Sweden’s Feminist Initiative has lessons for social movements elsewhere

June 20

A voter and her two children stand behind a curtain in a polling booth during the European Parliament election. EPA/BAX LINDHARDT

Kimberly Cowell-Meyers is an assistant professor of government at American University. This post draws on a recent article she has published in Perspectives on Politics.

In the recent EU elections, the Feminist Initiative of Sweden became the first autonomous feminist party to win a seat in the European Parliament. It was not the only feminist or women’s party to run candidates (women’s movements in France and Germany also did so), nor was it the first (Germany and Spain had feminist/women’s parties in the 1999 elections and Greece had one in the 2004 elections) but the Feminist Initiative (F!) is the first party of its type to win a seat.

What lessons does F! have for other parties and social movements? First and most important, F! shows that electoral success can transform public debate. F!’s victory has made its central campaign issues – gender and racial equality – more visible, while increasing public awareness of feminist critiques of modern society. The response from other European countries has been explosive. Newspaper stories abound. Members of the party have appeared on radio and TV broadcasts around the world, while F!’s Facebook page reportedly has some 86,000 likes, compared to the Prime Minister’s Moderate Party with only 28,000. And the party’s founder has 64,000 followers on Twitter. Nearly every story discusses the party’s main mission.

Social movements, and especially other women’s movements, should pay heed: participating in legislatures provides different opportunities for advocacy work. By creating their own political party, women’s movements may be able to advance the cause of gender equality much more than by continuing with protest or outsider activities alone. Still, with only 5 percent of overall popular support and a single member in a legislature of 750-plus members, the party is unlikely to have much effect on policy.

However, contrary to the argument of many scholars and activists, movement parties can change politics in more effective ways than directly shaping policy. As my recent article in Perspectives on Politics shows, movement-parties can also change the behavior of the other parties in the system in ways that movements remaining outside of formal politics cannot.

Take, for example, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC). The NIWC was a small and marginal party that emerged in 1996 when there were no female MEPs or MPs in Northern Ireland, and only 12 percent of local councilors were women. Despite never gaining more than 1.5 percent of the popular vote, the party pressed the other parties in the system to address their own gender imbalance. In other words, the NIWC succeeded not through winning electoral support or even shaping public policy, but by triggering transformation in the other parties.

The NIWC embarrassed the leadership of the other parties. Because almost all of them were vulnerable to claims that they had not done enough to promote women, the NIWC gave cover for advocates for women within the other parties to lobby their leadership for greater attention to their concerns and greater access to political authority (note a similar role for women within the established parties in Kimberly Morgan’s 2013 World Politics piece on work-family policies). The more established and mainstream parties began to include more women as candidates and party officers and to address women’s issues more explicitly in party platforms. The transformation in the other parties took on a life of its own and the movement’s goals became part of the agenda of the other parties. The party then faded away though the movement remained in a different organizational guise.

The number of women running for office at all levels in Northern Ireland in almost all the parties increased in the period after the creation of the NIWC (for example, from 6 percent in 1993 to 16 percent in 1997 for the Westminster Parliament), as did the success of female candidates in the elections (from 59 percent to 87 percent in the same years for Westminster). While almost none of the parties mentioned any of the campaign issues of the NIWC in their platforms before the NIWC was created, these issues appeared in the platforms of five of the six main parties in the electoral cycle after the NIWC was founded. As discussed in my article, three of the four largest parties in Northern Ireland issued separate policy documents on women’s issues in the first two years after the NIWC was formed. This small and short-lived party leveraged the instability of the party system to achieve greater inclusion for women in the institutions of decision-making in Northern Ireland.

It will be interesting to see if F! has similar contagion effects in Sweden. Perhaps the NIWC succeeded in part because the parties had so much ground to make up. Despite the progress made, Northern Ireland’s level of female empowerment has never even come close to approaching Sweden’s. But as Morgan argues, electoral instability and the decline of core constituencies within the established parties may help F! have impact, by giving the parties greater incentives to try to mobilize new voters. By some accounts, F! put pressure on other Swedish parties to take action on gay marriage, artificial insemination and gender quotas for corporate boards in the period since it first ran for office in 2005. F! may be able to work with other European parties for a gender equality commissioner in the EU.

However, the party’s most likely effect will be domestic: media attention in the last weeks has forced spokespersons for the mainstream parties in Sweden to explain the success of F!’s appeal at their expense (F!’s victory is seen as a loss for the Moderates as well as a rejection of the right). Their support among young/new voters and their use of new spaces (social media, house parties, community centers) to connect with marginalized voters suggests that they will remain in the public eye for the coming years, in part because they are hybridizing these multiple forms of public organizing. Movement-parties, by blurring the lines between inside and outside actors, can take advantage of dynamics that unfold between parties to increase the representation of otherwise marginalized groups.

 

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