Reflecting on gender equity on the 6.37am bus

Social democratic newspaper editor Eric Sundström thinks about the position of women in society today.

Reflecting on gender equity on the 6.37am bus

During the past week, my apartment in central Stockholm was undergoing some renovations, so I spent the week living with my mother in the suburbs of Järfälla where I grew up. Every morning we rode the 6:37am bus to the commuter rail station to get into the city. Every morning the same faces kept showing up on the bus: nine women, a younger guy, my mother, and I.

In its simplicity, this is a story that reminds us that all political questions have a gender equity dimension as we look ahead to International Women’s Day on Saturday, March 8th.

Sure, many of the men living near my mother are handymen and need to take their car to work. Some are hopefully home on parental leave. But the fact remains: even public transportation awakens questions about gender equity. Men earn more, have a stronger position in their marriages, and take the car to work.

Women take the bus at 6:37 in the morning with my mom.

There’s no doubt that Swedish social democracy has done a lot in the struggle to build a society that treats the sexes equally. We haven’t shied away from reforms designed to increase gender equity. Measures such as separate tax returns for husbands and wives (1971) and the transformation of maternity payments to parental leave insurance (1974) were controversial then, but seem self-evident when viewed from today.

Two problems currently on the agenda are unequal use of parental leave insurance, as well as the fact that so many women are stuck in part-time jobs. Dads take out about 20 percent of all the available parental leave benefits. Nearly half of the women in the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) work part-time. Three of four part-time workers are women.

One has to ask why one of the world’s best parties was so handicapped in its ability to act during its twelve long years in power. Things aren’t going to be better when the latest concrete reform—the gender equity bonus (jämställdhetsbonus)—comes from the right. After all, it’s the right which has used its bully pulpit to worsen gender equity through steamrolling the labour market and offering more money to stay-at-home parents who don’t use state-funded daycare (vårdnadsbidrag).

Someone who wants to implement smart reforms following the 2010 elections, if for nothing else than to compensate for missed opportunities, is Mona Sahlin. She is most certainly aware of the conflict between freedom of choice and boosting gender equity.

Sahlin ought to lead the way to new and daring gender equity goals, but others also have to help formulate strong proposals that can be a part of the 2010 campaign. An individualized or at least a three-part parental insurance programme ought to be a part of the reform package.

March 8th is also an opportunity to draw attention to the extreme oppression under which women live in other parts of the world. It’s worth remembering how the religious police in Saudi Arabia stopped a group of school girls from leaving a burning school building because they weren’t abiding by the religious dress code.

Fourteen girls died in the blaze—burned to death—and the event inspired a classic scene in the TV-series The West Wing. You can check out the scene on YouTube by searching for “CJ Saudi Arabia”. Doing so should give you a real eye-opener as we head toward March 8th.

Eric Sundström is Editor-in-Chief of Aktuellt i Politiken, a weekly publication distributed nationally in Sweden which examines political and societal issues from a social democratic perspective. It is produced by AiP Media Produktion, a subsidiary of the Social Democratic Party.


Inside the Church of Sweden, where women outnumber men as priests

Women now outnumber men as priests in Sweden, but there's still gender inequality within the Swedish Church, those working in it admit.

Inside the Church of Sweden, where women outnumber men as priests
Visby's cathedral. File photo: Anders Wiklund/SCANPIX/TT

Her white clergy robes flowing behind her, Sandra Signarsdotter walks down the aisle of Stockholm's Gustaf Vasa church greeting parishioners, a ritual of hers and a familiar sight in Sweden.

In the Scandinavian country, often hailed as a champion of gender equality, the statistics are clear. As of July, 50.1 percent of priests are women and 49.9 percent are men. It's very likely the first Church in the world to have a majority of women priests, according to the World Council of Churches.

In the Protestant Lutheran Church of Sweden, which has 5.8 million members in a country of 10.3 million and where ministers hold the title of priest, “women are here to stay,” insists Signarsdotter, who was ordained six years ago.

Since 2014, even the head of the Church is a woman, Archbishop Antje Jackelen.


Archbishop Antje Jackelen. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

At the Gustaf Vasa church, a smattering of worshippers wait for the service to begin.

“This Sunday, the service will be conducted by three women,” the 37-year-old priest says proudly.

Coincidentally, it was in this imposing white church in the heart of Sweden's capital that another woman, Anna Howard Shaw, an American Methodist pastor and suffragette, became the first clergywoman to preach in Sweden.

That was in 1911, at an international women's suffrage conference, and long before women could be ordained in the Church of Sweden, in 1958.

“The men didn't allow her to go up there,” explains Signarsdotter, pointing to the marble pulpit above her. “She was allowed only on the floor,” she says, standing at the altar as if to mark the spot.

This Sunday, the service will be held by Julia Svensson, a 23-year-old theology student whom Signarsdotter is mentoring — and she will give her sermon from the pulpit.

The feminisation of Sweden's priesthood is also seen at universities, where the 4.5-year theology studies required to become a priest are dominated by women.

Protestants generally believe that a priest is an expert, a theologist who tends to a congregation, and not a calling, in contrast to the Catholic Church which opposes women priests.

The rising number of women may be due to priests' changing roles over the years, suggests Signarsdotter.

“The priest's role today is not what it was before. There are other requirements, (such as) kindliness … (and) being able to handle many different situations.”

“Historically men have held it for themselves but now we see it happening all over the world. Things are changing and new paths are open to us as female priests and women in general.”

Outside the Gustav Vasa Kyrka in Stockholm. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

One who has benefitted from the rising number of female priests is stylist Maria Sjodin, who designs vestments for women and whose business is booming.

In her atelier in a southern Stockholm suburb, the designer recently welcomed a regular customer, a female priest looking for a new collared top. One could say divine intervention landed Sjodin here: in 2001 her daughter
made a new friend at kindergarten, whose mother was a priest.

“She asked me to make her a priest shirt, because she didn't like the male shirt that she had to wear,” she recalled.
The piece remains one of the most popular in her collection.

'Still a way to go'

But while women priests now outnumber men, inequality remains.

Women priests earn around 2,200 kronor (213 euros, $253) less a month than their male counterparts, according to the specialised newspaper Kyrkans Tidning.

And fewer women reach top positions within the Church. Of the country's 13 dioceses, only four are headed by women.

“We haven't reached equality yet,” says Signarsdotter. “There's still a way to go.”

Her protege Svensson chips in: “We must be a representation of all people.”

After a moment of silence, Signarsdotter admits that sexism still stalks the cloisters of the Church in Sweden.
“One day, a colleague told me 'What a nice ass you have'. I am still seen as a body and not a professional.”

She says things will not change as long as “patriarchal structures (remain) in the walls and the structures of society, and the Church as an organisation.”

But she is not giving up hope. “When I retire I will look at Julia as an archbishop and will be like 'damn, we did good'.”                             

By Nioucha Zakavati