On Top of the World

updated 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For most of us, Scandinavia is the land of fjords, spruce forests and reindeer; of saunas, smorgasbords and free love. Yet it is also something altogether more substantial, a hothouse for international statesmen. Indeed the Land of the Midnight Sun turns them out with the apparent ease and regularity that Indiana produces top-flight basketball teams. Trygve Lie of Norway was the first secretary-general of the United Nations. He was followed by Sweden's Dag Hammarskjöld. And Swedish premier Olof Palme was in international ascent when he was assassinated on a Stockholm street last year. Now there is Gro Harlem Brundtland, 48, a medical doctor who is Norway's first female Prime Minister and a decent bet to preside over the U.N. herself someday.

Later this month Brundtland is set to make a high profile appearance in London. As chairman of a prestigious U.N.-appointed commission that has concluded a three-year worldwide investigation of environment and development, she is expected to make an urgent appeal for increased ecological controls, especially in the Third World. In her own country of 4.1 million people, Gro—pronounced Grew—has been called the "green goddess" for her devotion to environmental issues. In other parts of the world, people might mischievously invoke a different mythology—likening her to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Which is to say that Brundtland is not content, like Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, to be another lone, formidable woman rising to prominence in a man's world; she is bent instead on taking the rest of her sex up the mountain with her. Brundtland has appointed seven women to her 18-member cabinet, giving Norway proportionately more females in top-level government posts than any nation in the world. Moreover, with Brundtland's backing, the leader of parliament's Justice Committee has drafted a constitutional amendment that eventually would grant Norwegian princesses the right to succeed to the 82-year-old throne, and parliament is expected to approve it.

On the face of things, Gro Brundtland is the leading feminist on the planet. Yet to some she could seem an unlikely champion. Married at 21, she brought four children (now 19 to 25) into the world, taking breaks between classes at medical school to breastfeed Knut, her first-born. Ask her to name the most important tasks that lie before her in 1987, and the chances are she will not mention women's issues. A good socialist—she heads the Norwegian Labor Party—she will speak of her country's economic problems, of distributing wealth fairly, of the price of oil around the world and of East-West relations. "Women's roles and their chances in life to develop themselves are central to my thinking," she says. "But I am not a one-issue person."

In fact Brundtland would shun any feminist label that implied any abandonment of motherhood. "If feminism means that you should not fulfill your biological and psychological role as a mother, then I think it's far off track," she says. "Feminism, in my view, is the promotion of real female interests, including a woman being able to bear children if she wants." She stresses the importance of men becoming closer to their children: "It is not only a question of bringing women into the old roles of men, but also of bringing men into the old roles of women. I believe that a better society will be created from this."

Gro's own upbringing was interrupted by the Nazi occupation. Twice during the war she was evacuated to neutral Sweden while her parents, Gudmund and Inga Harlem, worked in the Norwegian resistance. A few years later found 10-year-old Gro learning English in the Prospect Park section of Brooklyn, where the family resided during her father's stint as a Rockefeller Fellow at New York University. "She didn't have many words when we arrived," says Gudmund, himself a physician and a former Norwegian Minister of Defense. "But she was the best in her English class by the end of the year." Gudmund says that he and Inga "never put demands" on their daughter. Says Gro of her parents' influence: "From when I was very small, both gave me very clear indications that a girl has the same abilities and responsibilities as a boy. So I had this background of equality between the sexes instilled in me from the very beginning. Not every woman of 48 can say that. At the same time," Gro continues, "my mother never underestimated the female role. She managed to convey both a kind of independence and also the feminine values. So the pattern of my life grew naturally out of the atmosphere of my parents' home."

Gro was pursuing her medical degree at the University of Oslo in December 1960 when she married Arne Brundtland—now 50 and a senior research fellow at Norway's Institute of International Affairs as well as a syndicated columnist of Conservative leanings. Their son Knut was born seven months later. Gro assured her parents she had not known she was pregnant when she and Arne decided to get married. "She wasn't getting married because she was pregnant," her father recalls. "It was the other way around." (It is also something of a family tradition not uncommon in Norway: Her mother was pregnant with Gro when she was married, and Gro's only daughter Kaja, 23, a diplomat-in-training in Norway's foreign service, was expecting a child when she married Njaal Sæveraas, a 26-year-old government lawyer, last month.) "I married early," says Gro, "because I wanted children. I did not start by saying, 'How will I plan my career?' and then, 'This is No. 1 and the rest comes after that.' I started by saying, 'I want to be a mother and I want to be a physician and I'm combining the two from the beginning.' "

Politics was an afterthought. In 1964 Arne went to the U.S. for a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard's Center for International Affairs. Gro went with him and took a master's degree in public health at Harvard. It was during this year, says Arne, that he sensed his wife would go places in politics. "She was doing so extremely well at Harvard," he says, "that I told her, 'Since you're so damned clever, why don't you go home and join the government?' " She eventually did just that.

In 1974, when Gro became Labor's Minister of Environment, the division of labor in the Brundtland home became something of an issue between her and Arne. He describes their detente in this fashion: "When she told me about the government offer, I said, 'Go ahead and do it and I'll take over at home, on one condition only—that I do it my way.' I didn't want to have to train any more au pairs or to spoil the children, so I got rid of the one we had and divided up the duties among the children. It was all done democratically, and Gro liked it. She had no choice, anyway," he adds with a twinkle. "I had made my conditions clear."

Home is a four-bedroom house less than a mile from the Kon-Tiki Museum, in the middle of Oslo's prosperous suburbia. ("Not many Labor voters around there," remarks one government official.) Usually up by 7:30, Gro begins the day by spreading out the morning papers and listening to the news on the radio, while Arne makes the breakfast, over which they air the usual differences of people whose political persuasions are Conservative and Labor. In the absence of household help, Arne does the shopping and most of the cleaning. "If the dusting gets done," says Kaja, "it's by my father." Government business doesn't leave Gro much free time at home, but she likes to cook Sunday dinner (meatballs, potatoes and salad) for the family. The Brundtlands' three sons are all still students.

Whenever possible, Gro slips off for a day or a weekend to either of her father's two vacation retreats. One is in the woods 30 miles north of Oslo, where the cross-country skiing is first-rate. The other is on a fjord 60 miles south of the capital, where she and Arne keep their 33-foot sailboat. Four years ago they were out in heavy seas when Arne was knocked overboard. He was unable to climb back, so Gro tied his hands to the stern in case he became too numb to hang on. Then she deftly navigated the craft into safer waters. "She was steady and cool-headed," says Arne.

With the Norwegian economy still facing heavy weather, running the government will require some tricky sailing. The flow of revenue from Norway's North Sea oil wells has been profoundly affected by the worldwide drop in prices. In fact Gro, who had served as caretaker Prime Minister in 1981, was brought back to power by the mounting economic crisis. When the country's squabbling coalition government collapsed last May, King Olav V summoned Brundtland to form a new minority administration. Some of Gro's Labor allies advised her to ignore the call, fearing that Labor would be blamed for imposing unpopular tax increases and budget cuts. "Gro took the position that Labor must go in," recalls the party's general secretary Thorbjorn Jagland. "She thought we would be better off in the long run for taking responsibility in this serious situation."

By 1989 Brundtland must face a general election that Oslo's political analysts consider her Labor party may well lose. A domestic defeat would not damage her international stature. It would probably not even put a dent in her sustaining sense of humor. In the 1985 election, for example, Conservatives sought to tweak her about her marriage to Arne by saying "Do As Gro Did—Choose A Conservative." Without missing a beat, the once and future P.M. shot back: "Do As My Husband Did—Choose Gro."

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