Anna Särström was a female pioneer in the Swedish workers’ movement.
Anna Särström grew up in a textile workers’ family in Norrköping. She was the eldest of four siblings. Her father, Alfred Rudolf Särström, was initially a guardsman with the Livgard cavalry, but later worked as a weaver. Her mother, Maria Charlotta, died when Anna Särström was only 13 years old. Anna’s way was already laid out for her: at the age of 14 she began to work at Norrköping Bomullsväfveri AB (cotton weaving company). She very soon became a cotton weaver.
After she had been employed for a few years the wage bonuses were reduced by the weaving company. This gave rise to increasing discontent amongst the weavers. On 2 April 1890 they arose from the weaving stools and gathered in the factory courtyard to make their complaints known to their employers. When Anna Särström and her colleagues made no headway with their demands to their bosses they spontaneously went on strike. They did not have a trade union to organise them. Instead, the socialist workers’ club stepped in and managed the strike action. After three weeks the 500-600 striking women were victorious. This success led to a series of strikes in Norrköping during the late spring and summer of 1890. It was also a contributing factor to Anna Särström and many other female workers becoming involved in the growing workers’ movement.
Initially the trade union movement was completely male-dominated, but in 1905 the cotton weavers set up section 7 in the Swedish Textilarbetareförbundet (textile workers’ association). Its first chair was Anna Särström, and she remained in situ until 1910, and then she stayed on as a member of the board until 1914. It was during her leadership that the section pushed through the first union agreement in 1907. She not only led the trade union at her work but was also the only female board member of Norrköping Textilarbetares Samorganisation from 1906 to 1911. She was also active as a conference delegate in 1906 and 1908. The association was as male-dominated as the local organisation in Norrköping. In 1906 there were only four female delegates out of 30 in total. A few years later, in 1908, 25 of the 134 delegates were female.
The trade union movement grew rapidly during the economic boom of the early 1900s, but then the economic situation took a downturn in 1908 and the following year businesses were stuck with large quantities of unsold stock. They opted to provoke the confrontation which they believed was required with their workers. During the mass strike of 1909 local action was organised by mass strike committees. In Norrköping this consisted of 14 representatives of various trade unions. The only woman among them was Anna Särström.
The mass strike of 1909 ended in a humiliating defeat. The strike leaders were blacklisted by companies and prevented from joining the employment market. Many were forced to emigrate. Anna Särström took cleaning and other temporary jobs in order to earn a living. In 1912 she was temporarily appointed as an agitator by the Swedish textile workers’ association in order to organise the female textile workers on a national scale. She had previously pointed out, on several occasions, that in order to successfully organise women female agitators were required.
That same year she married Axel Gustafsson, a dock worker, and changed her name to Anna Gustafsson as was the custom of the time. She spent a few years as a housewife, running the marital home. The household included Axel’s stepdaughter, Johanna Elvira Lundström, and her son Erik Birger, who had been born in 1902. In addition to housework, Anna Särström also contributed to the marital finances with cleaning jobs.
As Anna Särström was blacklisted from the textile industry she could not continue to work as a member of the trade union. Instead she found work with the Social Democratic women’s club. In 1906 she had been involved in establishing the Social Democratic women’s club in Norrköping, and she had both joined the board and been an active member. As such she represented this group at the Social Democratic women’s conferences held before the First World War. In 1924 Anna Särström helped to set up the “kvinnodistrikt” (womens’ district) of Östergötland. From 1925 to 1927 she served as the chair of the district. One of the issues particularly close to Anna Särström’s heart and to the Norrköping women’s club was the right to sexual education and to contraception, as large families formed a heavy burden for working women with their double workload. This issue was a controversial one and gave rise to long debates.
Anna Särström was one of women’s history’s anonymous founders of organisations. She operated in difficult situations in order to improve conditions for working women. She herself lived a life of poverty sharing a one-room apartment with her husband. Her husband died in 1945 and Anna Särström herself died at Sandbyhov home for the elderly in 1954.
There is a tram named after Anna Särström in Norrköping as well as a street, Anna Sarströms gata.