Swedish icon Gudrun Schyman has recently gained some attention from the general public here in the U.S. through the documentary ”The Feminist: A Swedish Inspiration.” The film follows her through daily life and political breakthroughs, and paints an in-depth portrait of her journey to becoming the fierce feminist we know today. After one of these movie screenings, I had the opportunity to attend a home party, which is Schyman's own unique way of spreading the feminist message.
photo credit: Annika Andersson
Who is Gudrun Schyman?
Schyman comes from a humble background, with a father that was an alcoholic while her hard working mother struggled to hold the family toghether. Young Schyman's dream was to become a chic secretary, a common career path in the 60´s and 70's, since there weren't too many other jobs available for women. Instead, she became a social worker, which opened her eyes to many injustices, particularly to women. She chose politics where she could make a difference, and went on to lead the Leftist party to record breaking election results.
But behind Schyman's invincible exterior loomed another woman, an alcoholic and a victim of domestic violence. Her struggles with addiction became evident during several public appearances, and this, in combination with a number of questionable tax deductions, led to her resignation. She didn't stay idle for long though – after rehab she went on to successfully create Europe's first feminist political party.
Today Schyman spends her time relentlessly promoting her feminist message through her chosen platform, home parties. Anyone can request her to come by for a 90 minute session, and often neighbours invite her to speak at their community gatherings. She does up to four per day.
When "The Feminist: A Swedish Inspiration" screened at the documentary film festival DOC NYC in New York in November 2018, Schyman immediately received home party requests. I attended one at the People's Forum in Manhattan, to find out more about Shyman, her thoughts on feminism, and the concept of home parties. What's up with that?
Why start a feminist political party?
Shyman: The Feminist Initiative started in 2005 with a small group of women. We were ten women from different parts of society, who had been working for women's rights and non-discrimination since a long time. We had already demanded more women in the parliament a decade earlier, and warned that otherwise we would have to start our own political party. All the political parties became very afraid, and promised that they would increase the number of women running for office, so that it would include one woman for every man. After that election, the number of women participating had grown to 45 or 46 percent, which I believe back then was the highest percentage in the world. We had reached our goal.
Ten years later, the ten of us sat down to evaluate the result. Did we get gender equality in society as a result of women's increased representation? The answer was no. We hadn't. Equal representation is important in a democracy. It's good when you reach the gender balance, but it doesn't automatically create feminist policies, because every woman is not a feminist, and every feminist is not a woman.
We concluded that now, ten years later, the same problems remained. We still had unequal gender reresentation in other areas of society, we still had the salary gap, men still didn't take their responsibilities as parents, and we still had men's violence against women. Very little had changed. We discussed what to do, and decided to form the Feminist Initiative.
We discussed from the very beginning whether we should be a political party, a study group, or and educational organisation. I wanted to form a political party, because politics means power. As a political party, we would be able to challenge the patriachal powers we see in all parts of society, including the political parties and the trade union. So we took our signs and we registered for the 2006 election.
Placing feminism on the agenda
Shyman: If you ask people in Sweden if they want gender equality, everyone says yes. We have to ask ourselves, since everyone wants it, why is it that we don't have it? It's very strange. Our political party didn't get into the parliament then, because we only got 0.4 percent of the votes and you need four percent. Yet, we considered ourselves winners. Why? Because we had done what no-one had done before.
When we began, the other political parties had more or less stated that they too were feminists, because they felt threatened by us. As they added feminism to their programs, they claimed that they had always been feminists, but they had forgotten to add it to their programs since it was so obviously clear. In 2006 they added gender goals which everyone agreed on, such as ending the salary gap between genders, equal responsibility between men and women in child care, and zero violence against women. The whole parliament said yes, because we were running for election. This is very interesting; by our very existance, we put feminism on the agendas of the other political parties.
Feminist Initiative; aka the ”Home Party”-party
Shyman: In 2013, there was a growing interest in feminism. I received many questions about meetings, of how people could come and listen to us? We are all volonteers and we don't have any money, so we can't afford to have big balls and things like that. I had to think of another way to do it, and this is what I came up with; If you gather 25 people or more in your home, I will come to you. I thought it would be an evening here or there, but it became a total success.
I call it a home party because it's like tupperware, but instead of plastic I bring politics.
And people loved it. One month after I had introduced this way of meeting, every single night was booked from September until September, so I had to add afternoons. Soon all afternoons were booked too, so I started lunch meetings as well. Then, when all the lunch meetings got booked, I added breakfast meetings; Feminist Education Breakfasts. I did these four meetings per day for a year, even adding late night meetings sometimes. It wasn't just me, others from the party would also host meetings. We became the ”Home Party”-party.
The Salary Gap Between Men and Women
Shyman: The biggest gender gap is not in the area where women and men are doing the same job. There is a gap there too, but a smaller one, or at least it's getting smaller, because this problem is being addressed. The big salary gap is between the areas on the labour market where women are in majority (versus areas dominated by men). In Sweden I see this difference between caring professions and industrial occupations. It's better pay to take care of a car than to take care of an elderly person, and it's a big difference in salaries.
Schyman brought up many aspects of feminism with the help of circles on a whiteboard, and concluded that this is an education everyone should receive in school, but it's not there yet. That's why she has to go around and do it herself, she joked, as the home party meeting neared its end.
header photo credit: Annika Andersson