Norwegian political leader Gro Harlem Brundtland (born 1939) was the first Scandinavian woman to serve as a prime minister (1981; 1986-1989; 1990-1997). Brundtland also paved the way for women in the United Nations when she was asked by UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to establish and chair the World Commission for Environment and Development in 1983.
Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, born in Oslo in 1939, was both the first woman and the youngest person ever to hold Norway's highest ranking political office. Her father, Gudmund Harlem, Norway's Minister of Social Affairs (1955-61) and Minister of Defense (1961-63, 63-65) was a strong influence on her early political development and as a young adult Brundtland was actively involved in the Labour party's student movement.
Brundtland earned her medical degree from the University of Oslo in 1963 and earned a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard University in 1965. Returning to Norway after graduation, she first served as a medical officer at the Norwegian Directorate of Health (1966-68) and then became assistant medical director to Oslo's Board of Health (1968-74).
In 1974, Brundtland was "discovered" by Prime Minister Trygve Brattelishe and appointed Minister of the Environment, a position she held until her resignation in 1979. She served as deputy leader of Labour's parliamentary group from 1975-81 and was elected to the Storting (Norway's Parliament) for the city of Oslo in 1977. While in the Storting, Bruntland headed two important standing committees, finance and foreign affairs. (She was leader of the Committee on Foreign and Constitutional Affairs for the years 1980-81, 1981-86, and 1989-90.)
In February of 1981 the acting Labour prime minister retired. Urged on by Labour party members, Bruntland claimed the prime minister's seat. Two months later she also took control of the party chairmanship. However, Brundtland's first term as prime minister was short-lived. The Labour party lost the October 1981 elections to a Conservative coalition which named Kåre Willoch to the post of prime minister.
In May 1986, Brundtland was reelected as Labour party prime minister. This time she remained in office until 1989 when the Conservative party again defeated the Labour government.
With the collapse of the Conservative party's administration in 1990, Brundtland became prime minister for the third time. This time she was forced to build a coalition with minor parties to hold a majority in the 165-seat National Assembly. Bruntland's fourth term as Norway's prime minister, begun in 1993, drew to a close in October, 1996, when she submitted her resignation. She stepped down from office on 25 October 1997.
As a leader of the Norwegian Labour Party, Brundtland became the single most influential politician in Norway during the 1980s and early 1990s. Her extraordinary career can be explained in terms of both her own political and personal beliefs as well as the political times in which she lived. In contrast to the typical working-class style of the Labour movement, Brundtland was a young, professional, female candidate. She was the most likely candidate at a time when the Labour party felt an urgent need to modernize its image.
Bruntland's sound analytical skills, good humor, and charm earned her a reputation as someone able to deal with difficult conflicts. Brundtland would thoroughly study the background of all contenders, as well as their positions on an issue. She would carefully avoid any commitment on an issue until the conflicting sides reached a joint resolution. As a final step, she would quickly implement any resolutions reached by the opposing sides.
Brundtland's approach to conflict resolution was a major factor in resolution of the "Rocket Crisis," the debate led by the European Socialist party following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's decision on missile deployment in Europe (1981). She also played an instrumental role in resolving the devastating disagreement among Norwegian Socialists on the European Community question. Both issues threatened to split the Labour party and would almost certainly have done so without "the Gro grip," the nickname given to describe Bruntland's approach to conflict resolution.
In 1983, United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar asked Bruntland to establish and chair the World Commission on Environment and Development. Bruntland approached the task of hammering out compromises on international environmental issues in the same way she handled other conflicts. The Commission's 1987 report, Our Common Future, identified the future of global ecology as sustainable growth through environment protection and economic growth.
By 1990, Bruntland was well-known internationally because of her participation in the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security (the Palme Commission), her vice-presidency of Socialist International, and her role in the first UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro (1992). Bruntland, often referred to in media releases as "mother earth," wrote several articles on political, environmental, and developmental issues.
Brundtland has received several international awards, including the Third World Prize (1988), the Indira Gandhi Prize (1988), the Onassis Foundation's Delphi Prize (1992), and the Charlemagne Prize (1994). She is married to Arne Olav Brundtland, a research director at the Oslo Institute of Foreign Studies, and has four children.
For additional information on Brundtland see Ms. (January 1988) and Time (September 23, 1989). Also see the World Commission on Ecology and Development report Our Common Future, Oxford University Press (1987). For a general background survey of Scandinavian politics, strategies, and social developments see Daedalus (Summer 1988).