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How women's rights became human rights in Sweden

Victoria Martínez
Victoria Martínez - [email protected]
How women's rights became human rights in Sweden
A Women's March in Stockholm in 2018. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Sweden's rise to one of the most gender equal countries in the world did not occur because women won the "battle of the sexes", but rather because their access to equal rights benefited all of society.


Though the notion that women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights is not a new one, it has only been relatively recently that governments around the world have begun to acknowledge it, and many are still only beginning to guarantee it. In Sweden, however, it is firmly embedded in national and international policy.

"Women and men must have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a human right and a matter of democracy and justice," reads an official government statement.

Such declarations do more than simply speak to Sweden's modern commitment to gender equality, which means, according to the Swedish Gender Equality Agency (Jämställdhetsmyndigheten), "that women and men have the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities in all areas of life." It also provides insight into how the country framed women's rights as human rights quite early in the history of its women's movement.

Like the women's movements of the United States and the United Kingdom, the modern push for women's rights in Sweden began in earnest during the second half of the 19th century, and revolved around major initiatives like gaining the right to vote, as well as securing equality in other areas, such as property and marital rights.

A meeting of the Association for Women's Voting Rights in Strängnäs in 1916. Mayor J Pettersson is speaking. Photo: TT

One of the key areas where the Swedish women's movement diverged from these other movements was how it came to view the struggle for women's rights as part of the greater struggle for a more equal society. While the mainstream American and British movements focused heavily on suffrage, often at the expense of the other issues, "the Scandinavian debate continued to embrace all the complexities – the relations between men and women, parents and children, and family and state," explained Marika Lindholm in her 1991 article, Swedish Feminism, 1835-1945: A Conservative Revolution, in the Journal of Historical Sociology.

As a result, the Swedish women's movement was a "struggle for equal civil rights, rather than for specific rights for women," according to scholar Paulina de los Reyes in the 2016 book, Challenging the Myth of Gender Equality in Sweden.

Already by the 1920s, Swedish women were gaining rights beyond the vote, including legal marital equality, which abolished formal male power and guardianship in families and ensured equal property rights and access to divorce, and the right to work in most professions. These gains only increased with the rise of the Social Democrats and the Folkhemmet (the People's Home).

Working toward the vision of Sweden as a "good home" with "no privilege or neglect, no favorites and no stepchildren," as Swedish Social Democratic politician Per Albin Hansson stated in 1928, became the shared goal of both the Social Democrats and women's rights activists. Together, these two groups "helped each other in an effort to cast off the weight of industrialization and make Moder Svea (Mother Sweden) a harmonious country which would promote the ideas of democracy, humanitarianism and social equality," wrote Lindholm.

Women's rights activist Ellen Key addresses a meeting of suffrage campaigners in 1921. Photo: Pressens bild/TT

To resolve key challenges facing Sweden, such as low population and birth rates, labour shortages and class conflict, the government continued to grant women an increasing number of rights and freedoms. Among the most significant were those which gave Swedish women greater control over their reproductive rights, such as the legalization of birth control and liberalization of abortion in 1938, widespread education about sex and birth control, and free maternal healthcare for all women.

In 1937, women were guaranteed three months of job-protected maternity leave, which was extended to six months in 1945. These protections were further expanded in 1955 when paid maternity leave was first introduced. Women were also granted legal protection in 1939 against losing their jobs because of engagement and marriage, and because of pregnancy in 1946.

The objective was "to encourage larger families, as well as to lighten the economic and psychological burdens of childbearing… and [legitimize] the notion of a career for married women," Lindholm explained, and reinforce the idea "that it was not merely the right of married women to work, but rather the right of working women to marriage and motherhood."

By the 1960s, the recognition of women's rights as human rights and vice versa had evolved further, to the point that "The focus shifted… to the transformation of roles for both sexes, with activities such as child-rearing seen as a human rather than a female endeavor," according to David Bradley in his 1990 article, Perspectives on Sexual Equality in Sweden, in The Modern Law Review.

"Sexual equality is viewed not just in terms of women's rights, but as an issue which affects the whole of society," Bradley wrote of Swedish policies. "The ultimate objective is not merely to provide women with equal opportunities, or their integration into the institutions of a male society. What is at issue – in theory – is the examination and transformation of roles for both sexes."


A demonstration in 1974. The sign reads: "Free abortion. Women's right to choose for themselves." Photo: Ragnhild Haarstad/TT

Today, Sweden is recognized as one of the most gender equal countries in the world in annual metrics like the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. In the 2018 report, Sweden was ranked third among the 149 countries evaluated. Though the country still has a long way to go to achieve full gender parity, it holds a significantly – and perhaps startlingly – higher position than countries with more historically prominent women's movements.

In 2018, for instance, the United Kingdom was ranked 15, while the United States was ranked 51. Moreover, while Sweden has consistently remained in the top five of the ranking for years, the US dramatically dropped in the ranking since 2014, when it was number 20. This disparity and the history behind it have not gone unnoticed in the United States.

A recent article in The New York Times entitled Sweden Provides Some Perspective on Women and Equality acknowledged the importance of Sweden's history of gender equality initiatives when it noted, "Legislation proposed by Swedish women over the last four decades was backed by a broad social consensus that supports a munificent welfare state. That consensus is more difficult in a divided and more diverse United States. Generous parental leave, free child care, schooling and medical care are taken for granted in Sweden; in the United States, they are still up for debate."

What this statement fails to recognize is that "generous parental leave, free child care, schooling and medical care" are just a few of the rights that in Sweden have for some time fallen under the category of human rights, not just women's rights. And guaranteeing them has not only benefited women but has also improved quality of life in Sweden in general.

As it did nearly a century ago, the Swedish government today recognizes that the country has many challenges that must be addressed to make it a more just and equal society. Though it wasn't then explicitly stated that recognizing women's rights as human rights was part of the solution, history shows that it was indeed a critical factor.

The legacy of this is clearly stated in Sweden today: "Gender equality is also a matter of human rights" and "is part of the solution to the challenges Sweden is facing."

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.


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