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Meet Gudrun Schyman: Likely the Most Important Feminist You’ve Never Heard About

Gudrun Schyman, the founder of Europe’s first feminist party


When Gudrun Schyman, the founder of Europe’s first feminist party, was visiting New York to promote the US premiere of a documentary about her controversial life and career, The Feminist: A Swedish Inspiration, New York film critic Annika Andersson saw it and was intrigued. She considered herself a feminist too, but Schyman’s teachings were at a whole different level.

Andersson, who grew up in Sweden, requested a meeting through the film’s producer in the hopes of arranging an interview with Schyman for LiisBeth. When the producer said the writer could travel to Sweden, Schyman invited Andersson to meet in person—in her hometown.

Here is Andersson’s account of what she learned from that meeting with Schyman.

After an eight-hour flight from my home in New York City, then a 600-kilometre train ride south from Stockholm, I arrived at the station in Simrishamn on Sweden’s picturesque Baltic coast. The winter snow had melted, leaving a dense mist blanketing the streets of this tiny city, town really, with just 6,500 inhabitants. My steps echoed on cobbled roads that I shared with only one other pedestrian. Quaint and somewhat desolate, it didn’t come across as a hub of political activity.

I made my way to the Kagan cafe, which was cozy, warm, and welcoming, with a nice selection of tea and baked goodies, the Swedish remedy against cold winter days. I soon discovered it to be Schyman’s regular meeting place for interviews, and she arrived right on time, entering with a friendly smile and purposeful stride. At 70, she still cuts an imposing figure: tall, slim, and charismatic.

After I caught her eye, Schyman quickly made her way to our table and sat down, greeting me by asking who I was. That’s the first thing that struck me: she cuts right to the point. She has no time to waste because there is still so much she wants to do.

I understood immediately that she didn’t just want my name, she wanted a brief bio. She wanted to know who I am and what I do, in order to set the bar and adjust her answers to best serve the readers of the outlet I represented. I was sitting face to face with a professional, through and through.

But, admittedly, I was nervous because I am not a political journalist, and Schyman has been a trailblazer since she entered politics from a career in social work and after her divorce (she is not shy about talking about the domestic abuse she suffered, nor about her own struggles with alcoholism, as she had done in the film). When she took the helm of Sweden’s Left Party, she led it to its best-ever election result and it became the third biggest party in Sweden until 2004 when she and the party parted ways.

Frustrated by the treatment of women in politics and violence against women in society, Schyman launched an action group called the Feministiskt Initiativ or, translated, the Feminist Initiative (FI) in 2005, which became the country’s first feminist party. It had a structure headed by three spokeswomen—Schyman being the most well-known—who then led the FI to electoral success: it won seats in 13 municipalities in the 2014 municipal elections and, in that same year, made a historical breakthrough by garnering 5.3 percent of the Swedish vote to win a seat for FI in the European Parliament. Then, Schyman stepped down as co-leader of Sweden’s FI party this past February to take on yet another political challenge: uniting feminist political action across Europe by creating FUN Europe, short for Feminists United Network Europe. But more on that later.

While I consider myself a feminist, the depth of my engagement relates mainly to numbers. In film, for example, movie audiences consist of half men and half women, but only 23 percent of film critics are women. This is obviously problematic since male critics are likely to favour films that speak to them—male perspectives, storylines, characters. No wonder there are so few women filmmakers, given films they produce struggle to win over male critics to even reach audiences. I am all for introducing incentives to increase the number of female critics, a kind of targeted, sector-by-sector problem-solving attempt to achieve gender equality. But to be honest, I didn’t really know anything about the need for a feminist political party.

But Schyman explained that the FI party sees gender struggle as inseparable from other inequalities in society, which is in contrast to how society functions now, privileging needs of “man” over the environment, animals, and other societies. That kind of feminism is the party’s “independent, ideological starting point.”

How Do Feminist Political Parties Create Change?

Schyman pointed out that Iceland had a feminist political party in the 1980s called Women’s Alliance, which was successful for many years but didn’t have a clear ideological foundation. Rather, it focused on concrete gender questions such as equal salaries (basically the kind of feminism I knew).

In other governments, such issues are often relegated to Status of Women offices, which, in Canada, was recently rebranded the Department for Women and Gender Equality. To Schyman, that’s hugely problematic. “I’m allergic to that type of situation, with women’s associations and Status of Women,” she says. “They were formed, once upon a time and in different political parties, because women felt they needed to come together to strengthen their positions, and not be run over by the male politicians.”

Shyman in a meeting with local news papers

The problem with creating such “protected areas” in a patriarchal system is that questions affecting half of the population are reduced to minority status, or special side interests. But women’s rights are human rights. And women belong to many other groups in society. Said Schyman: “The political analysis needs to be more advanced, just as it is with matters such as class. Nobody would get the idea to start a Status of the Lower Classes or Status of the Middle Class. This just manifests how our society is structured.”

