Sigrid Gillner was one of the first female Social Democrats to be elected into parliament and thereby a pioneer among female professional politicians. She was also a writer. Both her political activities and her writings are heavily influenced by the pro-Nazi sympathies she expressed in the 1930s and 1940s.
Sigrid Gillner was born and raised in Jönköping. Her mother was a seamstress working from home and her father, Felix Gillner, was the official caretaker of the governor’s residence. Sigrid Gillner was the eldest of four siblings. She was markedly driven from a young age, and despite her less than advantageous social background she graduated from school as a “privatist” (someone who studied independently) in Jönköping and then graduated from the teacher training programme in Kalmar in 1911. Her goal was to educate and train working class children in order to combat poverty. She was employed as a schoolteacher in Jönköping in 1911 and worked hard to introduce health education and sex education into the school. She continued her own studies and, after graduating from Uppsala in 1919, she began working on a dissertation on the history of religions.
Her commitment to social activism was so strong that she abandoned academia for the political world. One of her earliest official jobs was as a member of the steering committee of Sveriges studerande ungdoms helnykterhetsförbund (an abstinence association for students). She subsequently became the chairperson of the Uppsala Social Democratic women’s club and later a member of the city council. During her younger years Sigrid Gillner was an enthusiastic club joiner. Her surviving papers include brochures from and invitations to more than 200 associations, such as Kvinnornas fredsförbund and Publicistklubben. Already in 1914 she started pondering the necessity of clubs and associations in an article entitled “Några ord om föreningsväsen och folkbildningsarbetet’” (Some words on associations and the people’s education movement). Perhaps her desire to educate the people was what fired her prolific work as a reviewer and columnist over the years.
In 1924 she married Sven Ringenson, a contemporary from her student years, and they moved first to Västerås and subsequently to Norrköping. There she became a member of the Social Democratic women’s association committee, and later chairperson for the Östergötland district and member of the Socialist International women’s executive. Her husband was also a Social Democrat and member of the city council for many years. Despite their largely shared political views, Sigrid’s political activism came to be a thorn in their marriage. They spent long periods living apart. Sven Ringenson remained in Östergötland when his wife moved to Scania. They only reunited in 1962 in Viken.
When Sigrid Gillner was elected into parliament in 1932 she was a regular contributor to the Social Democratic women’s association mouthpiece Morgonbris. She mainly covered women’s issues and her unusual feminist viewpoints made her highly controversial. In the much discussed piece Kvinnorna vantrivas (“the women are uneasy”), from 1935, she warns of the harmful impact that social activism and participation in public life could have on women’s roles as mothers and that it might give rise to “the loss of distinctive femininity and the wasting away of motherliness”. She went on to speak of a feminine renaissance and promulgated the idea that motherliness should once again become valued. She herself never had children. The concept that motherliness was the most salient feature of all women was one she had learned from the author and polemicist Ellen Key, whom she had been close to during her younger years. The publication of Kvinnorna vantrivas had marked consequences for Sigrid Gillner and resulted in her withdrawal from the women’s association in 1935. It remains unclear whether she herself resigned or whether she was excluded. In addition to her contribution to women’s issues Sigrid Gillner also campaigned against corruption and the desire for personal profit within politics and accused her former party colleagues of materialism and vanity. If motherliness and motherhood formed one of her guiding principles then morality formed the other.
Throughout her life Sigrid Gillner had access to a significant network of contacts, as evidenced by her surviving papers. Her house, Felixtorp, in Viken contained letters from 1400 correspondents, including Ellen Key, Per Albing Hansson and Tage Erlander. Sigrid Gillner’s contacts were not limited to social democrats. After 1935 she was politically independent, although she did join the Viken labour commune in the 1950s. She became friends with Sven Olov Lindholm, the principal Swedish Nazi leader of the 1930s. In addition to Lindholm she was also courted by pro-Nazi writers and editors, such as Nora Torulf and Axel O:son Molund. She would be tarnished with the pro-Nazi label for the rest of her life, partly because she supported a motion by Riksföreningen Sverige-Tyskland (“the National Swedish-German Society”) which worked to promote understanding of Germany during the Second World War. Sigrid Gillner had certainly drawn close to National Socialism or at the very least held a very similar viewpoint.
Although Sigrid Gillner herself denied that she had ever been a Nazi her contemporaries were convinced she was. Her degree of sympathy for the Nazis is still discussed in academia today. Sigrid Gillner also contributed to the debate through the fiction she wrote. Her key novel Kongress, 1940, recounts the story of a woman’s political conversion. As evident from the title the events unfold at a congress, more specifically the international socialist congress in Paris in 1933, which was prompted by the Nazi rise to power and which aimed to unify everyone in a boycott against Germany. The central character of the novel is a formerly established member of the Social Democratic party who had been forced to leave the party due to a cautiously positive approach to Nazism. At the end of the novel this character encourages opposition to the boycott against Germany and confesses to being a Nazi – or to some variant of National Socialism. When the delegates sing the International, she participates using a heavily altered text. She has an alternate vision.
Further to Kongress, Sigrid Gillner wrote several autobiographically-tinted novels. Her debut as a fiction writer was the 1923 novel Bergenkronas, which is marked by her own experiences. The titular character in the novel Maria from 1937 has the same name as her mother and the story bears striking resemblances to the events of her mother’s life.
Sigrid Gillner’s novels may also have been written to reflect and discuss contemporary issues. Even though the stories appear to be extremely rabid there are signs that Sigrid Gillner was uncomfortable in the role of truthsayer which she had taken on. One reviewer wrote: “Mrs Gillner’s political development has been like a journey through Hell in many ways.” During the second half of the 1930s Sigrid Gillner published a range of polygraphs, collections of essays or articles on various topics. The collections comprise issues from the limiting horizons of home and countryside to questions on the significance of a leader in a national versus an international perspective. Whatever Sigrid Gillner’s actual standpoint was with regard to Nazism, she was a great admirer of Adolf Hitler. She never denied this admiration, even when she rejoined the Social Democrats in the 1950s. However, she did not allow herself to be played according to party-political intrigues and games. The title Tanken er fri (“thought is free”) from 1947 underlines this position.
Sigrid Gillner’s other political writings include Den efterlysta oppositionen from 1938, which was published by the Svea Rike company and is usually described as pro-Nazi. She had to cover the publication costs for both Skall demokratin till månen?, 1958, and Har vi fått en ny underclass, 1965, herself because no other company was willing to publish them. During her later years, Sigrid Gillner isolated herself in her own home and withdrew completely from the public eye. In her singular existence she turned to the radio and wrote radio reviews. She gathered these into collections with unusual titles such as Om seklets sommarsolstånd eller Ödlan på tempeltrappan, 1951, and Om välfärdssamhället blir skräcksamhället, 1972. The latter text was her last published contribution to the polemics she had tirelessly engaged in throughout her life. The final line of her brief biography in Nationalencyklopedin reads: “She was one of the most razor-sharp radio and TV critics”.
Sigrid Gillner died in 1975 in Viken.