Sweden’s history provides insight into how it has quietly established itself as one of the most gender equal countries in the world, while the United States continues to loudly squabble over legislation guaranteeing equal legal rights regardless of gender.
By Victoria Martínez
While the word “feminism” can be divisive in many parts of the world, in Sweden it has been intimately paired with the country’s government since 2014. That year, Sweden’s new Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, declared that the country would have the world’s first feminist government. A look at the official government website reveals statements like:
“Women and men must have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a human right and a matter of democracy and justice.”
Meanwhile, in the United States of America, the statement at the crux of the Equal Rights Amendment, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” is still too much for some. Even in 2018, almost a century after the amendment was introduced by Alice Paul, it still doesn’t have enough support for ratification.
How is it that the country with several very conspicuous waves of women’s rights movements in its history has been outpaced in gender equality by a small Nordic country with comparatively quiet and subtle women’s rights movements?
Before addressing the question, it’s important to note that characterizations of Sweden as some sort of feminist utopia are not only wide of the mark, they also make the country the target of much abuse by critics who wish to find fault with equal rights initiatives. Swedish Prime Minister Löfven himself has acknowledged that, “gender equality is still a distant goal,” in Sweden and the rest of the world, and this is the reason why a feminist government is necessary. It bears pointing out as well that Sweden still also faces challenges in regard to other forms of equality.
Sweden, therefore, does not stand as “the” model which all other nations and governments should follow in terms of gender equality. It is neither a utopia nor a representative example of the “right” way to create a more equal society. Still, the fact that it has consistently ranked at the top of global equality rankings for many years makes it an excellent case study for anyone concerned with gender equality, whether or not they identify as “feminist.”
It is also important to note that Sweden has dropped slightly in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index since PM Löfven and the feminist government took power: from fourth place in 2014 to fifth place in 2017. To be fair, however, in 2014, the United States ranked 20th on the global scale. By 2017, it had plummeted to 49th place. Any backsliding is cause for concern, so the situation in the U.S. is especially alarming.
That said, the intention of this essay is not to disparage the United States and idealize Sweden, but rather contrast the high-profile history of feminism and gender equality reforms in the U.S. with that of Sweden, which is little known outside Europe or even Scandinavia. This juxtaposition also has the potential to provide valuable insight in the spirit of the following statement by American sociologist Diane Rothbard Margolis:
“If women around the world are to hold on to the tentative advances already made toward equality and build upon them, it will be because differing movements around the world accept, respect, and learn from their heterogeneity.”
An Early Arrival and a Late Departure
The “first wave” women’s movements of Sweden and the United States followed roughly the same trajectory from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, despite certain differences. A key driver of both movements was women’s suffrage, accompanied by other fundamental legal and political rights particular to each nation. Women in both countries successfully secured some of these rights around the same time.
Women’s suffrage, for instance, was granted to Swedish women in 1919, and to American women in 1920. Women in both countries were securing a few seats in government around this time as well. In the U.S., Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to Congress (House of Representatives) in 1916. In 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first woman in the U.S. Senate. In Sweden, 1921 – the first year women were able to exercise their right to vote – saw five women elected to Parliament, including Kerstin Hesselgren, who was elected to the Upper House, Elisabeth Tamm and Nelly Thüring.
But with the vote secured and political representation a possibility (if not always an attainable reality), the paths of the two countries began to diverge as their respective women’s movements continued to push for additional reforms from the 1920s. Notably, Swedish women gained increasing legal equality with the full support of the government while American women achieved success slowly, sparingly and, often, grudgingly.
As Alice Paul introduced what became known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the U.S. in 1923 (which has yet to be ratified in 2018), Swedish women had already gained legal marital equality (1920) and the right to enter into most professions by that time. In 1938, Sweden legalized birth control and liberalized/legalized abortion. By contrast, in the U.S., birth control wasn’t legalized until 1965, followed by abortion in 1973.
Four weeks of unpaid maternity leave had already been granted to Swedish women in 1901, and this was extended to three months of job-protected leave in 1937, and to six months in 1945. Paid maternity leave was introduced in 1955 and expanded in 1963, when it was paid at 80 percent of earnings for six months. In 1974, the benefit was extended to fathers as well and became known as parental leave.
Protections in the workplace also came early in Sweden compared to the U.S., with a law protecting women from losing their jobs because of engagement and marriage in 1939, and because of pregnancy in 1946. These reforms arrived in the U.S. in 1964 and 1978, respectively, although enforcement was – and still is – problematic, often coming only after legal battles.
