Birgit Carell was a consultant and organiser within the Swedish women’s contingency efforts during the Second World War. She was secretary of Kvinnoföreningarnas beredskapskommitté (KBK), a trainer within the air-force, a consultant for Statens arbetsmarknadskommission (state labour market commission), and also a member of Statens Informationsstyrelse (SIS).
Birgit Carell was born into a middle-class home in Stockholm in 1907. She was the daughter of Henrik Carell, a director, and his wife Karin, née Öhnell. Her brother Richard attended Handelshögskolan and later became an audit manager. In 1927 Birgit Carell began attending Palmgrenska samskolan (coeducational school), followed subsequently by periods spent at Stockholm college and abroad in Great Britain and in France. She then spent four years working for the Victoria insurance company and also spent a period teaching at Stockholm school of economics, (later known as Fridhemsplans gymnasium). She subsequently began to increasingly devote her time and energy within the civilian national air defence system as a member of the board in Riksluftskyddsförbundet, which was the forerunner to Sveriges Civilförsvarsförbund (now known as Civilförsvarsförbundet, civil defence association).
Birgit Carell was politically active within the right-wing sphere of politics. She stood as a Stockholm right-wing party candidate during the 1936 election. She travelled throughout the residential areas of Stockholm, giving speeches at election meetings in Bromma and Enskede where she was introduced as “Insurance official Birgit Carell” along with the parliamentarian Gustaf Arnemark. Her speeches were particularly aimed at the women in her audiences.
Further to her activities within Riksluftskyddsförbundet and her enthusiasm for developing and organising women’s roles within national defence, Birgit Carell also undertook a three-week long study tour in Germany, France, and Belgium during the spring of 1937. She studied the role of women in those countries’ civilian air defence systems. Thanks to her good connections she was able to meet leading individuals within the civilian air defence organisations in the aforementioned countries. That same year, during an interview with Svenska Dagbladet newspaper – with an accompanying portrait printed on the front page – Birgit Carell stated: “On the Continent there is widespread interest in informing the population of the necessity of learning air defence”. She had visited organisations which impressed her with their well-thought out women’s contingency corps as well as the training they offered to women of all classes. Birgit Carell was keen to establish something similar in Sweden.
The lawyer Ruth Stjernstedt later described her first meeting with Birgit Carell at a function held at Vasagatan 11, Stockholm. They had both been summoned there to form the board for Riksluftskyddsförbundets kvinnokommitté in 1937. According to Ruth Stjernstedt, there Birgit Carell sat, “a young girl, who reminded me of Jeanne D’Arc, albeit with an unusually cool beauty”. Birgit Carell was 30 years old at the time, Ruth Stjernstedt was 58, and they would spend some very eventful and decisive years working together within the Swedish women’s contingency corps.
Birgit Carell was passionate about matters of defence and this led to the establishment of Kvinnoföreningarnas Beredskapskommitté (KBK). The organisation was set up as a countermove to the leading Swedish women’s associations being led by representatives instead of relying the direct involvement of their members. The impressions Birgit Carell had gained during her study tours, along with the experiences of other leading women from the suffragette movement as well as from the Kvinnornas Uppbåd organisation during the 1914–1918 period, all played a part in how this organisation was run. The KBK comprised most of the Swedish women’s associations which wanted to contribute: Lottarörelsen (women’s volunteer civil defence organisation), the Swedish Red Cross, Fredrika-Bremer-Förbundet, the Social democratic party women’s association, the Liberal People’s party women’s association, the right-wing party central women’s council, Yrkeskvinnors riksförbund (professional women’s national association), the Socialist party’s women’s committee, Sveriges Husmodersförenigars Riksförbund (national association of Swedish housewives), the Swedish girl guides’ association, Sveriges kvinnliga bilkårers riksförbund (national association of Swedish female drivers’ corps), amongst others.
Birgit Carell was appointed secretary of KBK whilst Ruth Stjernstedt was appointed chair of the organisation. The primary role of the committee was to raise interest in military preparedness amongst women. However there was also an understanding that the committee would not be limited to passive military preparedness but that it should encompass preparation for all possible important tasks which women could undertake should Sweden find itself at war.
