The feminist parties redefining Scandinavian politics

Sweden’s Feminist Initiative party is reshaping politics in the country – and beyond 

Dominic Hinde
7 May 2015

”I have to be away by ten past so I can get the bus to the party”, says Gudrun Schyman, the charismatic co-leader of Sweden’s Feminist Initiative party, as she glances at her tablet. In a small café down the street from the Swedish Parliament the veteran politician sits unassumingly in a corner, unrecognized by the tourists around her.

She is referring to a homeparty, a false Anglicism invented to describe the meetings of young activists across the country that have proven to be a pillar of a radical and increasingly successful feminist political movement with international ambitions. That night Schyman was booked to talk to a group of feminist supporters in Kungsholmen, an inner Stockholm suburb.

Founded in 2005, these gatherings of young activists and supporters have been the cornerstone of Feminist Initiative –or Fi – in their rise from interesting also-rans to a small but significant force on Sweden’s political scene.

”The concept came about by necessity”, says Schyman. “Around the summer of 2013 there was a growing interest in feminism and Feminist Initiative. We had no money or resources and could not hire venues and the like, so I said ’if you get 25 people at home I’ll come’. I’d tested it out in a European election previously with some success”

The concept proved a winner. The idea is that someone else organises the event, which functions as way of lowering the thresholds for political participation.


Feminist Initiative's election 'cottage'. John Nixon via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“It is a great way to talk about issues in fairly relaxed circumstances”, Schyman adds. “I started off doing evening things, and then spread into the afternoons, until finally we were doing breakfast meetings too.”

Until last September Fi were an enterprising but largely unrepresented minor party, famous for a clutch of celebrity backers such as Abba’s Benny Andersson and Robyn, as well as a high profile stunt in which they burned real money to highlight the gender wage gap. Their election campaign was based on hard work by the leadership and a huge number of miles covered, combined with a snappy campaign which made use of social media and tongue in cheek slogans such as ‘Put the feminists in their place’. This was embodied by painted pink chairs placed on the street to symbolise parliamentary seats. Several Swedish indie bands even lent their music to an official Fi record. It was a masterful example of a new liquid politics that operated outside of traditional channels.

The payoff for such innovation was a raft of seats in municipalities from the Swedish Arctic to the country’s southern coast, as well as an MEP – the Roma human rights activist Soroya Post. The party narrowly missed out on seats in the Swedish parliament thanks to a four per cent barrier, but took home an admirable three per cent of the vote against other better resourced parties.

Schyman say that the grass roots element was key to the campaign. “It was an important element… we have been good with social media, largely out of necessity. Of all the parties in Sweden we have the highest profile on social media and that is where our members are, and that is their language.”

To people on the outside, famously-progressive Sweden might seem the last country in need of a feminist political party; the country is ranked fourth in the world on gender equality. Schyman and her colleagues are forthright about why they are needed though.

“Because we do not have a political party at this moment in time with a plan of how we achieve gender equality in the future and freedom from discrimination. There is no timetable. There’s a parliamentary agreement that all the parties have signed up to with four goals, including equal views of parenthood and there have been a lot of nice words, but not much in the way of actual politics.”

In the 1990s a successful campaign was run by prominent Swedish feminists to put pressure on political parties over female representation, and the party itself began life as a campaign group. For Fi though the plan is to gain power and enter parliament.

“We want in. Above all else we want to liberate the particular areas of politics to do with human rights and ’women’s issues’, which are often compartmentalised. Parties often have women’s sections as if women are expected to be lobbyists in their own party, but that gets us nowhere. We need to take power. You can compare it to what the Greens did in Swedish politics in the 1980s with sustainability. At the time that was not considered to be politics as it was not about class, and it took a while for them to get into parliament but when they did everyone else was forced to sharpen up and the level of knowledge was raised. Today sustainability is an taken for grante – as part of everyday politics. That is what we will see with equality and human rights when we get in. ”

The new perspective Fi are pushing is intersectional, postmodern politics. Asked about the party’s priorities Schyman is scathing about the reductive nature of most parties’ campaigning.

“There are not three key points you can go to the polls with. Our aim is to see the connections and the context… The most important thing today is to see how it all fits together. The big mistake in most politics is not seeing this – how gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality and everything else is related, and there are power structures that perpetuate one another.  That’s the heart of the feminist analysis we have.”

