13 inspiring Swedish women whose stories you should know

Tilly Olsson
Tilly Olsson - [email protected]
13 inspiring Swedish women whose stories you should know
Businesswoman Azita Shariati (left), author Astrid Lindgren (centre) and actress Saga Becker feature in our list of Sweden's most inspiring women. Photo: Photo: Tomas Oneborg & Fredrik Sandberg/TT

From historical figures to contemporary icons, Swedish women have broken boundaries around the globe. Here is The Local's list of 13 of Sweden's most inspiring women whose stories deserve to be widely known.


Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Lönneberga, the Brothers Lionheart, and Ronia the Robber's daughter are just some of Lindgren's many colourful characters at the heart of Swedish children's literature, including many boundary-breaking girls who have inspired generations of children. Born in 1907 and living until 2002, Astrid Lindgren has captivated audiences worldwide: she is one of the world's most translated children's writers and has sold more than 144 million books

These stories have stolen the hearts of many, earning Lindgren multiple literary prizes and her portrait on Sweden's 20 krona banknote. The children's museum Junibacken in Stockholm keeps the spirit of Lindgren's magical stories alive, proving that her works remain timeless classics. 

Lindgren's portrait on the back of the 20 krona note. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT 

Ingrid Bergman

This renowned Swedish actress, who has been ranked the fourth greatest female screen legend of American cinema by the American Film Institute, is best known for her role in Casablanca from 1942.

After losing both her parents at the age of 13, the aspiring actress studied at Dramatens elevskola (the Royal Dramatic Theatre's Acting School) in Stockholm. She would eventually go on to earn three Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, and four Golden Globes. 

Before making a name for herself in Hollywood, Bergman also starred in many Swedish films. After a brief stint as an extra, her first real role in a film came at the age of 19, when she had a small part in "Munkbrogreven", which launched her career.

Bergman received a scholarship at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre School. Photo:Kate Gabrielle/Flickr Creative Commons

Greta Thunberg

The Local first met this teen activist five days into her strike from school to raise awareness of climate change in September 2018. Since then, Thunberg has become close to a global household name, and was named by Time Magazine as one of the world's most influential teenagers.

She's made rousing speeches around the world (always travelling by train, since she doesn't fly due to the environmental impact) and inspired thousands of people of all ages to take part in school strikes and protests for the climate.

Meet the 15-year-old Swedish girl on strike from school for the climate
Greta Thunberg on strike from school close to the Swedish parliament. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

Tess Asplund


In May of 2016, this anti-racism activist from Stockholm was featured in a now iconic photo which went viral on social media. The image was taken in Borlänge where Asplund was protesting the far-right Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM). The activist defiantly blocked the path of hundreds of uniformed Neo Nazis with her fist raised, a gesture she borrowed from Nelson Mandela. 

Asplund was named one of the 100 most inspiriting women of the year 2016 by the BBC and also hailed by author J.K Rowling for her bravery.

The iconic photo of Asplund. Photo: David Lagerlöf/Expo/TT

Azita Shariati

In 1988, Shariati came to Gothenberg from Iran. By 2015, she had been named Sweden's most powerful businesswoman of the year by business magazine Veckans Affärer.

Starting out as a restaurant manager for the Swedish branch of French catering services firm Sodexo, she has made her way to the top of the company and is now the CEO in Sweden and administrative director in Denmark.

In 2010 Shariati also launched a gender equality programme for the company which resulted in 50 percent of its senior management positions being occupied by women, while she has also worked to reduce food waste in Sweden. In 2015, she was named one of Nordic Business Report's top 20 women in business.

Shariati accepting her award at Stadsteatern in January of 2016. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Zara Larsson

This 21-year-old Swede quickly rose to global fame to become a icon for teenagers everywhere. After winning Swedish talent competition Talang in 2008, within five years her debut album was released, reaching top spot on the Swedish national album chart Sverigestopplistan.

At the age of just 18 she performed at the 2016 UEFA European Football Championships in France alongside DJ David Guetta. She has even been named one of Time Magazine's 30 Most influential Teens of 2016.  

Larsson also uses her fame to bring attention to social issues. Songs like Ain't My Fault and many of her posts on social media champion female empowerment. 

Larsson performing at Stavernfestivalen in 2016. Photo: Tore Saetre/Flickr Creative Commons

Saga Becker

Originally from Eringsboda, Sweden, Saga Becker is a transgender actress who has been praised for her acting career and social activism.

