By: Viivi Brunila, Baptiste Duguit and Zena Iovino (please send your comments on this essay to zena.iovino@helsinki.fi)



Sweden has along with the rest of the Nordic countries been regarded as a progressive forerunner in gender equality and womenís rights for quite some time already. Swedish womenís political activity has not developed overnight; its roots are in the fight for universal suffrage during the latter part of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. In some cases, women were able to vote early on, already in 1862, though only under special circumstances. These women according to the Municipal Laws of 1862 had to be of age, unmarried, have a specified income level and own a certain amount of property; accordingly men were also bound to the same restrictions, needless to say, much fewer women than men were eligible. After reforms in 1907-1909, entitled women voters became eligible to local assemblies. (http://www.riksdagen.se/faktabl/f08_kvin_en.htm)

At this point, the question of how women were treated in politics can be raised. Political discussions on womenís issues were parallel at the time to the discussions within the Social Democratic Party. The Conservative Party (Allmänna Valmansförbundet) simultaneously had a forceful and generalized opposition to female participation in politics. One theory is that the politically active women, for example those, who established a federation of conservative women in 1915, were seen as a threat. An intimidation, because they were unmarried, self-supporting and professional. (Von der Fehr 1998, 36-38)

In 1918 universal and equal suffrage in local elections passed. But on the national level, it was not until the 1920ís that Swedish women obtained the right to vote and be elected in the Riksdag (The Swedish Parliament). In essence the equality, which Sweden is known for is in terms of later policies and seats for women in more recent years, as Swedenís neighboring countries were more progressive. Universal suffrage for women in Finland was introduced in 1906 and in Norway in 1907.

Today the Riksdagís female portion is over 40 %. In 1994 it had the highest number of women members of parliaments worldwide. It was a phenomenon again in 1998 when 43% of the elected representatives were women. The Swedish government boasts of employing as many women as men. (http://www.riksdagen.se/faktabl/f08_kvin_en.htm)

Sweden is known as a constitutional monarchy, it is governed under the constitution of 1975, which along with a lengthened bill of rights eliminated the last remnants of monarchical power in governing the country. The monarchy is purely ceremonial, though highly symbolic for the Swedes. The head of state has not been a woman in modern times. The introduction of female succession to the throne in 1980 can at least be viewed as gender equality becoming more important than historical tradition, as Sweden now has a crown princess. (Bergqvist 1997,3) In Sweden executive power is to be found in the cabinet, which in turn is responsible to the national legislature (Riksdag). The Riksdag was changed to a unicameral legislature in 1971 from a formerly bicameral diet. The 1975 constitution reduced the number of members to 349 from 350 to prevent tie votes. The voters, under a system of proportional representation, elect members of Riksdag to four years. The cabinet includes the P! rime Minister, department ministers and ministers without portfolio. Central agencies administer government-operated services. The Swedish judiciary is independent of other branches of government. It includes the Supreme Court, six courts of appeal, and district and city courts. A special feature in the Swedish judicial system is the ombudsman, appointed by the Riksdag, which has the duty to oversee how the courtís administrators view and apply the laws. Concerning political parties, the Social Democratic Party won the most Riksdag seats in the 1998 elections. The second most influential party is the Moderate Party. Others include: the Left, Christian Democratic, Center, Liberal, and Green parties. (Encarta, Microsoft 2001)

To gain a deeper understanding of Swedish women in politics, it is foremost necessary to examine the reach of womenís economic and social decision making as the grounds for political activity which we will look at later on, encompassing the spheres of women in government, parliament and political parties.



In Sweden a high participation in the labor market is visible. The profile of Swedish gender equality policies is equally high. Swedish women were early on secured basic rights in the labor market and womenís participation in the labor market has for a long time been comparatively high, this development has been supported by public welfare services. The dual breadwinner family is the common norm.

Though gender equality is a public goal, there is nonetheless a gap between the ideal and the reality of women and men sharing equally in participating in the labor market and caring for children. The labor market is still very gender segregated and many women work part time along with carrying the main responsibilities for child-care. Women still rarely reach top-level positions. (Bergqvist 1997, 13-15)

The research on women and economic decision-making has concentrated on women as worker and wage earners to women as managers and decision-makers. Thus women and their influence on economic decision-making is a main issue the promotion of total gender equality in Sweden. The mechanisms that assist or impede women from attaining managerial positions are being researched. An example of this type of research is a report from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs called Menís perceptions of Women and management, which presents research on women as managers. The report gives qualitative data based on women in high management in different areas and quantitative data based on interviews with female and male executives. Results show that the perceptions of male and female executives differ, for example women regarded themselves and other women as competent, while men regarded women inadequate in various ways. Men thought there was a shortage of competent women, whi! le women felt that men were not able to assess their competence. (Höök;Franzen;Whal 1994) Studies done on the matter mainly deal with the private sector. In the public sector, the situation is somewhat different. The proportion of women in leadership positions is much higher; altogether it is around 30 %. (Roman 1994) (Bergqvist 1997, 13-15)

When the most recent study results are taken into consideration altogether, the evolution is positive. Establishing new organizational patterns that do not discriminate against women in the workforce are evolving and will continue to do so, however slowly over time. (Bergqvist 1997, 13-15)


There has not been a great amount of research on the subject of womenís social decision making in Sweden. The focus of the following is thus on social policies, contracts and acts that have been enacted to better the likelihood of gender equality in the country.

