When Alva Myrdal was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982, she had been fighting a tough battle for decades as one of the strongest advocates of disarmament. For many years, she led the Swedish delegation in the disarmament negotiations in Geneva and was the first woman to reach leading positions in the United Nations.
So Alva Myrdal could well be seen as an early incarnation of the feminist foreign policy that Sweden pursues today.
Alva Myrdal first became a well-known figure on the domestic policy scene in Sweden. Together with her husband, Gunnar Myrdal, she published the work entitled ‘Crisis in the Population Question’, one of the 20th century’s most hotly debated, praised and at times also criticised political publications. In it, the Myrdals argue that the responsibility for raising children should be divided between parents and society through trained child educationalists.
Alva Myrdal became perhaps the most important driving force when modern Swedish childcare was emerging – something that later made it possible for Swedish women to get an education and have a career.
After the Second World War, her international engagement took off and she quickly reached leading positions in the newly formed United Nations. Between 1949 and 1950 she was head of the UN department for social issues and she then headed UNESCO’s social science section for five years – the first woman to attain such senior posts in the UN.
She also fitted in a stint as Sweden’s Ambassador in New Delhi for a couple of years during the 1950s.
In 1962, she was sent to Geneva to represent Sweden in the UN Conference on Disarmament, a role she went on to play for almost ten years. This was in the midst of the Cold War, when the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were at loggerheads. The nuclear threat seemed immediate. Myrdal led a vocal group of non-aligned states that together tried to put pressure on the larger countries to initiate – or at least begin to discuss – disarmament.
She described her experiences of the years in Geneva – and aired a certain amount of disappointment about how slow progress was – in her book ‘The Game of Disarmament’.
But perseverance pays off. Alva Myrdal received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 together with another advocate of disarmament, the Mexican Alfonso García Robles.
Alva Myrdal’s Nobel lecture showed how clearly and directly she pursued her issues:
“War is murder. And the military preparations now being made for a potential major confrontation are aimed at collective murder. In a nuclear age the victims would be numbered by the millions.
This naked truth must be faced.
The age in which we live can only be characterised as one of barbarism. Our civilisation is in the process not only of being militarised, but also being brutalised.”
Alva Myrdal’s focus issues are now an important part of Sweden’s foreign policy:
“Human rights, international law, international disarmament and work to combat terrorism and weapons of mass destruction must be cornerstones of Swedish foreign policy,” said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in his first Statement of Government Policy in autumn 2014.