When FI had its breakout election—winning its first seat in the European Parliament—FI’s rep did not join the Status of Equality group. Rather, Soraya Post (also the first Romani in Swedish history to be chosen a candidate for a political party) joined the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. “They are a much larger group with more resources,” said Schyman. “She can address the question of men’s violence against women as a question of security policy where the security policy of EU is discussed. This is crucial because, otherwise, you send it away to the Status of Women and it becomes less important.”

The Birth of a New FUN Europe?

With an eye to bolstering the ranks of feminists in European Parliament elections coming up at the end of May, Schyman helped set up an alliance known by what has to the best feminist acronym yet: FUN Europe, short for Feminists United Network Europe. To muster support for it, she has spent years travelling throughout the EU meeting with like-minded activists: feminists, human rights organizations, people working with refugees, LGBQT groups. Through putting forward candidates from different countries—Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Romania, Spain, Finland, Poland, and Italy—the FUN network developed a common electoral platform for the upcoming elections and set a goal to win enough support in the European Parliament to create a feminist alliance.

The network has their work laid out for them, according to a study commissioned by FI’s current European Parliament rep, Soraya Post, which shows that as support for nationalist parties and extreme right fervour increases, space shrinks for feminist, LGBQT, human rights, and women’s organizations. Such organizations are often accused of acting against national interests and have even been subjected to police raids and criminal prosecution. Schyman says Hungary and Poland are both worrisome, with people embracing more traditional political values where women are praised as child bearers and creating hostile environments for LGBQT people. The bit of good news in the study is that feminism may be the most articulate opposition to rising nationalism.

Schyman certainly believes so. “All human rights are under attack in Europe. Abortion rights are one of them, reproductive rights another.” She said that feminism makes human rights central to politics. Creating secular states and secular education and anti-militarism are important common goals as is stopping men’s violence against women. Looking at salaries, employment, and retirement through the lens of feminism helps us see that the gender salary gap and barriers to women in many occupations extends into the social security system, with women retiring poorer and living on reduced pensions. She also pointed to massive protests in Spain and Italy as evidence that people are increasingly fed up with violence against women.

Will the FUN Catch On?

Europe may well need FUN, but polls suggest Sweden’s FI may not keep its seat in the European Parliament, with support tracking as low as one percent. FI also lost voter support in Sweden’s parliamentary elections last year, falling to less than half a percent from just over three percent of the votes cast in 2014 (getting over the four percent threshold might have won it a seat).

Schyman said FI rode a wave of support for feminism in 2013/14 when issues such as racial profiling and ridiculously lax rape sentences drew attention to questions of inequality. “It spurred an interest in feminism, and people turned to us because we were there. People had somewhere to go.”

But support has taken a hit as increasing numbers of refugees crossed European borders. She blames government inaction. “The refugee situation accelerated in 2015 and became a bit chaotic in ports and train stations. Tons of volunteers showed up to help while the government stood nonplussed,” she says. According to Schyman, right-wingers seized on the chaos as a sign of system collapse and argued that Sweden had exceeded its capacity to absorb refugees. Sweden Democrats (SD), with deep alt-right and neo-Nazi roots, advocates for a stop to asylum seekers in Sweden—and has gained support.

Schyman believes the work of FI has motivated voters to try to stop the rise of nationalist parties such as SD. “Our slogan was very clear: ‘Out with the racists, in with the feminists.’ We defined the conflict early on.” Unfortunately, FI is paying the price as many voters are backing more established parties to counter right-wing nationalists. “I understand the reasoning—what if they don’t get in? We have to vote to keep the nationalists out. The process becomes more of a tactical strategy rather than voting for what you really believe in.”

FI has also taken a hit from some critics for being reluctant or slow to deal with “the culture of honour” brought to Sweden by some refugees. Galaxia Wallin is of Syrian origin and the author of Fånge i hederns famn, which roughly translates to “Prisoner in the arms of honour.” In it, Wallin tells the stories of seven immigrant women from various “honour cultures” who were forced to marry young and were subsequently abused by their husbands. She says Swedish politicians, including the Feminist Initiative Party, have been reluctant to address the issue. “We have wasted years just trying to define what the culture of honour is, and to determine if it’s something we’re allowed to talk about or not. Politicians are still worried that addressing it may be racist,” says Wallin.

Current FI co-leader Gita Nabavi agreed that FI was reluctant to single out a culture or religion and that vague approach has undermined FI’s message that they stand against all violence, regardless of form. Nabavi has since apologized on behalf of the party and told me in a separate interview that “FI supports people who are vulnerable, regardless of where this vulnerability comes from, even if it’s people with immigrant backgrounds who are the perpetrators.”

