by Kvinnopolitiskt forum
The bulletin of the The libertarian alternative to the ESF
In this article we seek to summarize the situation of women in Sweden. We offer an analysis of why we haven’t progressed farther and why we need to keep up the struggle. Many examples used are specific to Sweden, yet typical of the ongoing love affair between capitalism and patriarchy, in Europe as well as globally.
Every day we read in the newspapers about new proposals hatched up by Sweden’s neo-liberal government. One day brings cut downs in social funds. Another day it is tax deductions for domestic services, making it cheaper for the well-off to employ a maid or a nanny (this is known as pigavdrag – “maid deductions”), or a new child care allowance for people who stay home and take care of their children (vårdnadsbidrag – care support). We know that these schemes, that seem to bring us back to the 1950s, are bad and that we need to stop them, but often we fail to discern how each proposal paves the way for further proposals to be implemented.
Lacking such an analysis, we risk once again ending up viewing issues as separated from each other. A feminist and/or leftist movement with no insight into the way issues are interrelated is doomed to fail.
Groups pitted against each other
Conservatives and liberals know this, and they are clever enough to divide us, playing one group against the other. As a result, we witness how senior citizens are led to believe that their well-being depends on closing the country’s borders, or how federations within the trade unions compete to get the biggest piece of the little cake. Government officials talk with a straight face about “normal people” profiting from reduced social funds. “Normal people” are apparently understood to be young, healthy, employed people who don’t need any help from the social system.
The trade unions refuse to help undocumented immigrants, out of fear of wage-dumping. An historical precedent for this is the male trade unionists who, based on the same fear, opposed the employment of women. The idea of struggling for an equal pay for men and women never entered the heads of these men. After all, it was quite convenient if the wife had all day to clean, wash, and cook. Unpaid household work was, and still remains, the historical plight of women.
A new market is created in the households
Socio-geographical mobility is severely restrained by a privatized, deregulated real estate market, and certain living areas come to be consolidated as low-income areas. On the opposite side of town we find the gated ghettos of the rich, where poor people come every day to work as maids. This is made possible on a bigger scale than before by the recent tax deductions (pigavdrag), a way to use tax money to feed capitalism’s need to create new markets, this time in the domestic sphere. Thus, class and ethnicity conflicts enter the households of the wealthy, and sweep gender conflicts under the rug. One woman replaces another, the man is exonerated from responsibility, and the conflict of the sexes remains unresolved. Meanwhile, the maid still has to clean her own house when she gets home since she can’t afford to hire someone else, but the government is obviously not concerned about her predicament.
“It doesn’t matter if a man, woman, or undocumented immigrant does the work as long as someone is exploited.”
How to produce new and cheaper workers
After the pigavdrag was introduced in July 2007, a meeting was held between government representatives and staffing company managers. The staffing companies complained about the troubles they had in finding people for the maid jobs. One of the solutions presented was to shorten the free language courses for immigrants, since “anyway, the best place to learn Swedish is at work”.
This suggestion hasn’t been implemented yet, but is frequently discussed. This is a very clear example of how the neo-liberals in government fuse together several types of oppression to maintain control. Capitalism, to stay vital, must depend on a reserve of unemployed labour and a divided working class. A desperate worker is always preferable, which means women and immigrants are consistently targeted.
Women become more dependent
Vårdnadsbidraget delivers the final blow meant to send women back into the household. After the long struggle to free women from their homes, women are now offered 3000 Swedish crowns (ca 320 ) per month to stay at home with their children. This is obviously not an offer aimed at single mothers: it is impossible to survive on this sum in Sweden. Those lucky women who have a real man who brings home a big salary, however, can contentedly stay at home and accept the pocket money. And so women are again made financially dependent on men.
The pigavdrag and the vårdnadsbidrag are both solutions only for the upper classes, who don’t want to pay the real price for a maid or send their children to a kindergarten. They represent the government’s mobilization of several types of oppression, which they have the guts to call a new “gender equality politics”.