The veteran leader has been here before. For a decade until 2003 she was a popular leader of the Swedish Left party and, a socialist group to the left of the governing Social Democrats.  Now though she thinks it is time for a different approach.

”That is a very old fashioned way to look at the whole thing. Left and right is just one measure and we need to develop democracy and politics and make sure there are other dimensions. Right now we have a strong focus in Europe and Sweden around the nation, tradition and norms, and on the other hand global human rights, critiquing these norms and social development. You have nationalism and feminism but with connections to other questions of power such as class and sustainability. All of these are related. It is these complexities that the traditional parties cannot really handle because they are stuck on that class-based left-right perspective. There is of course an awareness of structures in the Left and Social Democrats compared to the liberal feminist view of individual success, which changes nothing in the long term.  We are concrete about the fact that these are structural problems which require social reforms, so it is easier to cooperate with the left wing parties.”

For Fi to come this far has not been an easy ride, despite Schyman’s experience. With little in the way of funds, the movement required huge sacrifices on the part of its activists and leading figures. Sissela Nordling Blanco, the Swedish-Chilean activist who became Stockholm’s human rights commissioner after September’s election successes, has had to take a leave of absence due to the strain of working on a largely volunteer basis for the last three years. For a party that has stressed the ‘invisible’ unpaid work of women it is a bitter irony. Schyman has had a parliamentary pension to fall back on, but many of the party’s younger members belong to an economically precarious group of young working women.

Despite the barriers to growth, the movement has already spawned imitators in Norway and Finland, whilst Schyman says there are also ongoing discussions about starting similar projects in Britain, albeit perhaps in slightly different form. The Norwegian party are preparing to field candidates in Norwegian local elections this autumn in Bergen and Oslo, Norway’s two biggest cities.

Many of Feminist Initiative’s members are young and newly engaged, but someone who has been part of the party’s modest yet significant rise is Malin Nordqvist. In her mid thirties, she has been a member for a decade and lives in Värmdö, the suburban municipality covering Stockholm’s sprawling green archipelago.

“For me it is a question of political pragmatism”, she says. “I used to be a Left party councilor where I came from and I felt something was missing – I was suspicious of FI too to begin with because there was no class perspective and it took me a while before I really saw the intersectionality. I spoke to a good friend who was already a member and so I joined up. To begin with I saw it as a single issue party and did not really see the relevance for things like public transport, but I think Gudrun has been a huge factor – she is something of a role model politically.”

Getting the momentum rolling in a society that views itself as equal is a huge issue for Nordqvist and her fellow activists.

“There is this idea that we’ve come a long way and people say stuff like ‘why should we complain?’”, she says. “We have all the basics like rights to free abortions and childcare but that means we can dig a little deeper. People ask if we’re not satisfied and we’re not, because we’re not finished yet. You can argue that these are luxury problems but I think it is a great sign that we have come this far and can afford to devote our time to luxury issues.”

By embedding itself in local politics and the European Parliament, Fi now has a base of activists and politicians to use as a springboard.

“I think the party will grow”, Nordqvist says hopefully. “ It’s going slowly but next time round we’ll have the means to run a completely different type of campaign. Then there’s the fact the other parties have already started to pay attention to our politics – just the same as the Conservatives have been dragged right [by the populist Sweden Democrats] .We’re definitely not going to go backwards. In the councils where we have won seats we’ve proven we’re more than just a gang of lunatics.”

This pragmatic feminism forms the basis of the Fi plan, and they hope they can appeal to people’s everyday problems as much as an abstract sense of gender.

“I can vote for Fi for purely selfish reasons because their politics benefits me”, says Nordqvist. “There are a lot of castles in the air and a lot of talk of strong women and that, but very few concrete measures.”

“I have four daughters, I need a society that works for me. I need working public transport, good schools … and welfare questions are important to me. And with my four daughters,  with them in mind it simply has to get better.”

With their movement growing and a new wave of politicised young people across Europe wondering where gender equality went wrong, Fi hope that they can make a lasting impression and turn pink into a  regular fixture alongside red, blue, yellow and green on the political map. The real challenge will be whether their postmodern politics can compete with the power structures of old.

“It does not have to be hard”, says Schyman. “I think it can be quite a simple process.” Soon the familiar pink chairs could be popping up on a pavement close to you.

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