The Surprising Effect of the Swedish Feminist Initiative

Though the Swedish Feminist Initiative (f!) has only one Member of the European Parliament and no parliamentary seats, it has managed to affect the discourse and commitments of mainstream parties within Sweden, contributing to the emergence of a remarkable degree of consensus across Swedish politics around gender and women’s roles in society.

Av Kimberly Cowell-Meyers*

In the article, “The Contagion Effects of the Feminist Initiative in Sweden: Agenda-setting, Niche Parties and Mainstream Parties” I use evidence from election manifestos of all seven mainstream political parties in Sweden over approximately 25 years (1991-2014) to document this consensus and argue that this tiny feminist party changed the strategic incentives for the other parties to address women’s issues. Previous scholars have shown that political parties “take up” the issues or practices of other parties to compete more effectively[A]. For example, scholars have established that when one party in a system increases its percent of female candidates or adopts a gender quota, other parties are more likely to as well[B]. Increasing salience of the issue places pressure on the other parties because they do not want to be embarrassed by appearing behind the times or unengaged on the issue[C].

Examining the commitments in election manifestos on women, gender, equality and “women’s issues” reveals that a remarkable consensus has emerged across political parties, reflecting the increase in salience F! has brought to women’s issues. For example,

  • nearly every party acknowledges pay equity is a problem (the exception is the Centre, which did so in 2010 but not in its 2014 manifesto);
  • 6/7 parties decry women’s concentration in low-status, low pay jobs (notably, not SAP);
  • 7 decry women’s larger share of domestic labor;
  • 5/7 parties make reference to sexual or domestic violence and 4/7 call for stiffer penalties for perpetrators, more training or resources for police/judiciary, more work on prevention and/or support for victims (the Center mentioned both planks in 2010 but not in 2014 and KD never mention either; the Liberals, the Alliance and the parties on the left mention them);
  • 4 parties (the parties on the left plus the Alliance) decry women’s involuntary part-time work;
  • 4/7 call themselves feminist or say they adopt a “gender conscious perspective,” including the Greens and the Left, the Liberals and the Centre, though, interestingly, not SAP, who use the title in the 1998 manifesto and in the party program from 2001;
  • 4/7 (the Left, the Greens, Alliance and the Liberals) assert that Swedish foreign policy should support gender equality, the rights of women or their health specifically (the Centre did this in 2010; SAP are not on this list);
  • 6 call for greater investment in public transportation (Alliance is silent on this issue);
  • all 7 call for the reduction in Greenhouse gases/reliance on fossil fuels.

In addition, in the 2014 general election campaign, the Moderates produced an economic program for greater gender equality, the Liberals ran under a banner of «Feminism without Socialism,» SAP proposed a ban on sexualized advertising, and the Greens advocated for free contraceptives for young women[D]. And, an unprecedented seven ministers and five party leaders spoke at the Nordic Forum in Malmo, a feminist conference convened by women’s rights groups, in June 2014[E].

All of this relatively novel, wide-spread attention to women’s concerns only occurred after F!’s breakout in the EU elections in May 2014. It did not occur when the Left ran on the same issues 12 years earlier or even when F! first campaigned on them in 2006. Instead, as F! became more competitive electorally, crossing the threshold for a seat in the EU Parliament and polling well in summer 2014, these issues gained prominence. The parties paid far more attention to them in their 2014 platforms than at any time prior, jumping from an average of six mentions of issues in the F! platform in the three previous elections to 10. This adjustment was greatest among parties on the left, with whom F! competed most directly. For example, in 2010, SAP mentioned only 6.33 of F!’s issues but in 2014, when they were actively losing supporters to the F![F], they made their strongest statement with nine mentions. The Greens, whose co-spokesman, Peter Eriksson, likened the formation of F! to a kick up the backside for his party[G].

This confirms the impression of many media analysts that F! has had a “lasting impact on the election campaign”[H] by putting gender at the heart of Swedish election”[I], forcing “other parties to offer programmes to improve the country’s gender equality”[J], and getting “virtually all other parties to join a feminist movement”[K]. As Goran Eriksson in Svenska Dagbladet argued, mainstream party attention to feminism indicated that F! had already won a “landslide victory”.

Though there was gradual evolution throughout the period from 1991-2014 and increase in pressure from the women’s movement more generally[L], a marked departure from past trends occurred in 2014. F!, as the Support Stockings threatened to do in 1994, acted as proximate cause, placing direct, competitive pressure on the parties, in ways that the movement on its own and as an outsider could not. As Heidi Avellan, editor and columnist, noted about this election, “Feminism seems to come and go in the political debate in ten-year cycles, but there’s always a catalyst needed and this year it’s been F!”[M].

The evidence suggests that F! has had disproportionate influence on the issue agenda of the mainstream parties, pressuring them to “take up” the issues of this niche party. We should look more closely at women’s and feminist parties as a tactical choice of social movements to enhance women’s representation and encourage public discourse about gender and power.

*Kimberly Cowell-Meyers er Assistant Professor ved department of Government ved American University (Washington, DC)


[A] See studies from Levevre et al. and Green-Pederson and Mortensen

[B] See studies from Davis, 1997; Matland and Studlar, 1996; Matland, 1993; Studlar and Moncrief, 1999; Caul, 2001; Kolinsky, 1991

[C] See Freidenvall, 2003

[D] See Wikstrom C. (2014) Sweden Feminists Roar into Political Arena. Al-Jazeera. Chicago

[E] See Eriksson G. (2014) Landslide victory for FI in the Gender Issue. Svenska Dagbladet

[F] See BBC. (2014) Swedish Poll Shows Support for Governing Nonsocialist Parties Lowest since 1979 BBC Monitoring European. London; EIU, 2014; Eaton G. (2014) Home Truths and Prophecies New Statesman. Sep 19-Sep 25 ed. London, 20.

[G] TheLocalSE. (2005) Schyman Launches «Feminist Initiative»

[H] See Rosen H and Eriksson K. (2014) Bourgeois Feminists Gazing across the Block Boundary. Dagens Nyeheter

[I] Orange R. (2014) Feminist Party puts Gender at the Heart of Swedish Election: New Political Grouping Aims to Win First-ever Seats in Next Month’s Parliamentary Vote. The Guardian. London, 23.

[J] Wikstrom C. (2014) Swedish Left-wing Bloc Wins Election. Al-Jazeera. Chicago.

[K] Winther B. (2014) Det ligger i den stereotype mands rolle. Den er fuldpumpet med vold og virilitet«: Homeparty. Partiet Feministisk Initiativ balancerer på spærregrænsen frem mod det svenske valg den 14. september. Uanset om partiet kommer ind eller ej, så er det lykkes at få stort set alle andre partier til at slutte sig til en feministisk bevægelse. Berlingske Tidende. Copenhagen

[L] See Svenska Dagbladet 2014

[M] Wikstrom C. (2014) Sweden Feminists Roar into Political Arena. Al-Jazeera. Chicago

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