Stopped from two directions
All the collective systems that we have today, like public kindergartens and well-functioning women’s shelters and support groups, have one thing in common: they are the result of political struggles. As the present right-wing government smashes all this to pieces in the name of “gender equality,” it simultaneously pushes the everyday problems faced by women back to the personal level. Women’s struggles for collective solutions are not merely a fight against the Right, but have often involved fighting the men of the labour movement. Just as the capitalists have tried to stop any reform that would diminish their power, working-class men have done exactly the same thing when it comes to women’s auto- nomy.
Even so, women have always supported the struggles of working men, because they rightly regarded these struggles as their own.
“A feminist and/or leftist movement with no insight into the way issues are interrelated is doomed to fail.”
Solidarity – but only in one direction
A telling example is the 1899 bookbinder conflict in Stockholm, where women played a leading role. The workers, half of them women, went on strike demanding higher wages. The employer agreed to raise the wages for the women but not for the men. The women wouldn’t accept the bid, but instead continued the strike until the employer caved in and raised the men’s wages as well.
Unfortunately, men didn’t show the same level of perceptiveness when the situation was reversed. In the early 20th century, the Swedish government wanted to prohibit women from working at night. This affected women who worked as bookbinders, seamstresses, and typographers. Women in the Social Democratic party and in the trade unions demanded that the worker’s movement should fight for women’s right to work under the same conditions as men. The men responded by accusing the women of running the conservatives’ errands.
As a result, these jobs, with pay slightly above average, were no longer available to women. The prohibition of female night work did not, of course, include badly paid jobs, which women were still allowed to perform. The law was not repealed until 1962.
Capital is gender neutral
To understand why working-class men have colluded with capitalism, we must understand the logic of patriarchy. Men gain from the subordination of women, in the first place through the division of labour between men and women, but also in terms of the big share of unsalaried household work carried out by women, and in terms of the sexual subordination that women are subjected to. Despite all this, we claim that men also lose something when they choose to participate in patriarchal society.
The working class can never really move forward if those who find themselves on its lowest rungs are forgotten. Capitalism wants the greatest possible amount of work carried out at the lowest possible cost. This is facilitated by a white, male and Eurocentric labour movement which fails to practice solidarity with, for example, women and undocumented immigrants. Capitalism, in and of itself, is gender-neutral. It doesn’t matter if a man, woman, or undocumented immigrant does the work as long as someone is exploited. However, capitalism makes use of existing structures to legitimize the exploitation, divide the working class, and render certain forms of struggle illegitimate.
The personal is political
One of the main slogans of the women’s movement of the 70s was that “the personal is political.” This parole put many “new” questions on the agenda. The personal experiences of women were lifted to a collective level, which made it possible for these experiences to be articulated into demands. The main point was to make clear that women’s personal subordination had nothing to do with personal failings, but was instead the product of structural inequality. The relationship between men and women wasn’t given by natural laws, but rather created and organized by society. To realize that this relation was not a biological fact was to realize that it was possible to change it.
We mustn’t forget how it is all connected
The autonomous Left in Sweden has, in its eagerness to throw out identity politics and sectarian tendencies, also thrown out a deeper understanding of how things are connected. We have thereby lost the capacity to understand that solidarity is more than an empty word. Solidarity implies supporting groups that you aren’t a part of and fighting for questions that at first glance seem not to concern you, because you understand that doing so accords with your long-term interests. We are never stronger than the weakest link, and if we struggle to advance the positions of the most oppressed, we will all move forward. We can only win if we see how things are connected and work together. Attack is the best defence!
Radical Women´s Assembly Utkanten, 18/9 kl 14.00
if you want to discuss this text and other issues with us come to our seminar! It will be an assembly on the situation of women in Europe. We will start by talking about the myth of Sweden as the paradise of equality for women, and then invite you to describe the situation of women in your country. How is the situation of women on the labour market, in unwaged work, everyday struggles (childcare etc), sexuality. We wish to focus on the issues where class struggle and feminism meet. What collective solutions exist for women in your country? What do you need? What types of women’s organization exist? In what way do women take part in workplace struggles and the trade unions? After these presentations we will discuss in smaller groups how we can act together: actions and cooperation now during the social forum and in the future.