Feminism: Differentiating Sweden and the United States

There is no doubt that Sweden is a social democracy. It proposes policies to perpetuate the upward mobility of women in economic vitality, political representation, and social being. As Eric Sundström, political strategist for Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström, stated during a Q&A session with students of the Global Leadership Study Abroad Program from Iowa State University at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 21, 2015,

How can you heal a country when men are the only ones involved in the peace process?

Eric proposed this rhetorical question in response to how policies are argued, proposed, passed and applied by mostly men and in some instances by all men in the reconstruction of war torn countries. But does this question only apply to war torn countries?

Eric further stated, “Sweden practices a feminist foreign policy agenda.” Of course, this is very different rhetoric that is discussed during political American discourse in the United States. Imagine a politician or political strategist in the United States exclaiming support for or proposing feminist policy. Not likely in today’s highly partisan and contengious American political environment. But this does not mean that feminism is not a valid or a worth while philosophy.

To compare, does the question of “How can you heal a country when men are the only ones involved in the peace process?” apply to the United States? If one takes into account and recognizes that the 19th amendment was not passed until 1920, 143 years into American history, then one must at the very least acknowledge that this question may relate to the United States as well.

Riksdag Session

Riksdag Session

Historically, Sweden and the United States are very different countries. The United States ratified legislation supporting women’s suffrage in August of 1920; whereas, women obtained that right in 1921 in Sweden. In addition, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman’s right to choose in 1973 in Roe v. Wade. In 1974, Sweden passed the Abortion Act, which gave women the right to choose. In both cases, the right to political access and the right to choose are comparable in dates, but despite this, the divergence of the philosophies of the countries are still very different, which has already been established by the feminist position of foreign policy by Sweden.

Another example of the differences of philosophy and how those differences are perpetuated is how government is structured. The United States has a federal government structure where power is shared between the federal government and the states, which is explained by the 10th amendment of the United States Constitution, and Sweden has a unitary government. In this form of government, the central government creates and codifies the policies of the country. In short, Sweden’s form of government does not create or allow for an environment where there is a push and pull between the central government and the states.

However, this unitary system of government does allow a potential for greater represenatation by women in a shorter period of time. This is because the citizens of Sweden vote for the parties, not individuals. Swede’s vote every four years in local, county, and national elections. Moreover, the parties decide who will represent the party and thus the voters in the Riksdag (parliament). Because of this freedom of choice to choose who will serve, the parties themselves have greater control over who will serve and thus if more woman will serve or not serve. In the case of Sweden, the participation of women at all levels of government in Sweden has been trending towards fifty percent, which includes the recent 2014 elections.

In contrast, the United States congress is comprised of less than twenty percent of women, although the population is more than fifty percent women. Moreover, the United States is ranked 84th in leadership for women. This is quite a difference from Sweden. But what does it mean?

United States Congress

United States Congress – Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

There is a genious behind Jefferson’s constitution and how the document has been able to perpetuate and support the emergence of political equality in the United States despite the dark origins and history of the United States and despite the original oppressive, dichotomous, intent of the document itself. United States citizens are allowed to vote in city, county, state, and federal elections; United States citizens are allowed to vote for the candidate of their choice despite limited options; United States citizens are allowed to question the authority of the United State government; and United States citizens are allowed to question the motives and legitimacy of their representatives, including the president of the United States. United States citizens are allowed to overturn constitutional amendments.

Despite all of this, Americans choose, for the most part, not to elect women to represent them in government. Maybe Americans do not want women as representatives? Maybe Americans are not even conscious of such decisions? Maybe Americans are not self-actualized to this existence? Maybe Americans are not self-actualized to this continuous habit of voting mostly for men? And most importantly, maybe Americans are not aware of the value of women? In Sweden, this political event to vote for women or men is not a choice. This decision is made by the parties and the parties have decided that those women who decide to serve the public will be supported.

Is there a difference between Sweden and the United States when it comes to women in mid-level and executive positions in the market place? According to Alice H. Eagly in Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, there is a difference between the relative number of women at the mid-level management position versus the executive level in the United States. As Alice explains,

Women’s employment in the United States has shown the greatest increase in managerial and administrative occupations…[There is an] increase for the years 1983 through 2006, with a leveling off at around 42 percent…A substantial number of women hold middle management positions in large corporations, but relatively few are executives…women occupy 16 percent fo the executive positions [of the Fortune 500].

Sweden in this case is not much different. What is different about Sweden is the acknowledgment of the difference, its self-actualization, and what to do about it, its solution.

Oscar Ernerot of LO-Sweden during a visit with the students of the Global Leadership program at Iowa State University stated that women in Sweden are well represented at the middle management level but are still greatly lagging behind at the high levels of leadership. Oscar even recognized its own imbalance at its board level, which is 75 percent male. Oscar also stated that gender is at the foundation of their philosophy and thus the LO takes a feminist position.

