Around the Institute

The Best Mother’s Day Gift: Women’s Empowerment

May 10, 2013  • Gro Harlem Brundtland

Gro Harlem Brundtland is former prime minister of Norway and a member of the Aspen Institute Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. You can find more essays by members of the Global Leaders Council at 

Long before I became prime minister of Norway, back to my earliest years, I was rooted in the ideals and attitudes of social activism. My mother, Inga, was a radical socialist who dreamed of a coming era of justice and equality. Her mother, Margareta, was a politically active radical who became the first female lawyer ever to hold public office in the city of Stockholm. The bookshelves at our home were lined with tomes about the workers’ movement and social democracy—Karl Evang’s Sexual Education alongside The Worker’s Lexicon. I was also very influenced by the political debate in our household, and the fact that my father, a member of the Labour Party, was appointed minister of health and social affairs, and later defense minister of the Norwegian government. Around the dinner table, getting ready for school, playing in the garden—there was always political chatter going on, which fascinated me.

I remember being told about the matchstick workers’ strike of 1887 in Christiana—the first working-class women to organize in Norway. Learning of this event made a deep impression on me. All of these workers were women, exploited and suffering from terrible health problems, yet they had the courage and strength to make a difference. 

And gender equality was simply the norm in many areas of my young life. My mom participated in heated political discussions, taught herself to drive the car, and thought it the most natural thing in the world to carry a yoke with a three-gallon bucket of water hanging off each end. I was taught that women can achieve the same things in the world as men.

These early years influenced me and created in me a fierce passion for justice, equity, health, and the greater world. The rights of women—and my own role as a woman in politics—played out when I became the youngest and first female prime minister of Norway. In that capacity, I appointed eight women out of a total of 18 positions in my cabinet—a first in the world. And during these years, I learned all too well what it means to be a woman in a leadership position. I faced difficulties in terms of sexism and being patronized, and in efforts to demean me and weaken my impact.

My father was a doctor, and when I was an adolescent, I would use his medical textbooks in gynecology and obstetrics to explain to my friends how the whole business of making babies worked. I was quite the expert! Later, when I turned 18, I decided to make my “expertise” official and began training to become a doctor myself. I wanted to be part of the search for new knowledge, to spread the sort of knowledge that everyone had a right to, and to ensure that everyone was free to exercise that right.

I thought such a career would enable me to make a difference—and it did. Early on in my medical education, a woman was brought into the hospital where I was training. I examined her and found what I thought to be a tumor in her breast. But the resident doctor on duty had found nothing and wanted to discharge her. I had to muster my courage as a female student, facing many older men and speak up for what I knew to be right. Did I dare to challenge openly the doctor in charge? Deep silence. But our professor of surgery listened to my opinion and re-examined the woman. It turned out she did have cancer. I learned the powerful and sometimes vital importance of speaking up for myself, and for those who couldn’t speak for themselves, like that patient— even when I was afraid to.

Elise Ottesen Jensen, a Norwegian-Swedish sexual educator, journalist, and agitator, was my heroine. She was a real pioneer, traveling through Sweden and Norway in the 1920s and 1930s, spreading the word about women’s rights and their need to protect themselves and to plan their reproductive lives. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, these things were by no means taken for granted. The political debate about sexual education was in full swing. In 1967, I became a part-time school doctor and I entered the fray, educating public health nurses, working together with the more enlightened teachers. The years following my time on hospital duty were completely devoted to being a doctor in public health. I was, as I’d been raised, living according to my principles and my passions.

I became increasingly engaged in issues of reproductive health and family planning. My experience when having my own children illustrated the fragility of childbirth – many things can go wrong. My son Knut had a serious attack of jaundice soon after he was born. After the birth of my son Ivar I had a terrible infection of the uterus; out of commission as a mother, I learned that being fit and well isn’t something women can take for granted. In my position as prime minister and with the World Health Organization, I could not ignore the struggles and pain that so many women in the world go through in having children.

So much has changed in the world since I began my career. And a good portion of the struggles that so many of us have gone through—discrimination, sexism, among others—would be unthinkable today, or are at least expressed in a different way, and are not as widespread. That is a positive. It’s important to see things this way, because there is a lot of pessimism in the world today.

As we look forward, let’s think about where we need to focus. Health is key to the economy. More than ever before, there is a global understanding that long-term social, economic, and environmental development will be impossible without healthy families, communities, and countries. As director general of the World Health Organization, I worked to make this a driver behind all that we did. Health is a dimension of societal and political development that stretches beyond the bio-medical sphere right into the core of the global political agenda for development.

And in this equation, women are key—to health, and in every society. Beyond the basic rights of equality that women deserve, beyond the morality or ethics of how women are treated in a society, there is the plain fact that it pays to invest in women. Statistics also now clearly demonstrate the considerable economic gain for societies through a high level of participation by women in the workforce.

We are, after all, half of the world’s population! It pays to protect the health and well-being of women. Woman power is a formidable force. Women will not become empowered merely because we want them to be, but through legislative changes, increased information, and redirection of resources. It would be fatal to overlook this fact.

When I look back on my own work I see the long line of women who came before me, women inspiring and pushing me forward: the striking matchstick workers, brave and undaunted, my grandmother, my mom, Elise Ottesen Jensen – to name only a few. My passion is renewed, the spark re-lit – we must keep working.