Gertrud Sigurdsen is best known for being a Social Democratic party cabinet minister. She herself believed that her greatest success was getting parliament to accept that every child was entitled to child welfare.
Gertrud Sigurdsen was born in Nävekvarn in 1923. Her father was a tractor driver and held the post of treasurer in the trade union. Her mother was a housewife. Gertrud Sigurdsen had two significantly older siblings. Although she attended Sunday school, following her confirmation in the Swedish church she found herself more drawn to Folkets Park where she could satisfy her heavy interest in music which she had developed at an early age. As an adult she was a devoted lover of the opera.
Gertrud Sigurdsen completed six years at public school and six months at a continuation school. Although she was accepted at Hermods, her family could not afford to send her there and so she lived at home whilst completing her courses by correspondence. She was the first member of her family to gain her elementary education certificate and she financed her studies by working at the local factory office and the local dairy shop. She also took courses in typewriting, book-keeping, and stenography. Later on she took a graded course in English.
Gertrud Sigurdsen joined the Social Democratic party youth club SDUK (now known as SSU) in 1939. The Social Democratic party remained her political and social base for 15 years. She has described this period in her book I en värld av män, published in 2000: “Class differences were so striking. No one thought about having a career. We were entirely focused on fighting the injustices we saw all around us.”
Gertrud Sigurdsen began her first fulltime job at the Nävekvarn factory office when she was 18 years old. During the 1943–1949 period she worked as an office clerk and stenographer at various different places in Nyköping. She also wrote about films for the Folket paper.
In 1949 Gertrud Sigurdsen began to work at Landsorganisationen (LO) (Swedish trade union confederation) in Stockholm. She served as stenographer and secretary for the first female LO ombudsman, Sigrid Ekendahl. Gertrud Sigurdsen was an experienced association member when she joined LO. She was skilled in running meetings, was a consummate public speaker, and it was not long before she was called in to stand in for her boss on courses and lectures. Sigrid Ekendahl was her mentor and gradually increased her responsibilities as time went on. When Sigrid Ekendahl retired Gertrud Sigurdsen was her obvious successor both on the women’s council and in parliament.
Gertrud Sigurdsen’s first confrontation with the struggle for sexual equality as well as the class struggle occurred within LO. Women were considered to be an unreliable work force, due to their roles as the primary child carers. Childcare was extremely difficult to come by as there were only 10,000 spaces nationwide. The LO women’s council served as the organisation’s conscience with regard to women’s rights and fought to remove the obstacles to women joining the work force. It was thanks to the women’s council that LO became the first organisation in Sweden to demand childcare provision for all Swedish children in 1961. The women’s council proposed that childcare centres should be staffed by specially trained personnel and remain open at night. Following the 1972 Social Democratic government’s first steps in expanding state childcare and funding parental benefits, situations where both parents were in fulltime employment became the norm. Gertrud Sigurdsen was a pragmatist and accepted that the wheels of democracy turned slowly. The fight for childcare provision was an example of this. 24 years later, in 1985, and when Gertrud Sigurdsen was the Minister of Health, the parliament decided that, in principle, all children aged one-and-a-half and above should have access to nursery/pre-school, and that by 1991 childcare provisions should be fully expanded.
Gertrud Sigurdsen met Rolf Sigurdsen, whom she went on to marry, in Stockholm. Their son Odd was born in 1954, followed a couple of years later by their second son, Björn. When Gertrud Sigurdsen and her husband divorced in 1960 she gained sole custody of her children. She moved into a hotel which provided family accommodation and also offered a daycare centre and a communal eating space. Thanks to help from her sister, Karin, Gertrud Sigurdsen was able to continue working fulltime.
Gertrud Sigurdsen was an active member of the Handels avd. 20 (union of commercial employees). She was deputy chair of the first LO joint committee/work council. In 1960 she was elected onto the Stockholm child welfare agency and in 1968 she was elected into parliament. She became deputy chair of the Social Democratic party parliamentary group and joined the second standing committee on law which dealt with social welfare issues. That same year she was elected into the Social Democratic party steering group and executive committee, which entailed becoming part of one of the most powerful political groups in Sweden. Two of the 14 members were women, the second being the cabinet minister Ulla Lindström.
In 1966 the LO women’s council was replaced by a family council. This council’s remit was to influence the traditional conceptions surrounding women’s roles within the family, in politics, and in wider society. Gertrud Sigurdsen served as secretary of this council. She commented that in 1947, when the LO women’s council was set up, LO had 1.2 million members, of which 209,000 were female. In 1966 LO had 1.4 million members, of which 404,000 were female.