When the Going Gets Tough, Throw a Party?

To get through the ups and downs of polls and electoral cycles, Schyman takes a long view and advocates throwing a good party to spread the feminist message. “I compare us to the suffragette movement. How long did that take? All those women travelling around to lecture and demonstrate. Every single step taken in the past has been necessary for us to end up where we are today. This is crucial to remember.”

FI had similar struggles, starting out as a lean volunteer organization. How do you build support and campaign without employees and money? Schyman came up with the concept of home parties. The way it works is if the host was able to gather 25 people and agreed to recruit another five people to host a home party, Schyman would come to their home to speak about feminism and FI’s platform. The concept caught fire, with Schyman sometimes attending up to five home parties a day. Gatherings took place in all kinds of homes: large villas and small studios where furniture had to be removed to make room for guests who sat on pillows on the floor. “No meeting was identical to the other,” recalled Schyman fondly. “We became the ‘Home Party’ party. It’s a fantastic way to meet people. You’re invited into their homes. They gather their friends, colleagues, and relatives.” Looking back, she wonders how she ever managed to attend so many.

News of the home parties travelled and Schyman received a slew of invitations when she was in New York City for the premiere of The Feminist documentary. I attended one hosted by The People’s Forum where Schyman joked that it was like a Tupperware party but instead of plastic, she brings politics. Listening to Schyman talk politics inspired me enough to jump on a plane and track her down to this quiet distant corner of Sweden.

She has clearly inspired others too. Another group waits at a nearby table to interview her. Our hour-long talk has flown by, too fast. But before saying goodbye, Schyman made one last point about climate change and Indigenous people, which sounds like two points but, in Schyman’s feminism, all things are connected. “We are the first political party to have raised the question of Indigenous peoples to the level where it belongs, which is as human rights. We have members who belong to the Sámi people, and our parliament list included a man who was also chairman of the Sámi Parliament.” She explained that looking at the climate crisis through a feminist lens is to see that we are a part of the world rather than masters of it, a relationship and way of life that the Indigenous peoples espouse. And living according to her beliefs, Schyman has started a network of retirees to save the environment. Why? She said her generation had created the mess, and now they should help clean it up for the next generation.

Finally, she said goodbye and joined the next group of interviewers. As for the question that had brought me here, I closed my laptop with that quote from Schyman ringing in my ears. “I can’t imagine any country not needing a feminist party. We need to politicize these questions because, otherwise, they become questions everyone agrees about, but also agrees not to do anything about. We need to discuss these questions, so the conflict becomes obvious.”

The Future of the Feminist Initiative

After my meeting with Gudrun Schyman, I met with the current co-leader of Sweden’s FI party, Gita Nabavi, in Stockholm. She is just 37 but has been a member of the party since its inception. She recalled that finding out about the FI was like “love at first sight” as she didn’t feel at home in any other traditional party. She served in a leadership role with Schyman last year, and is proud of FI’s achievements. She cited strengthening the law around sexual consent, which passed in July of 2018, as a key legacy. “Other parties have worked for it as well, but we’ve been extremely persistent,” she said. “What we have to work on now is [creating] a culture of consent, since it’s not something you say yes to once, but build upon continuously.”

Gita Nabavi, FI’s new co-leader

Nabavi said that FI’s existence has actually moved other parties to incorporate feminism into their policies. “The Swedish government calls itself feminist. I don’t believe they would have done that if we hadn’t been around.”

So where does that leave FI? Pressuring the so-called feminist government to walk the talk.

For FI, to be a feminist means to get out of the arms business and embrace disarmament and peace. Nabavi said Sweden has actually gone backwards on this issue since the Berlin wall fell back in 1991. “Disarmament then wasn’t such a strange idea. We left the Cold War behind us.” She pointed out that Sweden now sells weapons to Saudi Arabia, a dictatorship widely criticized for its appalling treatment of women not to mention is in open conflict with Yemen.

Nabavi is proud that the Swedish government is calling itself feminist and feels like this is partly thanks to FI. But she warned, “What we have to work on now is that if you call yourself a feminist, you also have to act like one.”

Please note these interviews were translated from Swedish and shortened for clarification.

Related Articles

“The Feminist” is documentary film  recently released about Gudrun Shyman’s life and career. In Sweden, feminist trailblazer Gudrun Schyman has long been a divisive figure. An experienced politician with a controversial past, Schyman is the founder of Europe’s first feminist party. Fiercely unapologetic, she takes to the streets, inspiring women to raise their voices and participate in politics. Featuring cameos from supporters Jane Fonda and Pharrell, this starkly intimate portrait is an homage to the political dynamo’sindefatigable spirit and a siren call to all women in the current populist climate.

** Watch for a screening event by LiisBeth soon!

Another related article by Annika Andersson: