized, but also being brutalized.”

She was one of the founders of the internationally respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI. She was an excellent choice for the Nobel Peace Prize which she received with her colleague, Alfonso Garcia Robles.

Throughout her public adult life, Alva Myrdal appeared to be that rare woman who had it all. In a time when the few women engaged in politics were either single or childless, she was determined to have a full life, as a wife, mother, and mother with a creative career life. But until I read this sensitive but acute portrait by a loving daughter, I, like many, did not know that her private life was fraught with conflicts she wished other women to avoid. Her husband was jealous of her fame and career, but most of all jealous of her love of their three children.

In retrospect she felt the two biggest mistakes she had made were to leave her small children in the care of family to go abroad with her demanding husband, who had little interest in child rearing or even caring for his own children. Later family discord caused her great anguish when her husband alienated their son — for ever, it seems. There were many opportunities she turned down because of her temperamental, sometimes philandering and depressive husband. Nonetheless she inspired many women; she made many recommendations for women to continue their careers and also made it possible through changes in policy and public perception to make women more equal and free. Later it became common for men in Sweden to accept child care responsibilities, but long after Alva Mrydal´s time.

As is the case with many intelligent and creative people, she was not satisfied with her impressive accomplishments and for a woman who believed in the importance of words, her aphasia was a special hardship in her last year. But in one her last speeches she rejected despair and encouraged everyone to act for peace and to never give up. She said in part, “I know only two things for certain. One is that we gain nothing by walking around difficulties and merely indulging in wistful thinking. The other is that there is always something one can do oneself… it is not worthy of human beings to give up.”

Those words should resonate with all of us who work for a better world, to rebuild democracy as neoliberalism attempts to overwhelm us and to remember that social change is a life time project.

Filed under Book Reviews, Sissela Bok