A First: Sweden Elects Soraya Post of the Feminist Initiative Party to the European Parliament

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tumblr_n3q0s2L7P11twpxfio1_1280In May 2014, Sweden, one of the Nordic ‘magical kingdoms’ that are sometimes famed as feminist nirvanas, made history. Brussels is about to welcome a Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from a feminist party.

Elected through a system of proportional representation (PR), the European parliament is composed of 751 members from 28 states and is responsible for an expanding range of laws and policies in areas such as agriculture, energy, and immigration. PR has historically been fairer than ‘first past the post’ systems to women. Since the first EU election in 1979, member states have generally elected more women to the EU than they have to the national assemblies. They made up 16% of the first MEPs. By 2009, they counted for 35.1%. That growth seemed promising. Although not all are feminists, as the case of Marine Le Pen below illustrates, many are sympathetic.[1]

Other less progressive groups can nevertheless also be successful. The May 2014 election saw unprecedented advances from right wing (often anti-immigrant) parties and euro-skeptics, although they did not gain a majority. In France and the United Kingdom, the Front National (led by a female anti-feminist Le Pen) and the UK Independence Party, gained significant ground. Left wing parties nevertheless also reported victories in countries such as Greece and Spain.       .

While the policies of the EU have sometimes reflected the success of second wave feminism, Europe and its governments, like those elsewhere, have seen the rise of the new Right and neo-liberalism with their extended and intended injuries to women and human rights more generally. Bad times for equality have been especially visible since the 2008 economic crash. This helps explain the appearance of feminist party MEP candidates from Sweden, Germany, and France in 2014. One would be successful.

Despite its reputation for progressive gender politics,[2] Sweden has not escaped the consequences of misogyny and racism. As one British scholar has concluded “if one takes ‘gender equality’ as the benchmark rather than comparison with other industrialised societies, as does, for instance, the Swedish Political Platform for a Feminist Initiative … then the glass starts to look half empty.”[3] In the last two decades Sweden has shown troubling signs of a reactionary men’s rights movement, summed up as ‘wronged white men’ even as the gendered wage gap and male violence persisted.[4] Anti-immigrant sentiments are part of the same poisonous arsenal.

In 2005-6, Swedish feminists founded Feminist Initiatives to contest the reactionary tide. At its helm was Gudrun Schyman (b 1948), the former leader of the Swedish Left Party (1993-2003), signaling the traditional links between feminism and more progressive politics. The support of American activists, the actress Jane Fonda and the author of the Vagina Monologues, Eve Enslersuggested international influences. While Swedish feminism has sometimes been charged with paternalism and colonialism in dealing with non-Europeans,[5] the new party deliberately embraced contemporary feminism’s intersectional analysis of oppression.

That embrace helps explain why Soraya Post (b 1956), an early president of the International Romani Women’s Network and long-time champion of immigrant rights was the FI’s first ranked candidate. She and other FIers rallied voters with the slogan, “Out with racists and in with feminists.” As she explained, “I was born in Sweden—my family has been in Sweden for hundreds of years—but I was living as a second-class citizen because of my ethnicity.” Her 21-year-old mother had endured “forced sterilization”. Post’s response to the rise of reactionary politics was straightforward: “we want to develop the democracy in a way that is based and grounded in human rights. …The feminists are the greatest enemy of the Fascists…. We don’t want to wait anymore. We’ve had enough.”[6]

The meaning of Soraya Post’s success, and of the appearance of feminist parties elsewhere in the 2014 election, is unclear. Some observers fear they will “end up letting the mainstream parties off the hook.”[7] It may, however, be possible that the 2014 election signals frustration with liberal feminism’s state project of compromise and conciliation earlier condemned by political theorist Chantal Mouffe in The Return of the Political (1993). Certainly Swedish feminists and their allies, like others around the globe, are understandably disillusioned when the hard-won advances of the Second Feminist Wave are increasingly threatened. The old dream of feminist parties, first voiced by suffragists, is one solution.

 

 

Notes:

[1] The gender makeup will not be confirmed until the first session of the new parliament. See the European Parliament, http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/gender-balance.html accessed 1 June 2014.

[2] See Marie Nordberg, “Sweden. The Gender Equality Paradise?” in Keith Pringle, ed., Men and Masculinities in Europe (NY: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2006).

[3] Ruth Lister, “Postscript. Gender, citizenship and social justice in the Nordic welfare states: a view from the outside,” in Kari Melby et al, eds., Gender Equality and Welfare Politics in Scandinavia: The limits of political ambition? (Bristol, UK: The Policy Press 2009), 217. See also her “A Nordic Nirvana? Gender, Citizenship and Social Justice in the Nordic Welfare States,” Social Politics 16:2 (2009): 242-78.

[4] Mona Lilja and Evelina Johansson, Understanding Power and Performing Resistance: Swedish Feminists, Civil Society Voices, Biopolitics and ‘Angry’ Men,” NORA. Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 21:4 (2013): 264-79.

[5] See Chia-Ling Yang, “Whose Feminism? Whose Emancipation?” in Suvi Keskinen, et al, eds. Complying with Colonialism: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009): 241-56.

[6] Kat Stoeffel, “Meet the EU Parliament’s (Likely) First-Elected Feminist Party Member,” The Cut (23 May 2014), http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/05/feminist-partys-first-eu-parliament-member.html

[7] Cathy Newman, “Why the hell has Europe voted in a feminist party? The Telegraph (27 May 2014), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/10857720/Forget-Ukip-why-the-hell-has-Europe-voted-in-a-feminist-party.html

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."