Sweden: A Welfare State in Crisis

— Eva Nikell

I GREW UP in a room with rabbits on the walls. My mother painted them on plywood pieces and dressed the room up to her waist with these rabbits.

This was in the very beginning of the ’50s, when "everyone" - meaning every conventional Swedish family regardless of class—could afford having a housewife. For those of us who were born in that period it was the absolutely natural state of affairs: daddies working, mummies at home with the kids.

In Sweden the ’50s saw the creation and stabilization of the working-class family come true, thus it seemed as a "natural law" to us. Forty years late women are in the work force. At the same time more Swedish women than ever have children, a figure that among European women is only slightly surpassed by Catholic Ireland.

How was this development possible? Feminist historians and women researchers in various disciplines now try to shed new light on the Nordic (Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland) experience. Within the women’s movement and within academic feminism, a debate has begun about what this experience means for the future.

"Backlash" of the Nordic Model?

It is easy to see that the Nordic model is something special in Europe. It has not only been beneficial for the independence of women—giving women the work market, building up services for child care to enable women to become wage workers. It has also laid the basis for a highly effective and professionalized service sector in health, education, municipal transportation and other social and economic services required for smooth economic functioning—even in terms of profit for private companies—in a technologically developed society.(1)

The so-called "mixed economy" in the Nordic model, where private ownership of big industries is "balanced" by a broad public sector including nationalized industries, state-owned natural resources and big municipal companies, has been an economic success story for twenty-five years. Except in Denmark, the growth of the public sector checked unemployment in the Nordic countries during the industrial restructuring of the early ’80s, which caused mass unemployment in the rest of Western Europe.

But this development was also built on an extreme sex segregation of the labor market, often commented upon by foreign guest researchers but seldom discussed in Sweden itself. This placed women mainly in the new services—health, education and childcare, but also in services associated with private and municipal companies and with trade. The proportion of women in industry has been unchanged since 1915.

Now mass unemployment has been thrust upon us by a combination of rationalization in industry and deep cuts in social services. Women have become a vulnerable part of society despite our strength in the labor market. The conflict is causing an interesting political reaction among broad layers of women, who for the first time in history are demanding power as women.

Social Origins and Falling Birth Rates

The modern welfare-state project in the Nordic countries rests on structures already present since medieval times. The Nordic countries never had bourgeois revolutions, and industrialization came late. Based on a development where feudal hierarchies and the Church never had a strong impact on our societies, the popular movements and broad-based democratic structures are rooted in a old, "free" peasant tradition where women were economically and socially important.

But the Swedish welfare state in particular is also based on two other historic circumstances—an extreme centralization of the state since 1523, and a heavy export orientation of Swedish capital since the early mining era in the fourteenth century.

Both liberalism and social democracy were "imported," mainly from Britain and Germany, and they became ideologically and organizationally connected. The first workers’ associations in Sweden were liberal workers’ guilds, and the social democratic ’People’s Home-policy" in the 1930s was a sort of social-liberal welfare project planned by the state.

The "population question" is the thread connecting policy throughout the twentieth century. In Sweden the industrial revolution more or less "exploded" around 1890. In 1870 there were only 65,000 industrial workers in a population of more than four million. But by 1900 they numbered 300,000; thirty years later they numbered one million out of six million inhabitants.

After the Second World War this large-scale restructuring of the whole economy was more or less complete. The social costs, in terms of the breakup of family structures, had been a major political discussion during the 1930s. The "population crisis" debate, introduced by social democrats Gunnar and Alva Myrdal in 1934 and with proposals from the Population Commission in 1935, had triggered the first set of state-planned family policies—and a beginning construction of the broad welfare sector that was to be built upon in the ’60s.

Marriage and birth rates fell in direct relation to the industrialization process. While due to better health conditions the population doubled between 1750 and 1850, this rapid growth of the landless countryside proletariat led to the first weakening of patriarchal peasant family institutions. The second, most far-reaching development took place when this landless proletariat was very quickly converted into an industrial proletariat.

