A long way before women got their half

2011-03-24 11:48

Although quotation is still seen as a controversial method in Sweden, the attitude has changed radically since the question was first addressed in the 1920s. The struggle for women’s political representation has given results. However it has been a long fight to increase the number of women in Parliament.

In Sweden there was a fundamental resistance towards gender quota for a long time. As early as in 1928, the Social Democratic party’s women’s association raised the question regarding gender quota in a bill to the party conference, but the bill was voted down.

Ms. Lenita Freidenvall, senior university lecturer of political science at Stockholm University, notes that the attitude towards gender quotas, as well as the view on women´s political representation, has changed radically since the beginning of the twentieth century.

– Now the Moderate Party has opened up to the possibility of gender quota to boards of directors unless the number of men and women participants do not become more even. This is an exciting change considering that the question was earlier taboo, she says.

Political Education of Women

The participation of women in politics became one of the most important issues in the twentieth century women´s liberation movement. After gaining the right to vote it was considered important that women were represented in parliament, but it often meant that each party should have a person representing women. The parties’ women’s associations have played an important role in increasing women’s representation by making demands on the parties and working to get women into strategical posts.

Early activities for these associations were to educate women in political work.

– They started out from an image of the problem where women were assumed to be inexperienced. Because of this, women were often placed in competence-enhancing activities. Courses in meeting formalia and debate techniques were supposed to make women ready for politics, says Ms. Lenita Freidenvall.

She describes two different models to increase the representation of women. The “Step by step” model which got a large impact in the Nordic countries and the “fast track” model which prescribes gender quota.

– The fast track assumes that the low representation of women does not depend upon any shortcomings of the women. Women do not need to improve their qualifications, it is the parties that do not recruit women, she explains.

– The women´s lib in the world does not want to follow the Nordic model, waiting for several generations before it get its rights. Women demand a quicker change, but it is also important to point out that gender quota is a method to create an even representation. If an increasing women’s representation leads to a more equal society, that is another question.

A Matter of Prestige to the Parties

During the 1970s loud gender debate, the number of women in the Swedish Parliament was rapidly increasing and the representation of women became a question of prestige to the parties.

– They started to compete to be on top of the class, but all the parties were still against quotation, says Ms. Lenita Freidenvall.

To allow women positive discrimination was seen as a discrimination against men. It was important for the parties not to restrict the individual party districts’ control over the nomination process. Moreover, quotation of gender was regarded to limit the members’ opportunities to freely choose their candidates.

Many countries that have introduced gender quota have done so as a result of a conflict. At the time of rewriting a constitution, there is a golden opportunity to legislate about women’s political representation. Even in Sweden, there was a form of crisis that eventually led to the result that several parties abandoned the step by step model in favour of the fast track model during the 1990s. After the election in 1991 the number of women in the Swedish Parliament was sinking for the first time since 1928.

– The parties got something to think about. They realized that the number of women actually could sink. It is important to make use of opportunities like these and the women’s lib was acting strong, says Ms. Lenita Freidenvall.

Threated to Form a Women’s Party

It was no longer considered likely that the low representation of women would be due to lack of expertise in women. Instead there were more and more critique directed towards the political parties.

After the election the network “Stödstrumporna” was threating to form a women’s party, unless the parliamentary parties were nominating more women. The parties’ women’s associations put additional pressure onto their parties by declaring that if a women’s party became a reality, they would consider changing parties.

To the next election the Social Democrats introduced a rule that prescribed that 50 % of the posts should go to women when constructing their election lists. This happened 65 years after the party congress where their women’s association had suggested a reform precisely like that. A couple of years earlier, the Left Party and the Green Party had introduced gender quota, but since they were small parties, it had no big impact on the Parliament. Over the years, more parties have tried to strengthen their rules towards a more equal distribution according to sex in their parties and today it is almost equal. But to Ms. Lenita Freidenvall, this does not mean that the work towards the representation of women in Parliament is completed.

– Work remains within other areas in politics. On a local level you need to look over the distribution within local governments and boards. It is not enough to just look at the City Council. You need to ask yourself also which women that are represented, she says.

Women Out of the Elite

Ms. Lenita Freidenvall is working together with Ms. Drude Dahlerup on a research project which examines how women from different ethnical minorities are exercising their political citizenship and which possibilities these women have to become a part of the political decision making.

– Women in politics are often women out of the elite. They are seldom poor women or foreign women. This is important to know and it is something that we have to work with.

Author Charlie Olofsson, (translation from Swedish Lena Andersson)
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