In Conversation With: Gudrun Schyman, Founder of Europe’s First Feminist Party
By WAF Editors
Gudrun Schyman is a long-time activist for women’s rights and gender equality, and the founder of Europe’s first feminist party, the Swedish Feminist Initiative (FI). Formed in 2005, the Feminist Initiative seeks to bring about a more gender-equal society by working across sectors with organizations, such as environmentalist and pro-immigrant rights groups, whose social justice orientation dovetails the objective of the FI to rethink how people in a society relate to one another. The FI has a strong presence in Sweden’s municipalities, including in the cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg, and won a seat in the European Parliament in 2014.
In November, Gudrun came to New York to introduce the documentary, The Feminist: A Swedish Inspiration, a film about her life’s work, at a local film festival. The Feminist is an intimate and brutally honest portrait, freely discussing the ups and downs of Gudrun’s political and personal life, including her own experiences with domestic violence and divorce, her struggle with alcoholism, and emotional conversations with her daughter, Anna, who resented Gudrun’s absence during her childhood.
While in New York, Gudrun came to New York University (NYU) to sit down for a conversation with WAF’s editors as well as graduate students at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.
Watch our video interview and read below some excerpts from that conversation.
*Gudrun’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.
WAF: In the film you say that the answer to rising nationalism in Europe should be feminism, and you also promote love—love being “the relation where you have no power or control.” Could you explain this as it may sound too naïve?
GS: We know from history what happens when nationalists are in power: they close borders, they build up the military and they attack human rights, women’s rights, and the right to abortion is questioned. With nationalism, you go back to family policies that put women on a sort of pedestal to produce more members for the nation. Feminism is about antimilitarism and open borders. When we work for gender equality, we work for equality for other groups, too. I use “love” because I think many of us have an understanding or an experience of how strong these feelings are that we call love. And (we) have also experienced what love is, that situation where you are not asked to get something back, but you give. Many have experienced this from your own life, and you, who have children, have experienced that when you have a baby—you start with love. You don’t get anything back, but you love because you know that is what makes a person, a human, grow. This relationship is possible to extend to society—maybe you can call it solidarity—because that is what happens when you have the idea that every person in that society that I take part in should have a good life. The idea of taking care of each other is the strongest idea in a society.
WAF: What do you see as the greatest obstacles to transnational feminist organizing, both on the European as well as the grass-roots level? Any best practices?
GS: I have no other advice than to organize. I think it’s crucial that you understand that with the changes that are needed, you can’t do it on your own. It is a structure question, and it has to be dealt with as a structure problem. That means you have to have political reforms. You have to look at the budget in a different way, and you have to put it into politics. You have to take the step from being an NGO to also run for seats in an election. If you continue to address these problems as something that belongs to women, that they do not belong to the political agenda, we will not have the reforms that are needed. Today, we also have to connect this with the political situation. With traditionalism, with militarism, with nationalism and with fascism—and upon all this we have the climate crisis. We have to see that all of these questions are deeply connected with each other and put an effort forward in the political system. We have to unite with different organizations that are working with the resistance in different ways. We have to see that we need each other to form a quite different political agenda then what has been produced so far.
WAF: What was the impact of the #MeToo movement in Sweden? Do you feel that it had, or is having, a truly transformative impact?
GS: It was quite big in Sweden. It started one year ago, and it was a lot of hashtags from every corner in the society. And, for once, women were listened to. What they told was a messy report from their everyday battlefield. Some people were surprised. We, who have worked with these questions for decades, were not surprised. I was surprised first that people were surprised because this is a reality. This is what we were talking about for decades. But it came, and it was massive, and I think it led some people who didn’t believe what we had said for decades, to truly understand that this was really a problem. Some started to look at themselves or their part in this. On the political scene, all the political parties went down and said, “This is not what we can accept. We cannot accept that we have this society that treats women like this.” We agree on that. And then there was silence because there were no conflicts. Everyone agreed, in the same way that they do when we bring up the topic of gender equality. Everyone agrees. It is weird that everyone agrees. Nowadays political parties have written into their party programs that they are feminists. In terms of gender equality, we have decisions in the parliament of gender equality goals that everyone has said yes to. If you go out into the streets in Sweden and say, “Do you want gender equality?” everyone says, “yes”; however, there are no policies that bring us to these goals.
WAF: In the meantime, Sweden is known as the paradise of gender equality compared to the rest of the world. Is it really?
GS: I know that we are seen as a paradise when it comes to gender equality, and I think a lot of people in Sweden believe that, but we have the same problems with men’s violence against women, with the salary gap, that women are taking the most responsibility as the parent, and with representation. Not so much in politics but in society and in business, where it is extreme. It is the same pattern. I think the most impact in that is that women understood that they are not alone. Women were telling their stories, and there were people listening and saying, “Yes, I have the same experiences as you.” That brought a lot of courage to a lot of women, and it was also a process of healing when you were able to tell your own story. People were listening and saying, “I understand. I not only hear what you say. I also know what you are telling is the truth.” A lot of women that I met who were engaged in different groups said that this process had given them more than fifteen years of therapy because they were seen, heard and listened to. That impact makes a difference in your daily life, in your work place, and in your family, and it leads to more courage. It hasn’t stopped. They are still working. A lot of the hashtag groups are still working. They also got together in Sweden and decided to put twelve proposals to the government and said, “We want this from you.” The only political party that had that in their program was ours. And we said, “Oh, yes, we have to discuss this.” We are still working, and it won’t end. I don’t think it will end. I think it is the best thing to happen during the long years that I have been working with these questions.