The marriage rate marked its lowest point between 1891-1900; the birth rate fell from 30 births per thousand inhabitants in 1871 to 13 in 1933. The national alarm over slow population growth in the 1930s, and the threats it posed to "the Swedish nation," won support in the establishment for an extensive family policy.

General social services were introduced to ease the burdens for families. The first day care centers were built; schools, books, lunches and health programs were made free for all schoolchildren. But families also got "private" aid as family units: credit for housing, tax reductions for married couples, housing benefits for big families, early forms of maternity leave.

The economic aim behind these policies was to benefit marriage and childbirth within the young industrial proletariat—where else would future industries get the necessary work force?

Ideologically the goal was to strengthen family ideals and marriage among the whole population. Alva Myrdal, at the more visionary side of affairs, proposed marital and sexual education to reach this goal because there were "not many economic incentives to get married and hard for young people to get inspired by the dull marriages of their parents...."

This broad state support for the family was successful, accompanied by an economic development in postwar Sweden where growth and prosperity could become "every man’s gain." There was a strong wish among many Social Democratic leaders to gain for the working class what the bourgeoisie already had, the possibility to earn enough money to support a family on one wage only, or more bluntly the "right" for even a [male] worker to have a housewife.

Thus motions against "a married woman’s right to work" came from young Social Democratic men in Parliament in 1925, 1926, 1927 and in the beginning of the ’30s. Gradually these motions won support from male Parliamentary members in other political parties. Despite the fact that firing married or pregnant women was forbidden in 1939, the 1950s were definitely the decade of the housewife.

Visions and Real Politics

According to the visionary politics of Alva Myrdal (today often named "social engineering") and other women politicians in the ’30s and early ’40s, women should play an important role in society as educated professional workers. Children should be brought up in professional day care, and collective services were needed in housing, cleaning and food preparation.(2)

The other side of "social engineering" was very paternalistic. People should be "educated" to like new things, should "learn" to become responsible people. The "democratic citizen" must be shaped from above, and the scientific revolution should be the instrument to shape this new being—with Social Democracy being its main political agent.

Heavily influenced by liberalism, Swedish. Social Democracy also envisaged different places, even different spheres, for women. The founders of the "People’s Home-policy" in the ’30s saw the "big home" as public life for men, side by side with the "small home"—private life for women. In this strange combination of visions and real politics, housewifing became a professional skill, where women should be the masters of health, nutrition, childcare psychology—helped out by good professional household equipment, informative books on "how to make your home work well," and the like.

That’s why I grew up with my rabbits on the walls, my mother being a self-educated woman from a working-class family from Bohuslan, a quarry region.

The Independence of Women

But the Population Commission in 1935 was only the first of many: 1941, 1954, 1955, 1962, 1967, 1968, 1969. Behind them all was the need to support a family institution that could not live by its own virtue.

In the 1950s the historically dominant export orientation of Swedish industry deepened. Unharmed by the war, Swedish companies had been able to specialize and develop a high technological skill in new branches including telecommunication (Ericsson), refrigeration and household equipment (Electrolux, Alfa Laval), high-tech industrial gear (Sandvik), and industrial energy and transportation construction (AseaIABB).

A whole new market lay wide open for penetration by these new industries when the old base of Swedish trade (ore, lumber, steel, shipbuilding) narrowed. Industrial expansion moved hundreds of thousands of workers from the north and the inlands to the south. In the 1960s the government completed the construction of one million new apartments to house them.

Again the discussion went back to the central point—the population crisis—or where to get more work force? But this time, "women" became the answer instead of "family." Thus came the next big phase of the welfare state, starting in the late ’50s and early ’60s, to get more labor into the market. Again the "threat to the nation" was the main argument, because the only alternative to Swedish women were foreign workers. In government papers from the early ’50s we can read discussions of the need to build day care centers in order to strengthen the competitive position of the Swedish export industry.

