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  • Hilde Huus

Remarkable Women

Anna Sofia Nilsson (photo courtesy of Anita Maclean)

Our Speakers’ Event for March featured Anita Maclean’s story about her very remarkable grandmother, Anna Sofia Nilsson. Anita was only 13 years old when her grandmother died in 1953, but she still remembers her well. Not your typical grandmother of the time, she was loud and she swore! She was also a nice, generous woman who liked to have fun. She took great delight in treating her grandchildren to an amusement park, screaming the loudest of anybody there, and insisting on going back on the ride for another turn!

So it’s not surprising that many years later Anita wished she had asked her grandmother more about her life while she was still alive. She decided to find out what she could and headed to Sweden’s National Archives, then to its National Library, to trace the places where her grandmother had lived over the course of her lifetime and to visit each spot, even if the buildings themselves had in some cases been torn down long ago. She also read about the conditions in Stockholm during her grandmother’s time to better understand her circumstances and environment.

Anna Sofia Nilsson was born in 1883 in Värmland, which is in the west of central Sweden. In 1911 she moved to Stockholm. Anita knew from her background reading that the population of Stockholm had doubled in the 20 years from 1880 to 1900 as more and more people came from the country to look for industrial work. Like many others of that time, when Anna Sofia moved to the city she lived at first in poor conditions in a house with several other occupants. Most of the newcomers encountered hard times. They worked very long days and for much of the year had to make their way home in the dark at a time when most streets were not lit at night. There were many more women than men living in Stockholm and some had to turn to prostitution to support themselves. Children born out of wedlock were often put out to foster, and Anita discovered in her research that her grandmother had herself fostered three children.

Anita told us about two big labour strikes in 1902 and 1911, the first lasting a full month and the second ending in a lock-out. Streetcar workers were included in the 1911 strike and they were all fired at the end of it, which led to 100 of them emigrating to the United States.

In addition to labour rights, women were trying to get the right to vote. After a motion of women's suffrage was voted down in 1918, Sweden’s National Association for Women’s Suffrage marched with three banners representing people who did not have the right to vote. The first banner showed a male criminal in prison; the second a male patient in a mental hospital; and the third banner the respected author Selma Lagerlöf, member of the Royal Swedish Academy and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909. Selma Lagerlöf was an important spokesperson for the cause because of the widespread respect she was given in all parts of society. Women's suffrage was finally approved in parliament on 24 May 1919, and confirmed in January 1921.

Although Sweden remained neutral during World War I, its citizens were greatly affected by an Allied blockade on trade and shipping. City parks were turned into potato fields and Anita showed us a photo of a very long line of people waiting to buy milk. Anita’s description and photos gave us a glimpse of what life was like for her grandmother as she struggled in the big city.

Once in Stockholm, Anita’s remarkable grandmother married and had a son. But she soon realized that her husband was not only drinking too much but was unfaithful to her. So she threw him out but kept the family horse and carriage which she used to support herself and her son. From those simple beginnings she became a female entrepreneur. She must have been a very frugal but astute businesswoman who understood the potential of the automobiles that were seen more and more on the streets of Stockholm. By the 1920’s, she had purchased some cars, employed some chauffeurs and was running her own taxi business. She cleaned the cars herself each night while her son slept on a bench nearby. When she applied for membership in the Stockholm Taxicab Association in 1922, she was turned down because she was a woman. Four years later she was finally accepted and in 1933, an article by the Association described her as a valued member of the group. She bought herself a fine house and was clearly respected and liked by her many friends. Anita noted that the chauffeurs that she first hired were loyal to her and stayed with her for their entire working lives.

I am a real fan of the kind of research that Anita undertook to learn more about her grandmother. We often know very little about our female ancestors. By learning about the times they lived in we get a better idea of who they were and what their lives were like. Anita’s story made me want to dig a little deeper into what I knew about one of my relatives on my mother’s side who lived in Oslo (then Kristiania) in the early 1900s. Her name was Mina Pedersen and she was my grandfather’s aunt. When my grandfather’s mother died suddenly in 1903, my grandfather, then age five, was sent to live with his grandmother and Mina Pedersen, his mother’s sister. She had taken a job in a match factory after her father’s death (he had also been a match factory worker) and was supporting herself and her mother on her earnings. Female factory workers had a hard life, with extremely long hours in a poor working environment for very low wages. The match factory had built apartments for its workers and my grandfather, his Aunt Mina, and his grandmother lived in one of them - a single room plus a kitchen. My grandfather recalled that the family next door had 8 children living in the same kind of apartment. It was in the match stick factories that Norwegian women first started to organize for better working conditions, and it turns out that my grandfather’s Aunt Mina was right in the middle of that movement. She was a member of the newly founded factory supervision committee which was led by Betzy Kjelsberg, co-founder of Norway’s National Association for Women’s Suffrage. Conditions did start to improve gradually for the female match stick workers thanks to the efforts of the organized workers.

My grandfather described his Aunt Mina as an ardent socialist. She was elected municipal councillor in Östre Aker (now in the north-eastern part of Oslo) sometime between 1910 and 1915. This seems to me to be quite an achievement since it was only in 1910 that all women in Norway could even vote in municipal elections. Mina died in 1915 in a sanatorium, very likely as a result of the significant health hazards involved in working with phosphorus. She was clearly a remarkable woman. I wish I had known her.

The lives of Nordic women have improved in the last hundred years to the point that the Nordic countries are considered the best countries in the world to be a woman, leading the world in gender equality at work. These very significant social changes did not happen by themselves. Women fought for them by pushing the boundaries of social convention like Anna Sofia Nilsson, and by organizing for change like the suffragettes and factory workers. Kudos to them I say!

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