The general status of women in the Swedish workforce is different than that of women in other EU countries. The distinction is apparent in how women in Sweden, and also Finland are more frequently seen as individuals rather than homemakers as in several other European countries. (Rees 1998, 50) Sweden has progressive policies in the enhancement of womenís skills. The dimension of social justice is expected to be enhanced in the EU due to the Swedish example. (Rees 1998, 5) In recent years job losses have been severe in Sweden. The measured job losses have at times been even higher of males than of females. (Rees 1998, 13-14)

Gender segregation in Sweden is an issue under intense scrutiny. The country participates in a women-specific project relating to the development of human resources called "Project Mosaic." It is a Leonardo da Vinci surveys and analysis project on the management of diversity. The programís aim is to learn from companies, which are active in managing active workforces. The Equal Opportunities Act was introduced in the beginning of the 1980ís to serve as a gender equality law against sex discrimination in the labor market. An ombudsman secured compliance and with the act and gender equality units became more significant within state structures. The act had been introduced by a non-socialist government; it was heavily opposed by social democrats and particular interest groups, since they perceived the law as a government attempt to replace issues related to class struggle. A decade later when the act was evaluated, it became evident that the legislation had falle! n short. Consequently, stricter changes to the act were made. (Bergqvist 1997, 17)

Gender politics were a state policy from 1960-1975. The objective was to replace the "breadwinner/homemaker" gender contract with a new "double income equality gender contract." Female economic activity rose as a result, but new gender segregation emerged in the workplace. A later contract in 1970, the "Equal Status Contract", implied that women and men should share domestic responsibilities and family care as well as employment opportunities, leaving women greater freedom to plan their lives in terms of home and work. (Rees 1998, 197) Care services also developed, the "Parent Worker Model", is a state supported gender contract model which entitles care-taking parents to care services, giving them the opportunity to work full-time. (Rees 1998, 198)

Positive discrimination in Sweden exists through quotas, which operate to even the balance in specific sectors or levels in hierarchy, which are disproportionate. Positive discrimination is usually considered a temporary measure. The concept relies on the belies that treatment should be different according to the given circumstances in order to ensure not only the equality of opportunity but also the equality of any given final outcome. (Rees 1998, 37)

Mainstreaming equality has to do with integrating knowledge gained from gender impact studies, gender-proofing of documents and gender monitoring into policies under review or in the process of creation. A step along the path of creating awareness in equality issues is training people to think about policies from different aspects, as in Sweden where the Equality of Affairs Division of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs has a duty to "ensure that the terms of reference for government committees require them to analyze the gender perspectives in their work and the gender impacts of any proposals made." (EOC 1996b: 5) (Rees 1998, 191-192)

Policy evaluation in the 1990ís of the goals of the 1970ís and later legislation and policies to improve gender equality that were mainly introduced in the 1970ís and early 1980ís, reveal that goals have overwhelmingly not been fulfilled (Bergqvist 1997, 16)



As a result of revolutions which shook Europe at the end of World War I, universal an equal suffrage for men and women in local elections and elections to the parliament was introduced. In the 1919 the Swedish parliament decided on equal suffrage and eligibility for women. The reform was introduced after a proposition had been put forward by a coalition Government consisting of Liberals and Social Democrats. After the 1921 election the reform was confirmed as the amendments to the fundamental laws were adopted a second time. (www.riksdagen.se)

When women had the right to vote for the first time in general elections in 1921, the Swedish party system more or less looked the same as today. Many politically active women realised that the male-dominated political parties were hostile towards women and women's interests. Between the years 1920 to 1935 women from the social democrats, the conservatives, the liberals and the agrarians formed their own women's party organisations. In general, party-men were against these women's organisations but tolerated them because they were of strategic importance in attracting female voters to the party. (www.riksdagen.se)

There was a second wave of women's political activity during the 1960s and 1970s. It was aimed securing not only equal rights, but also equal opportunities for women and, more generally, a gender-equal social order. This wave involved a wide range of social issues and organisational activities, and most of the activists identified with the so-called New Left (Hedlund-Ruth 1985)


Sweden's electoral system is a closed list system, with preferential vote and proportional distribution of seats according to the St-Lague method for 310 seats. To be awarded a seat a party must either obtain at least 4% of the votes cast throughout the country or 12% of the votes cast in a constituency.

