To fight for redistribution
is a feminist struggle

Foto: Unsplash/ Breno Assis

In Sweden, feminists are fighting a lot of cultural wars, but the issues of welfare and labor rights are a blind spot, even though they play such a big role for women’s actual living condition. To fight for redistribution is a feminist fight. A speech of Mirjam Katzin on the Swedish welfare state

I have the suspicion that you expect of me to come here and tell you the fairytale of the Swedish welfare state, where we have gender equality and low income inequality. At least this is often the case when speaking to other Europeans or Americans, this image of Sweden is very prevalent. I might need to make you disappointed! Sweden has not been untouched by the strong waves of neoliberalism and neoconservatism that has swept around the world in the last decades. I would even say that we are at a forefront of a certain kind of neoliberalization, but I will get back to that.

However: I do think that there are important lessons to learn from the Swedish example when it comes to how an ambitious social-democratic policy towards public responsibility for welfare and care can be very influential on gender inequalities, to create a society built on solidarity, with less class differences, and in combination with a generous migration policy. But Sweden of today also have reasons to learn from this lesson. From my political standpoint I think that a lot of things have been moving in the wrong direction for the past 30 years, but especially for the last 10, and now Sweden is moving towards having one of the fastest growing income inequalities in OECD, a deteriorating welfare state, and much stricter migration policies - and of course this has effects on women and on families.  

But let me start from another end! I have three points that I want to make:

  • Sweden has been and still is a role model in the world when it comes to gender equality, and for explanatory reasons,
  • But we are far from actual gender equality and there are still significant problems for women in many areas,
  • According to the kind of analysis that I adhere to, the situation of women is correlated with (not only but to a large extent) the welfare state and collectivized models of care, and this project is on many levels going in the wrong direction in Sweden, which influences gender inequality in the wrong direction too.

So let us start with the first point. I want to give you a personal example, to make it pedagogical, I hope you don’t mind! I have a son, Jacob, he is soon going to be 4. I am since a couple of years separated from his dad, Fredrik. I and Fredrik have the responsibility for Jacob every other week, that is when he is not in his qualitative and cheap daycare, which is of course the precondition for his parents working full time. This, neither the separation, nor the splitting half-half of parental responsibility, is a strange or unusual story in our demographic group of people: urban middle class, academics.  

So how can this situation be explained? A very important reason is the existence of a gender neutral system of parental leave. Every family gets a total of 450 days, 1,5 years, in paid parental leave, it’s paid by 80 percent of your income. Three months respectively are individualized, the rest (a year) you can divide as you want. So I went back to working half-time after two months, and then for 1,5 years we both worked half-time and took care of Jacob half-time. So already from the start the kid and the father had the possibility of establishing a close attachment and a relationship where everyday care work, all the dirty work and the work of love, was as natural as between me and Jacob. The material and institutional conditions, the legal right to parental leave and the social insurance of the parental payment, are of course at the bottom of this. However, there is also a strong cultural norm, in our demographic group, that the father is not only allowed but also expected to take parental responsibility on the same level as the mother in a heterosexual couple, and that I am allowed, and somehow also expected, to put other things than my parenthood, such as my career, at the center of my life, without being deemed a bad person.

Another personal story: my dad is old and due to an accident, he is disabled. Everyone would be very surprised if I or my siblings would have moved together with him to care for him, or even paid for others to do it. No, of course not, it is a municipal responsibility! Both care for older persons and for disabled persons is part of the system of welfare services, universal, independent of economic means, of acceptable quality (if not always as high as one could have wished for), and cheap, tax-financed. What I am trying to show through these examples is that it is impossible to understand Swedish family structures, family relations, and the situation for women without looking at the existence of welfare state institutions, of social security systems and social and care services which makes it possible for the individual to be autonomous in relation to his or her family.

The story of the Swedish welfare state is a long one, starting in the 1930’s with a strong social-democratic political power (which came to last uninterrupted for four decades) and an ideology of social engineering developed by Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, academics and social-democratic politicians. The idea behind social engineering is that social science could calculate what is best for the public interest, and the politicians should use public spending to execute this. Collectivity was a central ideal. It was built on a kind of abstract solidarity, where all the people, like in a big home - the people’s home - should take care of one another, this is an image at the basis of this ideology. And from here grew a system of redistribution and social services that made Sweden one of the countries with lowest income inequality of all countries in the 1970s, and which also allowed women to enter the work market. The idea that everyone should work was very important to the ideology, and to the economic development of the social-democratic state. There is also a history here of a socialist or social-democratic feminist movement which fought for and won political victories such as qualitative child care, elder care and social security, and individualized taxation, another important gender equality reform of the 1970’s.