What solution does Oscar and LO propose? They are admittedly not sure. They recognize that women stall at the middle management level. They recognize that male leaders take on younger males, or other males, to prepare for leadership, which perpetuates the male pipeline of leadership to the top. They also recognize that this mentorship amongst men takes place at greater rates, which is one of the many reasons for the continuous discrepancy in leadership rates between men and women at executive positions. The question is what to do about it. The LO is not sure at this time and they are okay with it because they have not stopped looking for a solution, or solutions.

So what does this mean for feminism? What does this mean for feminism in the United States? Clearly, feminists have many allies in Sweden. The Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO-Sweden, which is a major labor organization in Sweden and an influential labor organization abroad in at least a dozen countries takes a feminist position. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sweden declares and practices a feminist agenda. In addition, Magnus Björk, External Cooperation Advisor of Forum Syd, at a meeting with the students from the Global Leadership Program, Iowa State University, stated

Sweden officially has a feminist foreign policy…[For example, when it comes to Burma and its reemergence], who is sitting at the table? 99.9 percent of the [participants] are men.

Needless to say, Magnus and Forum Syd take a feminist position. However, in the United States, feminism is a dirty word. Feminists are either viewed as “shrill, shrieking shrews,” and/or emasculators of men. In addition, feminists are viewed as being lesbians. First, this implies that lesbians are wretched like feminists as if feminists are also wretched. And second, the connotation perpetuates further ingroup and outgroup dynamics which perpetuates an unsafe and depressive environment for those feminists and members of the LBGT community. It further negates political legitimacy and philosophies against the system. In other words, feminists are not a part of the mainstream and lesbians are not a part of the mainstream; therefore, they are both leftist radical movements bent on the distruction of the system of American freedom. This conversation does not happen in Sweden which says a lot about the United States.

A Decades Fight

A Decades Fight

Today in the United States, Roe v. Wade is being challenged in several states and indirectly. Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, and North Dakota are current examples of this challenge; Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin along with other state governors have helped pass “Right-to-Work” legislation limiting the power of unions in their respective states and across the United States; and women as legislative representatives in government is more than 25 percent higher in Sweden than it is in the United States. According to these facts, it would appear as though Sweden and the United States are moving in different directions despite the comparable dates of feminist policy in women’s suffrage in the early 1920’s and a woman’s right to choose in the middle 1970’s.

If a basic definition of feminism is to create an evironment of economic vitality, political representation and autonomy, and social being for women, then does the United States qualify as a feminist country? The answer is no, at least not in totality and certainly not at the federal level. The United States government has not declared a feminist policy; Sweden has. Roe v. Wade is being challenged. Of course, it can be challenged constitutionally, and that is important and a constitutional right, but it is anti-feminist position. To perpetuate this difference even further, Sweden has a topnotch paternity leave program for both parents – 480 days divided between both parents. As Eric Sundström argues, there is no viable counter economic argument against paternity leave. In the short run, it cost money; but in the long run, it pays dividends.

So what does this mean for the United States? Is it possible for the United States to practice a feminist policy? Unfortunately, this is not possible in today’s current political environment. Then is it possible for a state like Minnesota or Oregon to practice a feminist policy? Either state possibly could but it would take a further shift in zeitgeist and political courage. Could cities such as Minneapolis, Seattle, or Portland take on feminist public policies? This is probably more likely in the near future. In the case of Minneapolis, Mayor Betsy Hodges is a trained sociologist and is more than likely aware of such suffrage issues. She would also be more than likely to receive the support of the voters of Minneapolis, which tends to be extremely progressive in practice.

Finally, it has been shown that many men in Sweden take the feminist position. This idea may seem a bit weird to some readers. That is understandable. But being a man and being a feminist can exist at the same time. They are not dichotomous. This position would throw a wrench into the argument that feminism is wretched and emasculating. Why would a man want to be a part of that type of movement if he is going to be emasculated? Is he not arguing against his own position, welfare, and being? Why would he want to be associated with those “shrill, shrieking shrews?”

No doubt that it would not be easy for a man, especially a United States citizen, to take the feminist position, to adopt a feminist philosophy, to practice a feminist policy. It would take great courage for this man to espouse this philosophy. It would take great courage for him to argue this philosophy, not only in writing, but in speaking. He would need to expect to receive great criticism and ridicule from individuals, and media and political organizations. He would need to expect some unpopularity in the public realm. He would be loathed, disliked, detested. He would need to be willing to sacrifice. Maybe he would be denounced by his family and friends? Maybe he would be expelled from certain places of privilege and organizations and opportunities? Or maybe not. Maybe there is an advantage. Strength, fortitude, and determination are required.

Nonetheless, this path would not be easy, but it has never been easy. Women know this best. That’s why it’s called feminism. Men have never needed a suffrage philosophy. This is because the system has been constructed for them and this fact can be illustrated by all of the presidents of the United States, all of the Chief Justices of the United States, all of the eligible voters before 1920, and so and so forth. There are numerous examples of androcentrism. But this man would need to recognize his privilege; this man would need to put aside his privilege. This man would need to become a new, modern Abolitionist.





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