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The woman who introduced undercover journalism to Sweden

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The woman who introduced undercover journalism to Sweden
Ester Blenda Nordström. Photo: Svenska Dagbladet/TT
07:39 CEST+02:00
In the early 1900s, a motorcycle-riding, tobacco-smoking young woman changed Swedish journalism and introduced a powerful new female role model to Swedish literature.

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If the fictional character of Pippi Longstocking had been an actual person who grew to adulthood, she almost certainly would have been Swedish journalist, author, all-around non-conformist, and globetrotting adventurer Ester Blenda Nordström (1891-1948).

In fact, it was Nordström herself and her autobiographical, norm-defying character, Ann-Mari Lindelöf, whom she introduced in her 1919 novel En rackarunge (A Rascal), that helped inspire and define Pippi in the first place.

Yet, until a few years ago, few knew of this fascinating woman who wrote what has been called "the first democratic girls' book in Sweden" and is hailed as Sweden's first undercover investigative journalist.

"She will fight for female voting rights along with feminist, author and voting activist Elin Wägner and participate in a several-year expedition among wild bears and rumbling volcanoes in Siberia," Swedish author Fatima Bremmer prefaces in her award-winning 2017 biography of Nordström, Ett jävla solsken.

"As a pioneer on motorcycles, she will show that even women can both drive and love motor vehicles that go fast. The series of girls' books signed Ester Blenda Nordström will not only be hailed on a broad front – it will change the whole genre and clearly inspire Astrid Lindgren to her great deeds."

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Barely out of her teens, Nordström began her career as a journalist in 1911, starting at Stockholms Dagblad before later writing for both Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet. Though not the first female journalist in Sweden, she was a pioneer of investigative journalism in the country and made history when she became the first journalist of either gender in Sweden to go undercover.

In the summer of 1914, she created a false identity for herself, complete with a fictional fiancé, and took a job as a maid on a farm near Nyköping to investigate the working conditions that were driving young Swedish women in the profession to leave Sweden for North America. Her experience and findings were published in a series of articles in Svenska Dagbladet under the title "En månad som tjänstflicka på en bondgård i Södermanland" (A Month as a Servant Girl on a Farm in Södermanland).

"It is not only that the work is strenuous and hard and monotonous, but the working day is too long, the work is too little divided and organized, the pay is too low and the time off entirely too little," she wrote, under the pseudonym Bansai, in the last of nine segments published on September 2nd, 1914.

Despite some seriously distracting world news – namely, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which precipitated World War One – Nordström's articles were a sensation, and she was quickly offered a book publishing contract. In November 1914, her first book, En piga bland pigor (A Maid Among Maids) was published under her own name.

"Ester Blenda had a really strong feeling for social journalism. She had the nose for it. And, of course, she was a very good writer," explains film director Anna Hylander, a relative of Nordström who brought the journalist out of obscurity with her 2016 documentary film, Ester Blenda.

"She was also an explorer who was extremely curious and restless. Eager to discover, explore, travel, and gather impressions, she didn't feel very well if she just lived a calm life. Being a journalist enabled her to live the kind of life she wanted."


Ester Blenda Nordström in the 1930s. Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

With her early success, Nordström was just getting started. Over the next two decades, she travelled around the world, reporting on and writing about social conditions, the natural world and, of course, strong and independent young women in a truly captivating way.

"[Nordström's] unadulterated adventurousness and ability to unite journalistic observation with the literary art of creation gives a special boost to her journalism; the series of articles På långfärd med motorcykel [On a long journey by motorcycle] (1914) is an example," Boel Westin writes in Nordström's Riksarkivet biography.

"In 1915, [she] took on a position as a nomad teacher in Lapland and lived for just over a year in a Lapp collective. The reportage book Kåtornas folk (1916) does not only visualize a people's culture. It also shows [Nordström] as a lyrical painter of nature."

At a time when women were slowly making gains to have the same rights as men, Ester Blenda Nordström not only fought for legal equality, she also seized personal, social and professional equality at every turn, and created a model – both through her own life and in her writing – for other women to follow.  

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Though not yet published in English, Fatima Bremmer's biography of Ester Blenda Nordström, Ett jävla solsken, has been given the English title The Lone Woman. Anna Hylander and Fatima Bremmer have collaborated on an exhibition about Ester Blenda Nordström at Skarhult Castle in Skåne, which begins May 24th, 2019.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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