On a tour around the Swedish Parliament, the guide stopped in a room between two hallways and announced that we were standing in the Women’s Room. On one of the walls hung three large photos showing the first female Swedish MP, first female opposition leader and the first female Speaker. Next to these stood a large mirror, with a plaque underneath asking whether the reflection you see could be the first female Prime Minister.
Swedish politics is renowned for its progressive nature. It prides itself on its openness and transparency, and has a proactive stance on equality, the Women’s Room being a symbolic gesture to this. In comparison to British politics, one might be excused for thinking that the battle for gender equality in Sweden was over. But for many Swedish citizens, their Parliament’s commitment to the notion of equality is not enough. As a result in 2014, Feminist Initiative, a political party focussing exclusively on feminist issues, returned their first ever member to the European Parliament.
When I initially heard of Feminist Initiative’s electoral success I thought it was a bittersweet victory. While I could celebrate the existence and electoral success of feminist parties as a step towards a more equal world, in doing so my actions might be self-defeating and go against the very thing I desire by demarcating women’s issues as something separate.
On the one hand, news that a party focussing solely on feminist issues could muster as much as 5.3% of the popular vote in Sweden was immensely satisfying. The party advocated closing the pay gap between men and women, ending aggressive and violent international relations policy that influence people’s perceptions about domestic violence, and setting up a new commissioner portfolio focussed on gender equality within the European Commission. That these ideas garnered a considerable amount of the public vote showed just how far ideas and norms have come since the days when men and women existed in very different, and separate spheres of life. Feminist Initiative’s electoral support demonstrated how tantalisingly real the desire for true gender equality now is.
Yet at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder whether parties focussed exclusively on feminist issues would harm the plight for gender equality itself. By moving feminist issues into a separate dialogue, as a set of issues that deserves its own party, could it be that these parties are acting against the very thing they are trying to achieve? Gender equality does seem after all to imply, ultimately, an indifference to whether you are male or female.
But on closer inspection I don’t think feminist parties would affect the plight towards true gender equality in a negative way. It seems possible to endorse, here and now, Feminist Initiative and similar parties growing across Europe, and yet maintain that in the long run such parties shouldn’t need to exist.
Feminist parties are needed now because gender-based injustices, even if implicit, still occur despite mainstream parties’ claims that the issues are being tackled. Boardrooms are still male-dominated (in Sweden as well as in the UK), disproportionalities in the number of boys and girls studying STEM subjects persist and politics remains largely the preserve of men in many political systems. These issues aren’t temporary aberrations in an otherwise equal society, they are pervasive issues that dramatically affect all of our lives irrespective of our gender.
Feminist parties can apply a form of concentrated pressure that is needed right away to begin to correct these imbalances. We need and should encourage exclusively feminist parties to fight for gender equality because the current promises being made seem illusory and inadequate. Mainstream parties seem incapable of tackling the more pervasive societal attitudes that can’t be changed through legislation alone.
The feminist parties do not need to advocate any radical departure from what we perceive as the end goal of gender equality because their strength is simply their ability to force the issue, to prevent it from being side-lined as something that can be fixed later. And if they can provide solutions along the way, then all the better.
The cynic in me thinks that even if the issue alone does not compel mainstream parties to act, when those same parties start to lose votes to the likes of Feminist Initiative they certainly will act then. When feminist parties can eat into the electoral margins of the large parties, then gender equality will become a much more urgent issue, and not just an aside.
So feminist parties needn’t be seen as divisive, as securing protection for women at the expense of a pursuit of true gender equality. They are instead a way of focussing our attention and changing archaic attitudes towards societal ideas of gender by forcing the issue.
Of course, ultimately, such parties shouldn’t exist. Gender equality should be the accepted norm. There shouldn’t be a need for the issue to be forced. But until that time comes, I’m quite happy to applaud and encourage the growth of exclusively feminist parties. Feminist Initiative’s electoral success is a success for gender equality. It’s a great leap forwards so that one day the mirror in Sweden’s Women’s Room can be replaced with a fourth photo.