Feminism. All around the world, this word conjures up a whole range of images and ideas in people’s heads. For an ideology that basically reiterates the first paragraphs of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is perhaps unnecessarily controversial…until now.
Just this year, Beyoncé came out as a feminist, blazing the word on the stage during her performance at the MTV awards. And earlier this fall, Hogwart heroine Emma Watson held a powerful speech at the UN that went viral, clarifying what feminism really means and inviting men to join the movement. Has the word that’s been loaded with obstructionist clichés (burning bras and all that yada yada) finally had a comeback?
In Sweden, a small European country close to the north pole most famous for the DIY furniture you love to hate, being a feminist is part and parcel of the ‘politically correct’ ideology of….well almost anyone. Here politicians who claim not to be feminists make bigger headlines than those who do, and just this year the Swedish Academy added the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ to its dictionary, making it an official part of the Swedish language. But just when you thought things couldn’t go any deeper, feminism rose to new political heights in 2014, which marked Sweden’s Super Election Year.
Queue Feminist Initiative (F!), the political party created in 2005 by, among others, former leader of the Left Party, Gudrun Schyman—legendary politician who is now one out of three spokespersons for the party (there are no party leaders). For F!, feminism is its raison d’etre and determines its political agenda. With a core aim to demand action on the Swedish Parliament’s gender equality goals, the party has coupled its feminist agenda with an anti-racism stance and, just in time for the Super Election Year, managed to grow into a larger movement that now positions itself as the main opposition party to Sweden’s homegrown former-officially-fascist/racist-party-now-tuned-down-far-right-wing-conservative-party, the Sweden Democrats.
According to Amanda Mogensen, head of communications at F!, the party has been successful in uniting “issues of feminism and gender equality together with anti-racism, [which] were the main issues we campaigned on. As such, we are the clear opposite to social conservatives.” This was also made clear by its slogan: “Out with the racists, in with the feminists!”
And it’s all PINK! Feminist Initiative has taken pink, the traditional (at least in the West) color code for girls and all things feminine, and turned it into its force majeur. Their logo is a big pink capital ‘F’ followed by an ‘i’ turned upside down, incidentally turning it into an exclamation point, F! Likewise, the rest of their outreach comes in this much-debated color. For example, in the last few days leading up to Election Day, party activists glued pink paper glasses conveniently over the eyes of politicians adorning election posters of the seven other parties as well as their own. The message? Don’t forget gender equality once Election Day is over. The gleefully pink campaign gimmicks were taken down 24 hours later.
Swedish celebrities have not missed the chance to publically support the party and its pink friends include Benny Andersson from the pop group ABBA, Robyn, the Knife, and Nina Persson of the Cardigans (remember “Lovefool”?). The biggest surprise came the night before Election Day when an exhilarated Pharrell publically embraced the pink party at a concert in Stockholm. Moments before performing his anthem “Happy,” he invited party spokesperson Schyman onto the stage, shouting out, “Are you guys ready for Sweden to be on the news all over the world tomorrow?” The crowd went wild. To the tunes of the Pharrell phenomenon, the 60-year old politician and her F! posse partied up on stage as the night marked the end of their pink campaign.
In the end, it’s unsure whether all this popular support helped or not; once the results were in, it was clear that the Feminist Initiative did not make it to parliament. Despite this national disappointment, the party did a lot better at the local level where it won seats in 13 out of the 21 cities it ran in. In Stockholm, for example, it now ensures a majority for the center/left-wing coalition. In the few weeks since this coalition took over, F! has already established a Council for Human Rights to ensure that the city incorporates appropriate action against discrimination into its work.
But, before all this went down in early September, the party had already started its Super Election Year by securing a seat in the European Parliament. Representing F! is Soraya Post, a Swedish Roma who has been an avid advocate for women’s rights within the European Roma community. She is the first elected politician representing a feminist party at the European level, and also the first Swedish Roma to be representing a political party in the EU. She keeps her voters and others up-to-date on EU politics through brief reports free from bureaucratic lingo on her Facebook wall. This year she was also awarded the Stieg Larsson award (yes, indeed the writer of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books) for her work fighting discrimination against the Roma community.
Another victory this year has been Feminist Initiative’s growth in members. “We are historical,” says an excited Mogensen. “We are historical because we have created such a large movement.” Indeed, from 1,500 members in October 2013, the party now boasts 22,000. And all this, as Mogensen puts it, “with only volunteers working for us!”
This number now makes F! the fifth largest party in Sweden, and bigger than many of the parties already in parliament including the Liberals and the Greens. The “young feminists,” the party’s youth wing, increased their membership from 100 to 7,000 just this past year. That now makes them the third largest youth wing party in the nation.