After battling depression before her gender reassignment operation, she now works towards building a better environment for the transgender community. Becker has urged the Swedish film industry to hire more transgender actors and actresses. She is also an ambassador for Suicide Zero, an organization that works to prevent suicide.   

In 2015, she became the first openly transgender woman to win a prestigious Guldbagge Award for her moving performance in Nånting måste gå sönder (Something Must Break). 

Becker accepts her Guldbagge award in 2015. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

Selma Lagerlöf

Born in Värmland in 1858, Selma Lagerlöf was a groundbreaking trendsetter for female authors. Her legacy is most seen in her children's story Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils) and her debut novel Gösta Berling's Saga. 

In 1914 Lagerlöf became the first woman to be awarded membership to the Swedish Academy, known internationally for being the body which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature.

She was first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature itself, in "appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination, and spiritual perception that characterize her writings". Almost 50 years after her passing in 1940, she became the first woman to be featured on a Swedish banknote, occupying the 20 krona note for decades before fellow author Astrid Lindgren took her place.

Lagerlöf speaking on Swedish radio in 1933. Photo: Svenska Dagbladet/TT

Suad Ali

At the age of only 28, Suad Ali is a key leader in promoting refugee integration in Sweden and already has quite the influential career. As a refugee from Somalia herself, Ali came to Sweden as a young child. She then became the youngest expert at Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) dealing with Sweden's reception of quota refugees and was named one of Sweden's "super talents" under the age of 30 in 2016.

Ali has travelled around the world visiting refugees to help in preparation for their move to Sweden, while at the same time getting a BA in Political Science from Linköping University. She has also taken part in a UN assignment led by Sweden to find 30,000 new places worldwide for Syrian quota refugees. 

Alva Myrdal

Born in Uppsala in 1902, Myrdal was a Swedish sociologist and politician who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. She is most known for her contributions in promoting social welfare, especially in the 1930s, and helping to create the Swedish welfare state.

In her early career, Myrdal wrote the book Kris i befolkningsfrågan (Crisis in the Population Question) along with her husband Gunnar, focusing on the need for social reforms in the liberation of women. 

She was also a prominent member of Social Democrats for the majority of her career. In 1950, she became the first woman to hold the position of chairman of Unesco's social science section, while in the 1960s she helped create Stockholm's International Peace Research Institute.

Myrdal serving as a Swedish envoy to New Delhi in 1955. Photo: Svenska Dagbladet/TT

Gudrun Schyman

After serving as the leader of Sweden's Left Party from 1993 to 2003, Schyman co-founded the political party Feminist Initiative (Feministiskt Initiativ or FI). Schyman is known to be quite controversial; in 2004 she suggested special taxation on men, and in 2010 burned nearly 100,000 krona ($13,000) to make a point about equal pay between the sexes. 

Her 2006 FI campaign even gained global recognition as it was backed by actress and activist Jane Fonda

Schyman at the Almedalen politics meetup in Visby, Gotland. Photo: Lars Pehrson/TT

Cristina Stenbeck 

After attending St. Andrew's School in Delaware and graduating from Georgetown University in Washington with a Bachelor's degree of Science, Swedish-American Cristina Stenbeck is now one of Sweden's best known businesswomen. She has also gained global recognition, and has been named one of the most powerful women in the world by Fortune magazine. 

Stenbeck became chairperson of her family's company Kinnevik AB in 2007, and has been a board member of several major media companies such as Tele2, MTG, and Metro International.

After stepping down from her role as chairperson in early 2016, she now pursues future companies to invest in.  

Stenbeck has three daughters and one son. Photo: Lars Pehrson/TT

Crown Princess Victoria 

As the heir to the Swedish throne, Princess Victoria will be Sweden's first queen regnant since Ulrika Eleonora in the 18th century. She is regularly named Swedes' favourite member of the royal family. In 2010 she married her personal trainer, Prince Daniel, and they now live in Haga Palace north of Stockholm with their two children Estelle and Oscar.

The Princess has also campaigned for awareness of healthy lifestyles for young people, teaming up with Swedish clothing brand H&M in collaboration with her non-profit organisation GEN-PEP.

Princess Victoria studied abroad at Yale University in Connecticut for two years. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Article first published in 2017 and updated in 2019.

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