Ulla Lindström was a pioneer among Swedish female cabinet ministers. From 1954 to 1966 she was the sole female member of Tage Erlander’s governments. She was the third woman to become a cabinet minister and the first to remain in government for an extended period. In 1958 she was appointed prime minister.
Ulla Lindström was born in Stockholm in 1909. She was the oldest daughter of Nils Wohlin, an academic and controversial politician, and the pianist Gull Magnell. Her father was against female suffrage and higher education for women, which contributed to his daughter developing an interest in women’s issues from an early age. When Ulla Lindström graduated from high school her parents were divorced and it was only after her graduation that her father realised she had continued her education. Her mother and maternal grandmother had financed her studies. She wrote her school dissertation on the Swedish women’s movement. Subsequently she read philosophy at Stockholm College (later University).
During the crisis of the 1930s it was difficult to gain employment as an academic, so Ulla Lindström decided to be a teacher. She attended teacher training for academics and worked as a teacher from 1933 to 1934. She married her childhood sweetheart, the civil engineer Agne Alm, in 1931, and their first daughter was born in 1934. She also became editor of Lärarinneförbundets Tidning that year, a job she felt she could easily fit around childcare. A couple of years later she also became the editor of HSB’s journal Vår Bostad. Her second daughter was born in 1939, but just the following year she and her husband got divorced. Ulla Lindström, her children and her home help Sonja then moved to a small apartment in Östermalm. In 1947 she remarried to Martin Lindström.
Ulla Lindström had become politically active at an early age, and not just in opposition to her father’s conservative views on women. She was a member of the organisations Open Door and Clarté and in 1934 she participated in a peace demonstration called “Ned med vapnen i alla länder” (inspired by “Lay down your Arms!”), which was a well-attended women’s demonstration in Stockholm. During the crisis years of the 1930s she became convinced that the Social Democrats would resolve the crisis. She and her mother joined the Social Democratic women’s association and she quickly became the chair of Stockholm’s Allmänna Kvinnoklubb (the Public Women’s Club). From 1942 to 1945 she was a representative in Stockholm city council and in 1946 she was elected into the first chamber of parliament. In 1947 she was appointed as a Swedish UN delegate and travelled to New York, where she was one of very few women to participate in meetings at the UN General Assembly. The previous year she had been the first woman to be appointed chair of a Swedish national enquiry, the committee for investigating difficulties in the furniture industry. This task led to her appointment as a specialist on the Board of Trade, for which she was recruited by Gunnar Myrdal, then Minister of Trade.
When Tage Erlander decided that the wanted a woman in his cabinet before the 1954 election he came up against severe opposition from his male colleagues. Initially he did not want to force an issue that everyone was against, but – as he wrote in his diary – “it is remarkable that they cannot see how stupid it would be to head into a new election campaign without a woman in the cabinet”. In the end his wish prevailed and in June 1954 Ulla Lindström was appointed as a consultant cabinet minister overseeing four different departments. These included responsibility for matters of consumer protection, certain childcare and family issues, aid for the third world and civic matters.
As the sole woman in government Ulla Lindström became highly visible in the press, not least after she did not curtsy to Queen Elizabeth II on her state visit to Stockholm in 1956. The Queen had arrived by boat and was met by the Swedish government at the pier. Every minister shook hands with the Queen and bowed, as did Ulla Lindström. The British press responded with shocked outrage. The Swedish press also gave detailed accounts of the event. This resulted in Ulla Lindström receiving hundreds of letters and phone calls calling for her resignation; she was described as a national embarrassment.
Ulla Lindström’s refusal to curtsy to Queen Elizabeth haunted her for the rest of her political career. The event became part of her political persona, referred to not only on her 85th birthday but also after her death in 1999. She herself viewed the issue as a “silly detail of etiquette”.
In contrast, her political work is not equally well known, for instance on family policies. It was Ulla Lindström who, in the late 1950s, instigated research into the new role women had in both family and work environments. She was also responsible for working out a new type of state funding for nurseries. This in turn led to a long-awaited breakthrough in the nursery debate in parliament in 1963 where opposition to expanding childcare had dominated. The provision of childcare by the public sector was one of the most important reforms in the family and employment sector of the 1960s. However, Ulla Lindström’s decisive role in the matter has long been unrecognised.
Ulla Lindström also made significant contributions to consumer issues, particularly with regard to consumer protection. As a UN delegate she, according to the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, caused great embarrassment for the entire UN when she raised the item of family planning, a controversial matter for Catholic states. At home she campaigned for Swedish foreign aid to actually attain the target amount, namely one percent of the gross domestic product. Ulla Lindström eventually resigned as cabinet minister at the turn of the year 1966/1967 in protest against the finance minister Gunnar Sträng’s refusal to raise the amount after intense budget negotiations. She remained in parliament until 1970. In 1971 she became the chair of Rädda Barnen (Save the Children). In the 1980 referendum on nuclear power she was noted for her anti-nuclear position. Of the three options put forward in the referendum she did not support her own party’s preference for option 2 (gradual dismantling of nuclear power), but instead was a prominent supporter of option 3 (rapid dismantling of nuclear power and replacement with renewables). She died on 10 July 1999 aged 89.