Inga Thorsson was a politician and a member of parliament for the Swedish Social Democratic Party. One of her many achievements was that she catalysed Swedish women’s opposition to Swedish nuclear weapons in the 1950s.
Inga Thorsson was born in Malmö in 1915. She was brought up in a bourgeois family living in Djursholm as the second eldest of six children. Her father was the manager of a cinema for Svensk Filmindustri (SF). He was determined that all of his children, irrespective of gender, should be educated and obtain a driving licence. Her mother, a Dane, was a qualified physiotherapist. The family lived in a large house and had two maids, which – as Inga Thorsson later explained in an interview – was the reason that neither she nor her brothers needed to help with chores.
Inga Thorsson and her siblings were all very good students. Inga Thorsson was the only girl in her class who took her school-leaving certificate with a focus on the sciences. She wanted to become a physical education instructor but was too young for the Gymnastiska centralinstitutet (GCI, central institute of gymnastics). Thus she first attended the Högre lärarinneseminariet (advanced teacher training programme) in Stockholm. During her last year at GCI, however, she fell ill and realised that she would not be able to achieve her dream of becoming a physical education instructor. One of her teachers, Andrea Andréen, put her in touch with the Fogelstad group.
Inga Thorsson, who was inspired by Elin Wägner and her book Väckarklocka, was active the in peace and in the environmental movement and, like Elin Wägner, she began to question the advances of technology. She soon realised that she wanted to work with political and social issues and, once she had completed her training as a physical education instructor, she began to work as an association secretary, initially for Kooperativa Kvinnogillesförbundet (a cooperative women’s association) and subsequently for the Swedish Social Democratic Party’s women’s association. This work, which combined educational and secretarial tasks, entailed a lot of travelling and allowed Inga Thorsson to form new connections with politically active women.
In 1952 Inga Thorsson was elected chair of the Social Democratic women’s association, and she remained in post until 1964. When she was first appointed she was a 37-year-old, well-educated mother of two, who was particularly keen on improving conditions for unmarried mothers. She was also concerned about childcare for mothers in paid employment. When Ulla Lindström, the only woman in Tage Erlander’s government, let Inga Thorsson know about the military’s plans to obtain nuclear weapons for Swedish defence, Inga Thorsson decided to respond using the women’s association as her political platform. She declared, at a meeting with the Social Democratic Party executive, that the women’s association would oppose Swedish nuclear weapons. This declaration generated a major response from the party leadership. The women’s association was not expected to take a formal stance on the matter before the party itself had publicly declared its own position. This led to accusations of party disloyalty against the women’s association. A contentious debate ensued between those for and against nuclear weapons and in 1958 the Aktionsgruppen mot svensk atombomb (AMSA, action group opposed to Swedish atomic bombs) was formed. The opposition grew, despite nuclear armament supporter Herbert Tingsten writing in Dagens Nyheter that those who wanted nuclear weapons formed the majority in all population groups “apart from women”. Not before long a moratorium on the decision regarding Swedish nuclear armament was agreed both within the Social Democratic Party and in parliament. In 1968 a decision was finally made not to obtain nuclear weapons.
In 1940 Inga Thorsson was elected onto Stockholm city council and from 1957 onwards she was a parliamentary representative, giving her an important arena in which to oppose nuclear armament. In 1958 she was the first woman who was offered the position of city commissioner for social welfare in Stockholm, which she initially turned down. Prime Minister Tage Erlander encouraged her to change her mind. He believed that she should not reject the offer, as she was the first woman to be offered the role. Inga Thorsson subsequently unwillingly accepted the position, whilst retaining her position as chair of the women’s association, but resigning from her place in parliament. As a city commissioner she became known for her activism on behalf of the homeless and for “raggare”, youth who drove large American cars and caused a nuisance on the streets of Stockholm. She came up with an unconventional solution to the problem by providing the “raggare” with a house for socialising in exchange for them giving unwell and pensioners lifts.
Inga Thorsson resigned from her post as city commissioner after four years’ service. Following a discussion with Ulla Lindström and Tage Erlander she was tasked with studying women’s education in Africa as an expert within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This task laid the groundwork for an educational institute for African women, which was established in Haifa, Israel. The Social Democratic women, along with LO and Kooperativa Kvinnogillesförbundet financially supported this institute for many years.
Ulla Lindström had unsuccessfully tried to persuade Tage Erlander while he was Prime Minister that Inga Thorsson should be given a ministerial position. When Tage Erlander proposed that Inga Thorsson be appointed ambassador Ulla Lindström wrote despondently in her diary that now “the most competent chair which the party’s largest adjunct association has ever will be exported, [someone] who was the complete equal to the majority of male ministers in terms of competency”. In 1962 Inga Thorsson was appointed as Sweden’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, and she remained in post until 1964. That year she also resigned as chair of the Social Democratic Party’s women’s association, which during her leadership had grown to over 70,000 members, more than ever before.
Inga Thorsson was happy in Israel but “wanted to be involved in greater tasks than simply sending reports home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”, as she put it in an interview many years later. When Ulla Lindström resigned from her ministerial post at the turn of the year 1966/1967 Tage Erlander for the first time appointed two women to his government: Alva Myrdal and Camilla Odhnoff. Meanwhile, Inga Thorsson continued as an expert in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and devoted herself to international development work. She played no wider role within Sweden but in 1967 she was appointed head of the United Nations’ section of social development in New York.
Having spent three years working for the United Nations Inga Thorsson returned to Swedish politics in order to focus on aid issues. In 1970 she once again took her seat in parliament, where she mainly worked with international matters until 1973. At that point she succeeded Alva Myrdal as chair of the Swedish disarmament delegation. This was a difficult task, which faced a lot of opposition and made little headway. Eventually, however, it successfully led to a decrease instead of increase in arms by the defence industry.
When the Social Democrats lost the 1976 election, Inga Thorsson had to decide whether she wanted to carry on as chair of the disarmament delegation of the conservative government led by Torbjörn Fälldin. Inga Thorsson discussed the matter with her party executive and it was decided that she should continue whilst on leave from the parliament. Despite this she was still criticised by other party members for representing the conservative government and a deep-seated conflict arose between Inga Thorsson and certain party members, leaving her sorely disappointed. Inga Thorsson lost her place in parliament due to this conflict. When the Social Democratic Party regained its governing position in 1982 Inga Thorsson reluctantly resigned as disarmament negotiator and was succeeded by Maj Britt Theorin. Inga Thorsson wanted to continue but, as she was formally employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she was pensioned aged 67. The Foreign Ministry’s rules of employment did not allow for her to stay in post.
Following her retirement Inga Thorsson remained active in the peace movement at an international level. She became chair of Den Stora Fredsresan, which began in 1985 and handed over resolutions for a more peaceful future from 91 countries to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. This was a unique grassroots project, which benefited from Inga Thorsson’s knowledge and experience of working at the United Nations and with the disarmament delegation.
In 1979 Inga Thorsson became a widow following the loss of her husband Sture Thorsson. She had been suffering from rheumatism for quite some time already but despite her declining health she continued to travel, hold public talks, and remained active in the peace, environmental and disarmament movements. She was proposed for the Nobel Peace prize three times by parliamentary members of all parties. In 1990 she was awarded two medals: the royal gold medal of the twelfth degree and Tage Erlander’s medal of honour.
Inga Thorsson died in Stockholm in 1994. She is buried at Ravlunda cemetery in Scania.