Elsa Gafvelin was a teacher, and a liberal-party member who was politically active in social issues, mainly home care and childcare.
Elsa Gafvelin was born in 1887. She grew up within a working-class family in Stockholm. She was the daughter of Sofia Wilhelmina Lundstedt and Olof Nilsson. Her parents had moved to Stockholm when they were young (her father from Scania and her mother from Närke). Her mother had worked as a maid before she married. Her father was employed by Stockholms Spårvagnar, initially as a driver and conductor, but later was promoted to supervisor. Elsa Nilsson grew up in Norrmalm, in the area near the tram depot at Birger Jarlsgatan. She had two older sisters and a younger brother. She and her siblings all sought lower-middle class professions.
Elsa Gafvelin arrived in Umeå in 1907 in order to begin studying at the Folkskolelärarinneseminarium (public school female teacher-training programme) where one of her teachers was the feisty Anna Grönfeldt. Following graduation in 1910 she spent a few years working in Hudviksvall but returned to Umeå in 1914 when she married the journalist Ernst Gafvelin, who was a leading liberal in that town. She continued working as a teacher in Umeå, and surrounds, as a married woman, until her retirement. She gave birth to her son Åke in 1918. Her husband died young, only 45 years old, in 1927. In the summer of 1954 Elsa Gafvelin moved from Umeå to Uppsala. She spent her final years living in Farsta, Stockholm.
Elsa Gafvelin had taken an interest in social issues when she was young. She joined the Swedish Red Cross (SRK) when she was 18 years old, and remained involved with the organisation for the rest of her life. During her student period at the Folkskolelärarinneseminarium she was the chair of the students’ local branch of Sveriges studerande ungdoms helnykterhetsförbund (SSUH) (Swedish young students’ abstinence association). Her interest in social issues later broadened to include politics. Once she married Ernst Gafvelin she found herself in the midst of the liberals’ local political centre. Her husband worked as an editor at Västerbottens-Kuriren from 1913. He was also actively engaged on behalf of the liberals in local politics.
When women finally gained citizenship and legal majority during the 1918-1921 period one of the most important tasks for those who promoted women’s issues was to encourage political parties to nominate women for political positions. In Umeå a local branch of Föreningen frisinnade kvinnor (liberal women’s association) was established in 1922. Elsa Gafvelin served as the association treasurer from 1922-1925, and as its chair in 1926. Due to a split in the liberal party during the 1920s initially activity in the local branch faded away, only to be resumed in 1936. An interim local board was set up, of which Elsa Gafvelin was a member. The board established a local branch of Folkpartiet liberalernas kvinnoförbund (now Liberala Kvinnor) (the Folk party liberal women’s association). Elsa Gafvelin served as its deputy chair. During the interwar period she worked together with her former teacher Anna Grönfeldt, who was the chair at that time. Elsa Gafvelin resigned her board membership in favour of the younger generation of women in 1939 but continued to be active with regard to current issues. In 1944 she was part of Kommittén för ökad kvinnorepresentation (committee for increased female representation) whose efforts resulted in Västerbotten gaining its first female parliamentary member, the liberal Ragnhild Sandström. Elsa Gafvelin also undertook various tasks on behalf of Folkpartiet as member of the municipal council, with regard to social issues. She also sat on Umeå town’s church council. Her most significant contributions largely came within two areas of social matters, namely home care and childcare.
From the 1920s to the 1960s Elsa Gafvelin was a leading force within the housewives’ movement which was one of the most important women’s organisations in Sweden. The Umeå branch of Sveriges Husmodersföreningars Riksförbund (SHR) (Swedish national association of housewives’ societies) was one of Sweden’s largest local branches and it was active across the entire county. Elsa Gafvelin spent several decades as a member of the association, both locally in Umeå and as chair of the county association, which was also a member of Västerbotten county folkbildningskursförbund (association for adult education courses) and through it ran courses for housewives throughout the county. Within the housewives’ association Elsa Gafvelin’s core issue was home care nurses, the precursors of today’s home care servers. They worked in people’s home and replaced housewives when they were ill or exhausted and required rest. Elsa Gafvelin was a member of the housewives’ association which ran the distribution of home care nurses to those who required the service. In 1926 the first home care nurse was appointed in Umeå and the enterprise grew through financial resources from Umeå town and various bazaars held by the association. On 1 July 1943 the enterprise came under municipal control, following a parliamentary act that social home help would be state funded. When the town’s Hemhjälpsnämnd (home care agency) was established Elsa Gafvelin was elected as a representative. She worked with the agency until she moved away from Umeå in 1954.
Elsa Gafvelin’s efforts in childcare began during the 1920s when she joined Umeå arbetsstugeförening (recreational centre association). This association had been set up in 1901 and followed Anna Hierta-Retzius’s programme for recreational centres for children, and an Umeå centre was already open by 1902. The enterprise was a non-profit organisation. Elsa Gafvelin, using this association as her base, sought to modernise childcare. In 1936 the municipal council, following suggestions from the right-wing party female member Clara Årre-Eriksson, decided to set up a Barnkrubbekommitté (crèche committee) in order to create a proposal to establish municipal childcare in Umeå. Elsa Gafvelin was on the committee, whose task was put on the backburner, whilst she also worked on arbetsstugeförening matters. The latter was able to set up Umeå’s first modern preschool, which opened in 1952. The preschool was designed by the architect Bruno Mathsson and was run according to a Fröbel-inspired, progressive pedagogy comprising free play and outdoors activities. In 1957 it was taken over by Umeå town. Having achieved this goal Elsa Gafvelin resigned from her posts in Umeå arbetsstugeförening and the town’s Barnkrubbekommitté.
Elsa Gafvelin was one of the most prominent socially engaged women in Umeå throughout her life. She was considered to espouse elevated ethical ideals and was able to focus on what was essential.
Elsa Gafvelin died in 1969. She is buried at the Norra cemetery in Umeå.