According to Mogensen, this quick growth in numbers “shows that people want to participate in the political decision-making process, people do want to get involved.” But, obviously, it also means more work. “The most immediate challenge for the future is to hold together an organization of 22,000 members with no employees and no money,” she says.
So what are the party’s politics and what kind of feminism is it talking about? Would Beyoncé and Emma back it up? The party takes a broad and left-leaning approach: broad in the sense that it aims to represent many, if not all, groups discriminated against in our patriarchal world. Striving for an intersectional analysis, the party aims to be inclusive and argues that discrimination needs to be understood not only from a gender, or class, or race perspective, but rather on the basis of how all these factors work together to form the unjust structures that exist in our societies. Indeed, its main candidates for parliament included not only party guru Schyman (a white, straight, old woman), but also Kenneth, a white, older man; Victoria, a Ugandan-Swedish woman in her mid-30s; Sissela, a young woman with a Chilean background from a much-divided suburb of Stockholm; and Lars, a white, gay priest with a disability. Does it sound as if they just arrived, pre-packaged from San Francisco?
And perhaps many Swedes would have agreed. But after months of hard campaigning, including everything from an intense social media presence to Schyman’s famous “Home Parties,” where she was invited to discuss political matters in people’s homes, and after dominating the scene at the Stockholm Pride Parade, many have come to see the party as a symbol of progressive change.
“People want change,” says Mogensen. “People think that not enough is happening quickly enough regarding gender equality. Feminist Initiative not only fills a void left by other parties that are not raising the issue adamantly enough, but also differs in the fact that it is able to go out and meet and talk to people in their environments.”
However, although Sweden officially loves to get chummy with feminism, there is still resistance facing these ideas on home turf. “While there has been somewhat of a stalemate in the public debate since the early 2000s when everyone was talking about feminism, many things have happened in terms of rules and regulations. But at the same time, there is a lot resistance towards feminism and gender equality, and party representatives receive a lot of hatred and threats on a regular basis. There are people who are very anti-feminist in Sweden,” says Mogensen.
F! has, among other things, been painted as an extremist party by established media outlets, says Mogensen. “When Fi expressed an interest in looking at the Argentinian model of having an authoritative body investigate commercials that sexualized women, the F! was depicted as a group that wanted to examine every ad and censor it. It became very distorted.”
So with all this publicity and growth in members, has the Feminist Initiative had any affect on Swedish politics? According to Mogensen, it might be too early to tell. However, after its success in the European Parliament elections, the other main Swedish parties had to at least acknowledge F! when campaigning in the General Elections. The Liberal Party posters pictured its candidate, who at the time was the Minister of Equality, with the slogan “Feminism without Socialism.” And when the new Prime Minister Stefan Löfven presented his new center-left government, he announced that it was a “feminist” government. Likewise, Margot Wallström, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs and the former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict announced that Sweden will now conduct “feminist foreign politics.” What that specifically means is yet to be seen. Finally, one of the first things the newly-appointed Minister for Gender Equality, Children and the Elderly did was start the process of incorporating the Convention of the Rights of the Child into Swedish law, another goal of the Feminist Initiative. Not surprisingly, Mogensen claims that all of the above pay tribute to the work that F! has put into raising these issues.
“Fi has influenced and will continue to influence national and regional politics by articulating these issues, putting pressure, and demanding change, as well as empowering feminist and anti-racist ideas in other parties. They’ll be pressured by the thought that ‘if we don’t lead on these issues, Fi will.’ Mostly, we want to see political change. Anti-racists and feminists are needed both within and outside parliament and government walls.”
If the Feminist Initiative can do it, other parties around the world can do it as well! Can Mogensen share any lessons for getting feminist movements going? “I would say that their motto should be: Let’s do it together! You need to be united for positive change. Position yourself against the nationalistic movements. Uniting feminism with anti-racism perspectives and ideologies can be powerful. In addition, we are also clearly activists. Of course, we are organized but we also make sure that the interaction and the vibe of the party is informal. It is important to be inviting, and to create a feeling of ‘everyone’s welcome here.’ Our focus was on getting things done, rather than getting stuck into only discussing the issues.”
Regardless of how much the party’s political presence has directly influenced Swedish politics, one thing is clear: F! has managed to rally people of all walks of life for a politicized feminist movement, demanding change, while also reinvigorating the political debate and inspiring younger voters. This is a party to keep watching. Stay pink.
All illustrations by Janna Lundius.