The Swedish case illustrates the fact that a proportional system can be used to advance women's representation, but this could not have been accomplished without other favourable factors such as a rather woman-friendly welfare state, mobilisation of women in political organisations and groups as well as in the labour market and parties responsive to women's demands. The establishment of a Green party and the potential threat of a women's party have forced the established parties to increase their efforts to attract more women both as representatives and voters. (Bergqvist 1997)


There has never been a female Prime Minister in Sweden, though it was close in 1994. The increase in women cabinet members has been exceptional for the past twenty years. The first female minister, Karin Koch-Lindberg was nominated in 1947. She was a minister without portfolio of economy. From then until 1973, there had only been five female cabinet ministers. Olof Palme started a new trend in 1973 by nominating three women. Ever since, every new cabinet has included a larger share of women. A huge step was taken in 1994 when a social-democratic cabinet of eleven women and eleven men was formed. Today the number of women in the Swedish national government is 57,9%.

Despite the remarkable changes, the reality is that the first female ministers were often found in junior positions and in traditional women's sectors. The sped up inclusion of women recently has led to a situation where a woman has held almost all ministerial positions except Prime Minister. For example two of the five women in the 1976 Centre led government held prestigious posts as foreign affairs and housing and planning ministers. Nevertheless, there have been more women responsible for health, education, and social welfare than budget and economy. As can be seen in the actual government there is no longer a clear cut pattern in governmental composition; Anna Lindh is the minister for foreign affairs, for democratic issues and public administration there is Britta Lejon holding the post. The minister for Health and Social Affairs is held by a man, Lars Engqvist. The pattern in government stems from the important and efficient representation of women in the Swedish ! Parliament, as will be described later.



Parties differ in the number of women they nominate, where thy rank women on party lists, and the proportion of women they send to parliament. Parties are the real gatekeepers to elected office (Norris 1996).

In the early 1920s Sweden developed a modern political party system. Since this time the same 5 parties - Social Democrats, Left Party, Moderates, Liberals and Center - have dominated politics. In 1988 these parties were joined by the Green Party, which in turn paved the way for 2 new parties, the "Christian Democrats" and for a short period the "New Democracy". Seven parties are currently in the Parliament. General elections for members of Parliament, the county council and the municipal councils are held on the same day, the 3rd Sunday of September every 4th year. The next election will be in 2002. Women have had the right to vote in all elections since 1921. The electoral turnout is high, around 90 per cent. Women and men are equally assiduous voters. Since 1994 there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of women in the Parliament. At present 43 per cent of the 349 members are women (www.db.decision.de)

The women's movement and rising levels of women's political participation have increased the pressure on parties to send more women to parliament. Studies reveal that certain party characteristics actually influence party-level variations in women's representations. High levels of institutionalisation, a localized level of candidate nomination, and leftist and post materialistic values all individually enable parties to increase the representation of women. It appears that women's party activism, especially at the high levels, triggers the other factors, such as quota rules, that facilitate women's representation in parliament. Not only can women party activists pressure the party for women's representation in parliamentary office, activists can also institutionalize the gains made by pressing to implement rules that call for guaranteed proportions of female candidates. (Miki Caul, s.94)

At present seven parties are represented in the Swedish parliament. The party groups play an important and influential role in the work of the parliament and in the political life of Sweden. From the seven main parties two are actively advancing women's position inside the party. The social democratic party and the left party both use quotas in an alternating system on the election lists. That means that on the list every second name is a woman. Due to the alternating system Sweden had the highest number of women members of all the parliaments in the world. This position was retained after the 1998 election, when 43% of the representatives elected to the parliament were women. (www.riksdagen.se)

It seems that the Social Democratic bourgeois governments have competed with each other in showing a gender equal face. In 1976 when the social democrats lost governmental power for the first time in 44 years the new bourgeois coalition started out with five female cabinet ministers. Since then the power has shifted between the social democrats and the bourgeois coalitions, but every time a new cabinet has been formed more women have been included. (Bergqvist 1994)

In 1972 Olof Palme, a former Swedish Social Democratic prime minister gave a speech under the title "Women's equality" at the Social Democratic workers party congress. He addressed that the party needed to increase its efforts to recruit and educate women. He added, "Its true, as has been said, that women must fight for a place through their own strength, however that is not enough. It is s mutual responsibility for the entire workers' movement". For the Social Democratic Women's Federation it was a significant that it was the party chairman himself who gave a speech at the congress about women's equality and emphasized that responsibility for achieving it was shared by the entire workers' movement. (Gunnel Karlsson)


