Up close and personal: Agda Rössel

Published 20 September 2018 in:

Agda Rössel. Photo: Bonnierarkivet/TTBild

She was the world’s first woman ambassador to the United Nations when she took office, at the height of the Cold War. Yet Agda Rössel remains relatively little known – in some ways forgotten.

We want to change this. Here is the story of Adga Rössel – pioneer and role model.

Who was Agda Rössel and why should we remember her? She was one of the first women pioneers who broke many a taboo about what a Swedish diplomat should be like. She was the second Swedish woman ambassador in modern times after Alva Myrdal (India, 1956–1961) and she was the world’s first woman ambassador to the United Nations when she took up her post at the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN in New York in 1958, exactly 60 years ago this autumn. Then, as now, Sweden was an elected member of the UN Security Council (1957–1958).

She was then posted to Tito’s Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Prague Spring and Greece during the military junta. These were all important postings for the Swedish Government during this period.

A diplomatic career like this sounds fascinating, but let’s start at the beginning. Agda Rössel was born in 1910 and grew up in Kilvo in Norrbotten County as the child of platelayer Emil and his wife Nina. She had five siblings. Thanks to a supportive teacher who encouraged her parents, Agda was able to take her lower school certificate, which was by no means self-evident for a girl from a working class background at that time. After finishing school, she stayed at home to take care of her sick mother. But in 1933, Agda contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium. This meant that she could no longer embark on the path she had hoped for – to train as a nurse.

She recovered from her illness, left Norrbotten and got a job at a hairdressing salon in Stockholm. In 1937 she was accepted into the Social Institute. Over the following years, she became involved in politics, primarily in women’s rights and the refugee situation in post-war Europe. She got to know Alva Myrdal in the women’s movement. Her commitment to helping refugees led Agda Rössel to continental Europe. She represented Save the Children Sweden and worked closely with UNICEF and UNESCO, eventually being tasked with a series of international assignments.

She put a great deal of energy into opposing family separation when the post-war refugee camps in Europe were to be emptied. One of her international achievements during this period was the fact that she succeeded in inviting presidential widow Eleanor Roosevelt to Sweden to speak before the Professional Women’s Cooperative Federation. It was probably this achievement that paved the way for what was to come.

It was in April 1958 that she received the unexpected question from Minister for Foreign Affairs Östen Undén: “Mrs Rössel, I would like to ask you if you would like to be Sweden’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York?” Agda Rössel accepted the offer and the news came as a bombshell at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and in the Swedish political establishment. There were strong reactions. Not only was this a political appointment, but Undén had chosen a woman, and one from a working class background without an education from the classic universities.

The criticism over the appointment and of Agda Rössel personally would continue for many years and come in various forms. The debate raged in the daily press and the Riksdag too. Was it really possible that this person – a woman and all – was best suited to represent Sweden in one of the most important posts in the Swedish Foreign Service? All the same, Agda Rössel took a cruise liner to New York and landed at Pier 97 on West 57th Street on 13 August that same year. She was now a divorcee and single mother, accompanied by her two teenage children. She was to experience six eventful years in New York – both on the international stage and in her professional and private life.

Sweden was a member of the UN Security Council in 1957–1958 and Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary-General. The summer of 1958 was marked by a quickly escalating crisis in the Middle East. Sweden took the initiative for the UN mission UNOGIL (United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon) in an attempt to curb tensions. Gunnar Jarring was still in New York and remained in place as a Swedish representative on the UN Security Council during Rössel’s first few months in the job.

What distinguished Agda Rössel as UN ambassador was her commitment to human rights issues, particularly the abolition of the death penalty and the issue of female genital mutilation. The latter had never featured on the UN agenda and Rössel, who had been asked by women representatives from African countries to raise the issue, made several attempts. The UN, it turned out, was not yet ready for the issue. Rössel eventually asked Swedish colleagues on the WHO Executive Board to try to get female genital mutilation on the UN agenda via that route. After several unsuccessful attempts, success came in 1967.

As the first woman ambassador, Agda Rössel paved the way for those who would follow. For example, the world situation was discussed over coffee in the separate men’s lounge, following official dinners. Agda Rössel had to find ways to gain access to what had up until then been men-only rooms – to be able to perform her role.

Her years in New York were also marked by a great tragedy: the death of Dag Hammarskjöld on 17 September 1961 in what was then Northern Rhodesia. An entire world was left in shock, but for Agda Rössel this was also a personal loss. She was close to Hammarskjöld and saw him as a friend and role model. She attended his funeral in Uppsala and the high-level dinner hosted by the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Ministry that same evening.

Between 1964 and 1969, Agda Rössel was posted to Tito’s Yugoslavia, which had a special status in international politics and played a key role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). There she established herself as an active ambassador with close contacts to both the regime and the broader sections of society. Rössel was a very active representative in all her postings, including Belgrade. She had exceptional social skills which came into their own in both creating political dialogue and promoting trade relations. She was a regular guest at Tito’s residence on Brijuni. And Tito is said to have enjoyed crispbread with egg and Kalles Kaviar in Agda Rössel’s kitchen. She also travelled the length and breadth of the country. She drove her own Volvo and made a point of meeting the local people and trying to understand the living conditions wherever she went.

Her next posting was in Czechoslovakia. Agda Rössel arrived there just over a year after the Prague Spring had been brutally crushed. The political climate was considerably tougher in Prague than in Belgrade. When Rössel received the question, she responded to the Minister for Foreign Affairs using code: “Even though I am somewhat reluctant to take on the strain of another few years in relative isolation and without family, I believe the assignment in the current political situation would be extremely interesting – so the answer is yes.”

Rössel was still the only woman ambassador in the Swedish diplomatic corps, and this had its advantages. In Prague she discreetly cultivated contacts among Czech dissidents – former politicians and journalists. She described Prague as her toughest posting because of contacts with the harsh regime, the bugging and the surveillance. However, she continued with her active promotion efforts. Trade relations between Sweden and the industrialised Czechoslovakia were important.

Agda Rössel’s last posting was in the military junta’s Greece, where she arrived in 1973. By this time, she was accustomed to cultivating contacts with both the opposition and government representatives in dictatorships. It was clear that this was her assignment in Athens too. Opposition leader Papandreou was in Sweden and there was no doubt about Sweden’s position, but here too, Rössel managed to find a balance that allowed her to meet and maintain contact with representatives of all political camps. Part of the work at the embassy involved giving practical help to the junta’s torture victims. Not everything was reported to Stockholm.

After Athens, it was time for 66-year-old Agda Rössel to retire, but in actual fact she was not the slightest bit interested in retiring. She continued with her broad social and political commitment as a pensioner and also took on more concrete assignments, such as coordinating the Swedish Trade Council’s major campaign ‘Export more’.

Agda Rössel continued to be very active and was also generous in sharing her experience and advice, not least with young women. One piece of advice was to use female qualities to one’s advantage in working life, without ever compromising on personal integrity and self-respect.

Personal privacy was extremely important to Agda Rössel, but together with friends she could talk very openly about how life had turned out, about both her career and private life, and about both joy and sorrow.

Several recurrent themes emerge when studying Agda Rössel and her diplomatic career: her exceptional social skills, her commitment to democracy, human rights and social issues, and her interest in trade promotion. She seems to have achieved in managing the feat – which is still today one of the major challenges of diplomacy – of finding a balance between promoting Sweden’s interests in the country of posting and maintaining contact with and supporting the parts of civil society that are working for democratisation and human rights.

Agda Rössel passed away in a Stockholm hospital in 2001 at the age of 91.