Alva Myrdal

Feminism, it can be argued, is a point of view that fuses the personal and the political. Domestic issues take precedence in public debate, and social conscience is galvanized to act politically. Alva Myrdal, in this sense, epitomizes the feminist sensibility. Her writing, teaching, and diplomatic endeavors promoted reforms in parenting, education, employment, and housing not only in her native Sweden but also around the world.

With loving wonderment, daughter Sissela Bok chronicles Myrdal’s protean ability to evolve. An admitted late bloomer, who claimed not to have had her first “real” job (heading the United Nations Secretariat’s Department of Social Affairs) until she was forty-seven, Myrdal found the work that perhaps most intoxicated her when many would consider her a senior citizen. Her efforts on behalf of this cause, disarmament, would win her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982.

As Bok observes, Myrdal’s work was often an outgrowth of personal concerns. Myrdal’s agitation for universal education could be traced to the barriers placed on her own schooling. Her encouragement of women to enter the labor force after rearing children reflected her own struggle to reconcile competing desires for family and career. Bok does not gloss over the agony Myrdal suffered over this conflict, costing as it did the estrangement of a son.

The struggle was intensified by Myrdal’s choice of a husband: the brilliant and demanding economist Gunnar Myrdal, himself a Nobel Prize winner. For a woman of Myrdal’s idealism, such a choice was perhaps inevitable. Yet it forced her, as she later acknowledged, to put his ambitions first. This complex relationship, as stimulating as it was conflicted, did not fail to mark profoundly the author herself. In her concluding chapter, “Legacies,” Bok describes the memoir as “unanswered questions,” a “dialogue I have sought to keep up.”

Realizing that one can never quite get a grip on one’s own past—that it is “created many times over as one thinks about it”—Bok makes use of diaries and letters as well as personal reminiscence. Photographs juxtaposing Myrdal’s familial and professional selves illustrate the many dimensions of her life. For readers provoked to read the Myrdals’ often controversial books, those available in English are listed in an appendix.