Sigrid Ekendahl was an active trade unionist and a politician of the Social Democratic party. She was the first female ombudsman to serve Landsorganisationen (LO, Swedish Trade Union Confederation).
Sigrid Ekendahl was born in Eskilstuna on 17 January 1904. She was the fifth of eight children born to Carl Edvard Pettersson, factory worker and later small-holder, and Anna Kristina Pettersson née Jakobsson.
After completing her public school education Sigrid Ekendahl spent a few years working as a care assistant at a home for the elderly and then worked as a waitress at Stadshotellet in Eskilstuna. In 1927 she moved to Stockholm where she eventually found work as a seamstress. Upon gaining employment at a beer-café in Gamla Stan (the old town area of Stockholm) she joined the union. This was the start of comprehensive union activism which contributed to the development of a more egalitarian employment market in Sweden during the second half of the twentieth century.
Compèring meetings and being at ease with public speaking to larger groups were skills that Sigrid Ekendahl had learnt by attending meetings of the Swedish branch of IOGT, the temperance association known as the Independent Order of Good Templars (now IOGT-NTO) in Eskilstuna. In 1932 she had been elected as deputy chair of the board for division 48 of Hotell- och restaurangfacket (HRF, hotel and restaurant trade union). Five years later she was appointed ombudsman for the Stockholm division and in 1945 Sigrid Ekendahl was elected onto the HRF association board. At this time she also entered into politics. Between 1938 and 1940 she represented Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (SAP, Swedish Social Democratic workers’ party) within Stockholm city council. During the 1940 national election she was the first waitress to be elected into the second chamber of parliament.
Sigrid Ekendahl was also the first woman to serve as committee chair in parliament. Following an inquiry into women’s salaries Landsorganisationen (LO) decided to appoint a female ombudsman and a female councillor specifically to generate response from fellow female workers. The intention was to seek equal pay for men and women. When Sigrid Ekendahl became the first woman to be appointed as LO’s ombudsman in 1947 unlike the other leading figures within LO, the LO chair Axel Strand demanded that she resign her parliamentary post in order to take on this new role. Following consultation with the LO women’s council, which had been established in 1948, Sigrid Ekendahl decided to resign her parliamentary mandate that same year. In 1956, however, she returned to parliament where she remained in post until 1968. In conjunction with then current LO chair, Arne Geijer, she brought matters related to employment law before parliament.
In 1958 Sigrid Ekendahl became the first woman to participate in central negotiations and in 1960 the employment market partners agreed to abolish so-called “women’s pay lists” and thereby introduce the principle of equal pay in Sweden. This was one of Sigrid Ekdahl’s most important successes of her career. A few years later Sigrid Ekendahl also became chair of Fria Fackföreningensinternationalens (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) women’s committee, which came about for the same reason as LO’s women’s council. Here too she pushed the issue of equal pay and rights to childcare. During her time on the women’s committee the representation of trade union women became less Eurocentric and began to take on a more global aspect. Sigrid Ekendahl was the Swedish workers’ representative at the international workers’ conference (ILO), which served as an important platform for cooperation, international recommendations, and agreements regarding workers’ rights. She represented the workers’ movement on a great number of boards. For example, she sat on the labour market board, the labour market’s women’s agency, the consumer advice board, and as a delegate on the Nordic Council.
During Sigrid Ekendahl’s time the number of women who joined the LO members’ federation rose notably. In the central organisations of local trade unions there were at most 175 women’s committees across all of Sweden. Sigrid Ekendahl organised Swedish, Nordic, and international women’s courses in order to train women in trade union matters and provide them with the necessary skills to enable them to take their place within the trade union world and influence the male-dominated assembly of trade union organisation representatives and its counterparts.
Sigrid Ekendahl campaigned on behalf of union concerns, both within parliament and within the trade union movement, not just in Sweden but in the wider world too. She fought to disseminate the message that men and women were of equal worth and therefore should receive the same pay for the same, or equivalent, work. During the 1940s and the 1950s LO was the only organisation to campaign for daycare centres that should not just look after children but should also be founded on pedagogical foundations. During a parliamentary debate in 1963 Sigrid Ekendahl also highlighted the role of fathers with regard to childcare by clearly emphasising that men’s paid employment just like that of women had to be combined with their caring responsibilities. It is less well known that her trade union activities contributed to the formation of the Swedish Welfare State within areas which were not directly related to matters relating to the labour market. During her leadership, in 1960, LO’s women’s council made demands for cancer-screening for women. This resulted in voluntary mammograms and gynaecological cell testing being offered to all women in Sweden, as it still is today.
During the 1960s Sigrid Ekendahl expressed in an interview that she believed the struggle for equality had hitherto been very academic having been led by academics and so it would be very beneficial to the trade union movement if both men and women from the union could join the fight. Despite her extensive efforts on behalf of women’s rights and for equality between the sexes Sigrid Ekendahl was very clear that she did not want to be labelled a feminist.
Sigrid Ekendahl married twice. She died in Stockholm on 15 October 1996. She is buried at the Woodland Cemetery.