Politics & Policy

Fanatical Swedish Feminists

The stuff about chopping men to bits might have been a bit much.

With Congress about to take up the Federal Marriage Amendment, let’s travel a little and take a look at how marriage is faring in Scandinavia–specifically Sweden, famous as a bellwether of family change. In 1987, Sweden offered same-sex couples the first domestic partnership package in Europe. This led Denmark in 1989, then Norway in 1993, to set up a more elaborate system of “registered partnerships” (with nearly all the rights of marriage), which Sweden adopted in 1994. I discussed some of these changes in The End of Marriage in ScandinaviaFebruary 2004 piece. yet much has happened since then.

The years 2004 and 2005 saw the growth, collapse, and apparent rebirth of a campaign to abolish Swedish marriage and replace it with a gender-neutral partnership system that allows for multi-partner relationships. This story of the drive to abolish marriage in Sweden is bound up with one of the most bizarre and fascinating political tales of recent years: the rise and burnout of Sweden’s first political party built entirely around women’s issues: the Feminist Initiative (FI). (See “The definitive guide to equality in Sweden.”)

Youthful Polyamory

Our adventure begins in March of 2004, when one of the few conservative papers in Sweden, Nya Dagen, reported that a local youth wing of Sweden’s governing Social Democrat party had endorsed the idea of replacing marriage with a gender-neutral, multi-partner-friendly marriage system. Around the same time, the youth wing of Sweden’s Green party called for formal recognition of polyamorous (i.e. multi-partner) relationships. Editorializing against these moves, Nya Dagen pointed out that the leaders of these youth parties would someday be sitting in parliament. Nya Dagen reminded its readers that the public had been promised no further changes in the family after the initial same-sex partnership legislation in 1987, and again after Registered Partnerships in 1994. Don’t believe it! said Nya Dagen. Unless the country reverses course, Sweden will surely slip further down the slope. That editorial prompted an angry letter from, Einar Westergaard, a spokesperson for the Green party’s youth wing:

We are trying to achieve a sexual revolution and counteract the hierarchy that gives heterosexuality privileges and represses other forms of social life….The two-person standard is part of society’s heterosexual norm…(whereas it is our) aspiration to make the laws as norm-free as possible….Marriage is not the key to homosexual, bisexual, and transgender liberation. What’s essential is the battle for norm-free, sex-neutral legislation, and a society without heterosexual norms.”

Certainly, a pro-polyamory movement among the youth divisions of Sweden’s ruling left-wing coalition bodes ill for the future. Yet the marriage-abolition bandwagon got rolling a whole lot sooner than Nya Dagen could have guessed. It merely took a little help from Sweden’s feminists.

Feminist Pressure

Only a few months after that first pro-polyamory upsurge, in the summer of 2004, Sweden’s feminists grew restive with the apparent failure of their attempt to impose gender quotas on the nation’s businesses. In 2002, Equality Minister, Margareta Winberg, had set a much publicized target of 25-percent female representation on the boards of Sweden’s publicly listed companies. Winberg threatened government-imposed quotas if this “goal” was not reached by 2004. With gender quotas already in place in Norway, Sweden’s businesses had to take the threat seriously. Yet by 2004, Sweden’s companies were nowhere near compliance, with women making up only 11.6 percent of board members. What’s more, a majority of parliament opposed business gender quotas. True, the Left Party and Green party supported quotas, but the key to the governing left-wing coalition, the Social Democratic party, was deeply divided over the proposal. So it looked like a major defeat for Sweden’s powerful feminists was in the offing. They’d promised to impose business gender quotas by 2004 if the “goals” weren’t met, yet Sweden’s feminists seemed unable to carry through on their threat.

To break the logjam, Gudrun Schyman, a charismatic member, and former head, of Sweden’s Left party, decided to form a new political party called the “Feminist Initiative.” As the West’s most secular country, where changes in family structure and gender roles are most “advanced,” Sweden is the center of world feminism. If Sweden’s many feminists could be drawn into a single party, reasoned Schyman, the governing Social Democrats might be forced to bring them into its coalition. The price would be Social Democrat support for a package of feminist legislation, including business gender quotas. This strategy risked splintering the vote on the left and turning the country over to a coalition of social moderates. Yet if a feminist party could draw more than the four-percent minimum of the votes required for parliamentary representation, prospects for a brave new world of feminist legislation were strong.

Feminist Shopping List

A few months before Schyman bolted the Left party to form the Feminist Initiative, she had stirred up controversy by proposing a “man tax:” a tax leveled only on men, to help pay for the government’s extensive array of feminist-run shelters for battered women. Schyman’s “man tax” idea stirred outrage from more moderate commentators like Liza Marklund: “To declare that all men are guilty of all rapes, that all men are guilty of violence against women–that’s not just offensive and wrong; if the purpose is to get anywhere with this issue it’s just plain stupid.”

Marklund’s comments proved prophetic. Yet the man-bashing had to reach an unheard of pitch before the reaction finally began. So long as the “man tax” and business-board quotas were the issue, Schyman’s promise to “break down the patriarchal order of power” through FI (the Feminist Initiative) enjoyed wide support. Early polling showed that five percent of the public would “definitely” vote for FI, and an amazing 20-25 percent said they would at least consider supporting FI. Numbers like that could easily have brought business-board quotas, a man-tax, and many other feminist proposals into law.

Even during this early period of popular support, the Feminist Initiative floated some remarkably radical ideas. FI planned to change Sweden’s rape laws by requiring men to ask women permission for sex (something like the famous rules of sexual engagement at Antioch College). There was also a call for “comparable worth” legislation, to equalize pay between professions dominated by men (e.g., truck drivers) and women (e.g., phone operators).

A central plank of FI’s platform was forcing fathers to take as much time off for childcare as mothers. Most of the one-year leave allowed to Swedish parents can be taken by either the mother, the father, or both. Determined to eliminate all differences between men and women, Sweden’s feminist wanted to assign half of this leave to fathers alone. That would force fathers to spend as much time on early child-rearing as mothers, or would push children into the day care system at six months of age. (Most Swedish children enter state-run day care at age one.) Either alternative would strike a huge blow against traditional family roles. Sweden’s feminists also hoped to promote androgyny through gender quotas for day care workers, and through attempts to suppress the gender-specific behavior of boys and girls in day care.

Feminist Gains

Schyman’s strategy quickly bore fruit. To stem the tide of feminist deserters, left-leaning parties put forward proposals modeled on FI’s platform. The governing Social Democrats recommended an “equality bonus” for families that took the same amount of paternal and maternal leave.

And as one of many concessions to FI, the government agreed to consider adopting formal same-sex marriage (instead of “registered partnerships”). Together, the three left-coalition parties (the Social Democrats, the Left Party, and the Greens) decided to give lesbian couples the right to receive artificial insemination from the government’s health service. This eliminated one of the sole remaining differences between registered partnerships and marriage.

Lesbian couples were given the benefit of government-supported insemination regardless of whether they were registered partners or simply cohabiting. That is quite the opposite of what the “conservative case” for same-sex marriage would predict, of course. The government was treating registered partnership on a par with mere cohabitation as a setting for parenthood. The government also agreed that both members of the lesbian couple would be recognized as a child’s mother, thereby creating potential claims of triple parenthood and contributing to the notion that fathers are dispensable. The new regulations on lesbian insemination came into effect in July of 2005, along with a number of other measures designed to promote androgyny (for example, a measure that prohibits businesses from charging women more than men for the “same” service–say, a haircut).

By spring of 2005, the Feminist Initiative was riding high. The new cultural mood emboldened Sweden’s feminists both in and out of government. As a result of feminist threats, for example, the Miss Sweden pageant was canceled (for the first time since 1952).

Men Are Animals

In the midst of all this feminist success, trouble struck with the broadcast of a televised documentary called The Gender War. This close-up look at Sweden’s feminist movement exposed a degree of radicalism that shocked even Sweden’s socially liberal public.

The documentary featured prominent feminist academic and activist, Eva Lundgren, claiming that half of all Swedish women are victims of male violence. Lundgren went on to assert that a network of male Satanist groups had carried out hundreds of ritual baby murders in Sweden. (A formal inquiry by Uppsala University has since discredited both claims.) Another segment of the documentary featured Ireen von Wachenfeldt, chair of the government’s women’s shelters. Von Wachenfeldt’s remarks set off what soon became known as the “men are animals” controversy.

Under Von Wachenfeldt, the government’s women’s shelter network had printed excerpts from the “SCUM Manifesto” (Society for Cutting Up Men), penned by a radical feminist in the late 1960s. The SCUM Manifesto urges women to “destroy the male sex” by using modern science to insure that only female children are born. SCUM goes on to say: “To call a man an animal is to flatter him: he’s a machine, a walking dildo.” Asked by the film-maker if she agreed, Von Wachenfeldt said, “Yes, man is an animal. Don’t you think so?”

Lundgren and Von Wachenfeldt’s televised statements set off shock waves in a Sweden perhaps soon to be governed by a coalition that would include FI. After all, the “man tax” would fund a shelter system run by a woman who appeared to despise men. The government’s new Equality Minister, Jens Orback, seized on the controversy to criticize Von Wachenfeldt’s “separatist” decision not to work with or employ men in government shelters.

Thrown off-balance by the controversy, the Feminist Initiative tried to find a “male feminist” to place on its governing board. Unfortunately, their chosen male candidate declined the honor.

Dogged by the “men are animals” controversy through the spring and summer, the Feminist Initiative headed into its critical September 2005 convention determined to emerge with a winning platform. Yet the convention saw divisions emerge. After a bitter power-struggle, several “moderates” resigned from FI’s board. They complained that a “broad-based” program (focused, say, on business quotas and compulsory paternity leave) was being pushed aside by a radical coalition dominated by homosexuals, bisexuals, and the transgendered. One erstwhile FI board member said she’d been “bullied for being a middle-class heterosexual.”

Determined to transcend “patriarchal norms,” FI decided against having official leaders. Yet now the purged “moderate” feminists complained of a “democratic deficit” on the board. The Feminist Initiative had become “much worse” than the traditional patriarchal organizations it was meant to replace, said one. In other words, “man tax” advocate and de facto leader, Gudrun Schyman, was in control, purging the “moderates” (themselves quite radical by American standards) and siding with the radicals. The entertainment at the conference further radicalized the party’s image, particularly the rapturous applause for a song that went, “F***ing man, we’re going to chop you to bits.”

Abolishing Marriage

FI’s victorious radical faction was led by Tiina Rosenberg, a feminist professor who made a badge of her lesbianism. Rosenberg raised public hackles for reportedly calling women who sleep with men “traitors to their gender.” And shortly after her triumph at the convention, Rosenberg announced the Feminist Initiative’s new proposal: the abolition of marriage and its replacement by a system of gender-neutral partnership legislation that would allow for multiple partners. Like the youth parties the previous year, Rosenberg touted the proposal as freeing the family from “heterosexual norms.” “The history of marriage is not about love and living together,” she said, “it’s about ownership.”

By this time, however, FI’s poll numbers were collapsing from the combined effect of the “men are animals” controversy and the man-bashing at the FI conference. The Left party (which Gudrun Schyman had bolted to start FI) made a bid for FI supporters by embracing the idea of a gender-neutral, polyamory-friendly partnership system as an alternative to marriage. Within a month of the now infamous FI convention, Tiina Rosenberg was forced to resign from the party. Schyman blamed “homophobia” for the attacks on Rosenberg. In the meantime, Prime Minister Goran Persson announced that, if necessary, he would be willing to join in a coalition government with the Feminist Initiative, and would in fact prefer that to a coalition with a new and more conservative Euroskeptic party. “FI is further to the left,” said Persson. “We could come to agreement on many of their demands.

But with the collapse of the Feminist Initiative’s popular support in the wake of the man-bashing controversies, it looks as though FI now has little prospect of entering a governing coalition. True, the parties of the left will likely continue to co-opt parts of FI’s platform, as a way of mollifying Sweden’s large and restless feminist constituency. Yet, for now, the prospect of an independent feminist political party seems to have passed.


Sweden has obviously begun to slide “down the slope.” Were it not for the supposedly final same-sex partnership initiatives of 1987 and 1994, Sweden would not now be facing calls for the abolition of marriage and the recognition of polyamorous partnerships. And if that man-bashing hadn’t been exposed by a documentary, FI might still be riding high. The remarkable thing is that, well before the man-bashing, when FI was talking about radical ideas like a “man tax” and compulsory paternal leave, the party was considered “moderate,” and looked on with favor by a huge segment of the electorate. Many Swedes remain willing to support radical feminist reforms, and that is why the Left Party has co-opted FI’s relationship plan.

Sweden’s bold feminists have exposed the long-term agenda of the social left. Still, given FI’s tactical errors, we can expect Sweden’s social radicals to adopt a more subtle strategy. The Law Commission of Canada has advocated the establishment of a flexible, gender-neutral, multi-partner relationship system in addition to marriage. The strategy is to get that new system going, then subtly phase out marriage, boil-the-frog-style. Expect proposals like this from Sweden.

Even if the Left Party loses its place in Sweden’s governing coalition at some point, it will surely be back. Say a decade from now, under some future left-dominated coalition, the time may be ripe for adopting an experimental multi-partner-friendly relationship system that, in the long run, can push marriage itself aside. As Sweden’s conservatives point out, now that youth divisions of the country’s left-leaning parties are starting to tout polyamory, we can expect future parliaments to consider the idea.

What does it mean when a movement wants simultaneously to formalize gay marriage, equate marriage with mere registered partnerships, equate registered partnerships with mere cohabitation, and then abolish marriage itself? It seems contradictory, but it all makes perfect sense once you realize that Sweden’s social liberals don’t support either gay marriage or registered partnerships out of any affection for marriage itself. On the contrary, Sweden’s social left is simply using gay marriage as a lever to achieve the abolition of marriage itself.

This is not how things were supposed to turn out according to the “conservative case” for gay marriage. Registered partnerships should have decreased cultural radicalism. Instead they’ve merely whetted the left’s appetite for more radical reforms.

Once again, Sweden is showing us a possible future. The idea that we can and should abolish marriage and recognize multi-partner unions has its advocates in America, though they may seem too few to be bothered with. We ought not, however, mistake their chances for long-term success. Those radical advocates recognize something that even the moderate proponents of gay marriage overlook or deny: gay marriage changes the way that young people see and understand their social world. The slope from gay marriage to polyamory and ultimately to no marriage is not slippery by accident, but by design.


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