Nearly all of these reforms have since been further updated and liberalized by the Swedish government to meet with the nation’s changing needs and societal demands, not to mention the latest waves of feminism. The result is that not only is Sweden years ahead of the United States in terms of gender equality, it is also benefitting from normalization of gender equality initiatives and forward momentum.
A Harmonization of Purpose
Just as today’s government in Sweden has (more or less) united the goals of the nation with the goals of feminism, the same was true in the early decades of the 20th century. This unity was key to the country’s early progress in the march toward gender equality.
Then, as now, the Social Democrats were at the head of the government. The goals of the party and the dominant women’s rights groups being generally in agreement, and each party in need of the other’s support, the two groups “helped each other in an effort to cast off the weight of industrialization and make Moder Svea (Mother Sweden) a harmonious country which would promote the ideas of democracy, humanitarianism and social equality.”
Despite the fact that Sweden was still very much a patriarchal society, historian Sondra R. Herman noted in 1972 that, “the Swedish tradition of patriarchal and active government has been the largest factor in women’s drive for equality” up to that time. In seeking solutions for some of the major issues of the 1920s to 1960s, such as low population and birth rates, labor shortages and class conflict, the government found solutions in granting women greater rights and freedoms.
Although these reforms obviously benefitted women, they weren’t done strictly for the benefit of women, but for their impact on the greater social and economic good of the country. Scholar Paulina de los Reyes has noted:
“The struggle for equal civil rights, rather than for specific rights for women, thus became an important ideological position in order not only to increase the political representation of women but also to preserve a united movement.”
The women’s rights activists, or at least those with the greatest voice, also supported this egalitarian approach, embracing “all the complexities—the relations between men and women, parents and children, and family and state,” with the result that, “Eventually the transformation of the state became the overriding purpose of feminism” in Sweden.
Through this process, “feminists became participants in complex unfoldings of multiple conflicts,” and gained greater control over their bodies and lives. The government, for its part, was able to maintain a traditional patriarchal order while also resolving many of Sweden’s greatest social and economic challenges in the first half of the 20th century.
Modern scholars are right to critique and analyze the flaws of this alliance. But even allowing for the fact that it was not without fault, the union of Sweden’s feminists and patriarchal government was critical “to the creation of a broadly egalitarian society, and to the resolution of a range of contemporary social problems in Sweden.”
By the time of the arrival of the second wave of feminism in both Sweden and the United States in the 1960s, Sweden was (and still is) far better prepared than the U.S. to confront and address gender inequalities in a new era. History repeated itself as Sweden moved forward on progressive legislation beneficial to gender equality, while American gender politics created the kind of divisions that continue to prevent ratification of the ERA.
In Sweden today, there is general agreement that much progress has yet to be made in terms of gender equality. But it is this recognition, coupled with the country’s historical willingness to make gender equality initiatives an integral and formal part of improving society and furthering national interests, that will undoubtedly continue to drive the country forward toward a more equal society for all.
 Margolis, Diane Rothbard. “Women’s Movements around the World: Cross-Cultural Comparisons.” Gender and Society, vol. 7, no. 3, 1993, p. 396.
 For more on Swedish marriage law reform: “Gender Equality and the Welfare state. Debates on Marriage Law Reform in Sweden at the Beginning of the 20th Century,” Christina Carlsson Wetterberg, 2013.
 Some military and clerical positions were still excluded.
 Abortion was further liberalized in Sweden in 1974.
 For further information, see page 22 of the PDF, “Parental leave entitlements: Historical perspective (around 1870-2014).”
 Today, parents in Sweden can divide 480 days of paid leave between them. In the United States, The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides “certain employees” up to 12 weeks (480 hours) of unpaid leave per year.
 For instance, a series of court cases involving flight attendants in the 1960s, and a variety of more recent cases.
 Lindholm, Marika. “Swedish Feminism, 1835–1945: A Conservative Revolution.” Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 4, 1991, pp. 138-9.
 Herman, Sondra R. “Sex-Roles and Sexual Attitudes in Sweden: The New Phase.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 13, no. 1/2, 1972, p. 46.
 de los Reyes, Paulina. “When feminism became gender equality and anti-racism turned into diversity management.” Challenging the myth of gender equality in Sweden. Bristol: Policy Press, 2016, pp. 27-28.
 Herman 50
 Lindholm 139
 Bradley, David. “Perspectives on Sexual Equality in Sweden.” The Modern Law Review, vol. 53, no. 3, 1990, p. 300.