Today 85-90% of all Swedish women are wage earners. The "professional housewife" of the 1950s has become the even more professional health worker, teacher, librarian or child care worker. Due to the strong underlying need for social and economic change—both in the ’30s and the ’60s—reform policies and visions of a good society, a good life, became intertwined with and shaped by the effort to support the dominant export orientation of Swedish capital. And the centralized state, headed in Sweden by Social Democratic governments (1932-1976,1982-1991) became the means to do so.

Women—A New Political Agent?

What kind of conclusions do women researchers draw today from this experience?

The thesis of social scientist Helga Maria Hernes in her work Welfare State and Woman Power (Norwegian University Press, 1987) is that women in the Nordic countries have been the objects, not the subjects, of a gigantic social experiment resting on structural needs. The development itself, however, has created a new social force, the independent women’s movement.

Hernes compares the role and size of the public service sector in creating this social force—women organizing as women on a broad scale—with the role that industrialization played in creating the male working class and traditional workers’ movement She sees recent women’s mobilizations as the result of a politicization process within this new social arena.

In the same way that workers in the labor movement developed their own demands and arguments around production and working conditions as a result of their new social position in the factories, women in the Nordic countries have started to formulate their own arguments concerning economic values, rational planning and how the links between social and economic needs can be met by well-functioning social services.

The exclusion of women from the democratic process is the other important factor for understanding why women’s protests take such a radical and visible form in Sweden today. The corporate political system in the Nordic countries, completed in the late 1930s with a tripartite power balance among the state (both Parliament and bureaucracy), private companies and the unions—all of them male-dominated structures—have been effective in excluding women from the decision-making process.

Hernes notes that the only decision-making area where women have been able to raise their numbers a bit is in Parliament. Even there the representation sank from 38% to 33% in the 1991 election. Men still exclusively run both circles where real economic and political power rest: In Sweden only 25 out of 1000 board members in big private firms are women, and the central union leaderships are similarly male-dominated. Hernes sees the main conflict here:

“Women became part of the representational system only very slowly, yet they became more and more often the object of tax and social policies that they themselves were not invited to shape politically. Areas that are of direct concern for women’s lives became the object of political decisions before women themselves were a part of the decision-making apparatus. This was not considered problematic because women were not defined as a relevant interest group with a separate representational claim. One could therefore say that women became mobilized by public policies....”


“The mutual dependence between production and reproduction has become more visible in the public sector than it used to be, but the unequal distribution of power between women and men has become confirmed and even ossified.”

Hernes’ perspective answers the question about the contradictory "squeezed" position of women in the Nordic countries—so strong in the labor market yet so impoverished in the political field. One obvious follow-up question then becomes: Is it really so much better to shift from dependence on a man to dependence on the state? And what happens when this "male state" turns with its full force against women—as in Sweden since 1991?

To this Helga Maria Hernes has no answer. Her approach is that a "woman-friendly" state is possible, and should develop as a natural result of the growth of the public sector. Her book was published in 1987, before the experience in Sweden of a very harsh Thatcherist type of bourgeois government, and before the birth of a Women’s Party debate.

This debate, for feminist researchers and activists, is really the most interesting effect of women’s status. From being social and economic objects, acted upon in this economic process, women now have become political subjects who demand that the "visible mutual dependence between production and reproduction" should be taken seriously.

Increasingly political differences are referred to as "male" or "female" demands. And according to leading national economists and media editors, "the new feminists are today’s main threats to the nation." As political scientist Maud Eduards ironically puts it, "When women come forward politically as a group they make it visible that men usually act politically as men."

The defense of the public sector has come to be the core of a program for the "building a new party" debate. But other related demands—the six-hour work day for everyone instead of new "maids" in the households of stressed middle-class women, good public transportation instead of new highways and more cars, better social services instead of weapons and military expenditures—are also central.