The development of an ideology of gender equality, from the 1970’s onwards, thus has several bases: feminist victories, the idea of autonomous individuals and collective responsibility for welfare sprung from social-democracy, and the economic dimensions of having a system of redistribution and of the economic winning of getting women on the labor market.

However, as the system is built, it would be possible for a totally gender neutral outtake of the 450 parental days. It is not like that however, it is about 25-75 %, where women take the bigger share. There are even a significant number of fathers (about 25 %) who do not even use the 3 months that will otherwise go to waste. As I said, in our demographic group, the pattern is one of expected (but of course not fully realized) gender equality in parenthood and families. But this differs a lot according to class lines, and between families where the education and income level is equal, and the families where there are inequalities between the parents. Traditional masculinity is in the way of fathers taking responsibility for their kids, traditional femininity place a uneven burden of responsibility on women for kids as well as for the sick and the elderly. There are material conditions to be found in searching for an explanation for this pattern. The division between different groups is growing, correlating with the growing inequality between classes, and as female work gets more and more precarious, traditional family roles become more attractive. Inequalities on the labor market are prevalent and growing and the welfare state is taking less responsibility for the reproductive work and social security of individuals. This has effects on the norms surrounding families, of course.

In general, the Swedish labor market looks like this, and has done for a long time: we have large work places and large businesses. To generalize: heavy and technological industry for men, either as engineers or on the floor; public sector/care work, and other services and retail for women, as teachers, nurses, nursing assistants, shop assistants, etc. It is a very gendered labor market. The welfare state is thus built on female care and service work, this division in labor remains, but reproductive work has been professionalized and paid for to an extent which is internationally unusual.

Sweden’s large industries are in decline. High-tech jobs are still a very important part of the economy, so the engineers are doing fine, but working class men are losing their jobs, especially on the country-side. The unions in these sectors are very strong, so working conditions for those with work remain good, they often earn much more than care workers and other feminized jobs. But those who lose their work, and live on the countryside, which lags behind in development and is politically low prioritized, end up in the kind of male backlash that Susan Faludi famously described already almost 30 years ago. Loosing authority and power, being without future and a steady identity, these men tend to turn to nationalism and neoconservatism. This is however not only a working class problem, the male engineer living in a smaller city is also a typical voter of the nationalist party and a supporter of a more traditional family, because he also might feel - and his position might actually be - threatened by multi-culture, feminist victories and increased prizes on gas and other environmental policies.

What else is happening is the draw-back of the welfare state, which has been going on for 30 years. The political support for parental leave and child care is so strong, so these areas are very difficult to touch for politicians. But sick leave, pensions, welfare benefits, elder care, care for disabled – all of these areas have seen dismantling. In parallel we see large tax cuts, especially on redistributive taxes, on capital and wealth, and on high incomes. This has most effects on women, and thus on families: women are sicker, poorer, with already lower pensions, and doing care work. The welfare state has also been marketized. A lot of welfare services are now paid for by taxes but produced by private profit-driven interests, often owned by venture capital from overseas. They need to make production more efficient, and what they cut down on is staff - women in other words. So women in general get harsher working and wage conditions, besides needing to do more care work in the family. There is a lot of precarious work in the sector - fewer fulltime employments. Staff gets less time with caretakers and patients, instead they have to run to cut corners to increase profits for the owners. Poor working conditions lead to sickness - women are much more on sick leave then men, because their lives are harder. But social insurance for sick leave is being cut down on... It is a vicious circle! It is very apparent that neoliberalism and a diminished welfare state strikes down on women on all frontiers: as workers, as unpaid caregivers, as sick, as old. And of course, applying a intersectional perspective, we can see that it is especially working class women, who cannot exchange public care with privately paid care but has to do the care work themselves, unpaid, who are the biggest losers. And the winners: well-paid and rich men, who pay lower taxes, large care companies owned by men, which benefits from the commodification and commercialization of care.

At least in Sweden, feminists are fighting a lot of cultural wars. They are important. But the boring issues of welfare and labor rights are a blind spot, even though they play such a big role for women’s actual living condition. To fight for redistribution is a feminist fight, and there is a point on being on the barricades for a good collectivized elder care.   

Read the Italian translation of this speech