The period after 1970 can be described as going from a slow, but stable increase, to some sharp increases, a sharp decline and then an increase again to today's level of around 40% women in the parliament. After the 1973 elections women's representation rose to over 20%, about ten years later to 30% and then ten years on from there to 40%. The most surprising party is the Center Party, which almost doubled women's representation between 1970 and 1973, from 13 to 24%. Something, which can partly be explained by the former agrarian party's new profile as an environmental and anti-nuclear party, which appealed to women. While the increase of Center Party women has been substantial, women's representation of the Moderate party's MPs has lately stagnated just beneath 30%. Even though the Moderates have been very successful in the last two elections, this has not resulted in an increased proportion of women in the party group. Two small parties, the Liberal and the Left, hav! e shown some fluctuations over time according to electoral success or failure, when successful more women have been elected. However, both parties have generally speaking tried to advance women's positions. As during the earlier period, women's representation has increased to the highest degree in the Social Democratic party's parliamentary group. (Bergqvist 1997)

After the 1994 election, the Swedish parliament had the highest number of women members of all parliaments in the world. This position was retained after the 1998 election, when 43 percent of the representatives elected to the Swedish parliament were women. This can at least partially be accredited to the action taken by the political parties, in adopting the so called slipper system, meaning systematically alternating between men and women on the constituency candidate list for elections. Because the women's representation in the Riksdag is high, it has been claimed that women get a more marginalised position in the more important committees of parliament as well as in other positions of power in the parliament, where the actual decisions are made. Observations have also been made that women are integrated into less influential and low status areas, such as social issues, education and culture. Today women hold women hold 40% of the seats of internal committees in parliame! nt, whereas the proportion was 31% ten years ago. Seven of the sixteen Riksdag committees currently have female chairpersons. Some example proportions of women in committees are as follows: foreign affairs (59%), justice (59%), and law (53%). During the period between 1985 and 1995 there has been a strong influx of women in the former very male-dominated committees as mentioned above.

In 1971 a woman was elected Deputy Speaker in the Swedish parliament for the first time. Cecilia Nettelbrandt (Liberal Party) was second and third Deputy Speaker, respectively, from 1971 to 1976. Ingegerd Troedsson (Moderate Party) was elected first Deputy Speaker in 1979. She remained in office as Deputy Speaker until 1991, when she became the first woman to be elected Speaker. She was succeeded by Birgitta Dahl (Social Democratic Party), who was elected Speaker in 1994. Before this she had served for nine years as a minister. Following the election of Speakers in 1998, there are three women Speakers in the Swedish parliament: Birgitta Dahl (Social Democratic Party), Eva Zetterberg (Left Party), who serves as second Deputy Speaker, and Rose-Marie Frebran (Christian Democrats), who is the third Deputy Speaker. The first Deputy Speaker is Anders Björck (Moderate Party). Seven of the sixteen Swedish parliament committees currently have female chairpersons. (www.riksdagen! .se)



After this short research into the realm of women's political decision making, one aspect is at least certain, the level of equality between men and women in a given society in general, is a prime indicator of how many women will be found in positions of political decision making. In Sweden, the number of women in government and parliament today are a result of a long process which began decades ago through social policy reforms, pressure from women's organizations and networks and a strategic work within the main parties and the government. Together these factors slowly but surely gave women the opportunity to move away from the homemaker role and become engaged in other areas. The possibility of women to have made this change-over can also be reflected in the cahange in common public opinion, as generations have changed, becoming more used to the idea of women in influential positions. Swedish women are better represented in politics than in most countries outside the! Nordic Area, the reason can be seen in the high educational level of Swedish women and of Swedes in general. Gender equality has still not been achieved in all respects, there is still a need for salary analysis and work assessment to eliminate the unjustified wage differences between women and men. Further steps in gender equality include focusing on and changing the role of men, as their roles have hardly changed compared to those of women. Such an imbalance is a cause for violence against women, divorce etc. Jumping back to underline the political decision making of women, which has been the the main focus of this paper, I dare conclude by underlining that the Swedish women are coming close to their goal of "half the power."


  1. Bergqvist, Christina. "Country Report", 1997.
  2. Caul, Mici. "Women's Representation in Parliament; The Role of Political Parties", 1999.
  3. Gustaffson, Gunnel. " Towards a New Democratic Order; Women's Organizing in Sweden in the 1990s", 1997.
  4. Microsoft, Encarta, 2001.
  5. Rees, Teresa."Mainstreaming Equality in the European Union", 1998.
  6. Von der Fehr, Drude." Is There a Nordic Feminism?-Nordic Feminist Thought on Culture and Society", 1998.
  7. www.db-decision.de
  8. www.regeringen.se
  9. www.riksdagen.se