Together with "traditional" feminist demands for a woman’s right to economic and legal independence and to decide about her own body, these "social, green, collective" demands form an explosive threat to the capitalist rulers inside and outside Parliament. And the most dangerous thing for the establishment is apparently that women as women demand influence and power.

Gender has become a dividing line as never before in Swedish politics. Where general equality has always been put ahead of gender equality, the new feminist slogan is "the whole wage and half the power." It’s the second part of the sentence that causes most heated feelings of happiness, rage, confusion and lots of discussion, among women and men. In Sweden it is especially notable what Iris Young writes in Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990):

“It is a mistake to reduce social justice to distribution ... this focus tends to ignore the social structure and institutional context that often help determine distributive patterns. Of particular importance ... are issues of decision-making power and procedures, division of 1abor, and culture.”

Women in Sweden today demand the possibility of shaping their own work in the public sector. Furthermore they demand a say over economic spending, they want to be part of the planning of the whole of society rather than mere clients of state subsidies, and they want to be subjects, not objects, in their capacity as women.

For the traditional women’s organizations, especially for the Social Democratic women’s organization, this development is both welcome—and frightening.

Given what Hernes says about women’s fragile political influence in Sweden, a threat like a "Women’s List" in Parliamentary elections can definitely speed up things. But women in different parties fear possibly having to run against an independent feminist force. On the left also, the reaction of many is this is either "just a media thing" or a class collaborationist project.

Further, the mere word "feminism" has been seen as "confrontational and anti-Swedish," as Joyce Gelb writes in her comparison of women’s movements in Sweden, Britain and the United States (Feminism and Politics, University of California Press). Radical feminism especially, or feminists who demand political representation as feminists, confront head-on the consensus and corporatist model of Swedish society.

Gelb notes that "special interests in Sweden are thoroughly organized," but that doesn’t go for women as a group. She concludes that "gender-neutral politics in a society still highly stratified by gender end up by benefiting the already powerful—that is, males."

This explains why the so-called "new feminists"—independent feminist activists in the universities, the media, the shelter movement and other groups together with networks in the unions and Social Democratic and liberal women in Parliament—have become, in the eyes of media directors, male journalists and politicians, today’s "threat to the nation."

What of the Future?

Maybe we will have a Social Democratic government after the election in September, or possibly a bourgeois-Social Democratic coalition. The networks behind the "Women’s List" are not yet organized as a real party; thus it would probably be a mistake to run in this year’s election. For now, the debate goes on.

In any case political change will not come easily. The broad women’s movement has successfully defended some very important issues, like the right to free abortion. But the government is feverishly "fanilly-fundamentalistic" and has just put through Parliament a "homeworker’s wage" bill. "Christian ethics" are again the formal guideline in school work, and sex education has become non-compulsory and divided into one biological—and one religious!!—part.

The rapid destruction of social services are accompanied by these very reactionary ideological politics, the motor force behind which are the so-called "moderates," the leading right-wing party that dominates the government Yet all the traditional political forces, including Social Democracy, are lost in this battle.

Sweden is in a deep turmoil. For a great many ordinary people—men and women—women seem to be the only possible political alternative. Whatever the outcome of the Women’s List, a unity of the broad women’s movement on national scale is both possible and necessary for the future.


  1. Thus the public health system in Sweden, for example, takes only 8% of GM’ as compared to 13-15% in the United States. When I visited the United States in the summer of 1992 the "Rebuild America Coalition" criticized the U.S. system for having too few functioning public services, and defined this as one of the biggest threats to American profitability.
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  2. My home in Stockholm is a living illustration of these "good" visions. It was built in 1940 by a foundation for professional women (based on a will by two sisters living at the turn of the century). The house itself is beautiful building in a very modernistic architectural style with 270 apartments and a restaurant at the top.
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July-August 1994, ATC 51