Gertrud Sigurdsen also focused on family policies within parliament. It was thus a surprise that in 1973 she was appointed Minister of Foreign Aid. Prime Minister Olof Palme wanted a cabinet that had a democratic basis in which controversial foreign aid policies could gain a hearing. She accepted the role with gusto. Within the space of one year Gertrud Sigurdsen gave 50 lectures on Swedish foreign aid. This was just as the oil crisis was causing economic uncertainty. The goal was to increase foreign aid to 1 percent of the BNP but importing oil would threaten the balance of payments as well as employment. The goal of 1 percent had to wait until the 1975/6 budgetary year. Gertrud Sigurdsen received criticism for this, which she responded to by stating that not everything can be achieved with immediate effect.
Her time as Minister of Foreign Aid was a turbulent one. The general public was becoming better informed through the spread of TV ownership. The Biafra famine, and in other developing countries, generated public discussion of Sweden’s responsibilities. At the same time questions were raised about Swedish aid to Cuba and Angola. South Africa’s apartheid system also figured high up on the agenda. LO and the Social Democratic party – with Gertrud Sigurdsen as a member of the party executive – secretly supported the ANC. The same was true of popular opposition against the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Greece.
In 1976 the conservative block won the national election. Gertrud Sigurdsen became a member of parliament and union-political co-ordinator for LO. Within parliament she was a member of the foreign affairs committee and a spokesperson for foreign aid issues.
In 1979 Gertrud Sigurdsen ploughed her own furrow in terms of drugs policies. She supported the forced incarceration of adult drug addicts even though the Social Democratic party took a different view. This led to criticism from the party, but she gained support in parliament and this resulted in the law regarding special care of drug addicts, LVM, and a law on special care provisions for children, LVU. As Minister of Health and deputy Minister of Social Welfare Gertrud Sigurdsen was once again responsible for a new political sphere. She continued her fight against drug abuse and put forward proposals to force the municipal social services to expand their outreach programmes. She clashed with social welfare heads and laws were not altered until 1988. She also became known as an opponent of needle-exchanges because she believed they only contributed to ease of access to drugs. She carried on her opposition to needle-exchanges even after giving up her political life.
The fight against drugs was contemporaneous with the emergence of the new AIDS illness. Gertrud Sigurdsen set up the AIDS delegation and served as its chair. This was a parliamentary delegation and was supported by the major folk movements. RFSL had recommended that their members cease donating blood and use protection when engaging in sexual activity from an early stage. The AIDS delegation adopted a similar approach. The general public was encouraged to use prophylactic protection during sexual activity. According to subsequent studies it seems that the advice was followed. People paid attention and changed their sexual activity habits. Sweden was one of the first countries to supply public information and introduce legal changes. AIDS was classed as a venereal disease and 4 million people were tested for HIV, which reduced the spread of the disease.
Gertrud Sigurdsen, as Minister of Health, also took the initiative to reduce the number of doctors who moonlighted in the private sphere with the support of the national insurance office. This reform was named Dagmar and had the support of the Centre Party. This enabled the thinly-populated areas to more easily recruit doctors and led to a narrowing of the definition of the ‘medical quackery’ law. Acupuncture became part of general health care and chiropractors became a legitimate trade.
When Gertrud Sigurdsen became head of the social welfare department and Minister of Social Welfare she became responsible for benefits and pensions. One of the troublesome elements of this duty was negotiating with the pensioners’ organisations. They were unhappy because, following the 1982 fiscal devaluation, pensioners had given up a 4 percent increase in pensions. This issue was resolved by a 1989 decision which returned to the pensioners that which had been borrowed from them earlier.
Gertrud Sigurdsen remained within government until 26 January 1989, at which point Ingvar Carlsson wanted to introduce fresh blood. Gertrud Sigurdsen also felt that it was time to retire given that she was now 68 years old. As a pensioner she continued to be an active Social Democratic party member, was a music-lover, and travelled to various opera-houses across Europe. She also spearheaded an enquiry into how to improve the efficiency of train travel in Stockholm without destroying parts of the Riddarholmen island.
Gertrud Sigurdsen spent most of her life living on Kungsholmen in Stockholm. When she was no longer able to care for herself she applied for a space in a retirement home. She was turned down by Stockholm municipality. Gertrud Sigurdsen appealed to the court of administrative law and wrote a much discussed polemical article on the failings within care for the elderly. The court came down in her favour. When she died in 2015 she was living at a retirement home in Södermalm in Stockholm. Gertrud Sigurdsen’s remains lie in the memorial garden in The Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.