When the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper came to Östermalm one night in March 1938 to visit the civil air defence association at Skeppargatan 31 Birgit Carell had the chair and was in full flow giving instruction to those present. The idea was that a civilian defence group would be set up in each home and that each household would be trained in fire-fighting and first-aid. “Fire-bombs would cause greater anxiety than gas-bombs in a future war”, Carell informed her audience, stating that each citizen should be sufficiently informed to be of active service. This was applied to women in particular given that foreign studies revealed that women would replace men up to a level of 70 per cent.
During the New Year period of 1938–1939 it was decided that KBK, following models from other European countries, would initiate a voluntary registration of women aged between 17 and 65. This decision was taken with the agreement of government authorities. The aim of this register was to gain an understanding of where these women were and what they could offer and thereby avoid a disorderly division of work in the event of military mobilisation or war. This register was compiled nationwide through personal visitations to every residential quarter, building by building. The daily press announced which days and times had been set aside for these visits in particular buildings. A specific registration card had been produced which was handed out at every visit.
At one location on Malmskillnadsgatan 9 frenetic work was undertaken to sort and mark up registration cards. In her book Ringdans kring fru Justitia, published in 1956, Ruth Stjernstedt reveals: “We were told that we should be very pleased if we managed to get 20,000 women to voluntarily register”. In fact, during the spring, summer, and the autumn of 1939, a total of 800,000 women were registered across Sweden. Generally about 70–90 per cent of the women in a given area who were aged between 17 and 65, were registered by local committees.
Birgit Carell’s work with the women’s contingency committee resulted in her being appointed in March 1939 as one of eight experts tasked to investigate labour-market matters ahead of an impending crisis, including the question of passing a conscription law. This investigation was named Sakkunniga rörande arbetsmarknadens försvarsberedskap and sought to formulate a proposal to put conscription into law. During the 1940–1941 period Birgit Carell was also a member of Folkberedskapens nämnd (people’s contingency agency) within Statens informationsstyrelse, which meant that every Thursday at 9 o’clock she attended a meeting at Munkbron 7. Her particular role in the agency involved dealing with social welfare matters and as such her position within in several different organisations – such as Arbetsmarknadskommissionen, Statens Utrymningskommission and Kvinnoföreningarnas Beredskapskommitté – proved to be very useful. She served as a point of contact between governmental crisis organisations for women’s rights and played a vital role as such. Further, she was active on the board of Centrala Finlandshjälpen (central aid for Finland).
In December 1941 Birgit Carell fell ill. She had headed off to visit the contingency women in Finland and had come down with a heavy cold. To the shock of many within the organisation she never recovered from her illness and died on 28 December 1941. Birgit Carell had practically been responsible for creating KBK and had been considered as one of the most central women within these efforts. However, as Ruth Stjernstedt stated in her obituary speech on Birgit Carell’s life’s work: “We must however admit that she both over-exerted herself in this role whilst literally also expending her personal life-force doing it”.
Birgit Carell died at the young age of 34. Despite her age she had successfully left a marked impact on the Swedish contingency organisation. This was reflected at her funeral held at Hedvig Eleonora church on 2 January 1942 at which many representatives from sister organisations vied to speak, including Finland’s Lotta Svärdorganisation. The Dagens Nyheter newspaper reported that the funeral attendees included the Count and Countess Bernadotte, as well as the governor of Södermanland, Bo Hammarskjöld, and the chair of Statens arbetsmarknadskommission Arthur Thomson, along with representatives of the many social welfare organisations “to which the late individual dedicated her life”. Her life was but a brief one and, according to her colleague Eva Fröberg, “one lived with an energy that surpassed all”.
A beautiful garden of flowers was dedicated to the memory of Birgit Carell and as per her own wishes many gifts were given to Finlandsbarnen. Birgit Carell’s coffin was cremated at Norra krematoriet (the crematory at the Northern cemetery).