The Best of Both Worlds? Fatherhood and Gender Equality in Swedish Paternity Leave Campaigns, 1976-2006

By Klinth, Roger | Fathering, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Best of Both Worlds? Fatherhood and Gender Equality in Swedish Paternity Leave Campaigns, 1976-2006


Klinth, Roger, Fathering


This article explores how men's identity, capacity and responsibility as parents were understood and communicated in Swedish, government initiated, paternity leave campaigns, 1976-2006. Images of the "new father" are analyzed in relation to Swedish equal status policy, emphasizing men's and women's mutual responsibility for child care as well as economic provision. The result indicates that paternity leave campaigns represented something progressive and historically unique. Frequent depictions of men performing and talking about care work challenged traditional notions of men and masculinity. However, the campaigns also reproduced notions of gender relations that undercut, rather than supported, a radical vision of gender equality. In the period 1976-2001, men were positioned as secondary rather than primary parents. The early 2000s, however, saw a shift in the way fatherhood was represented in the campaigns. In contrast to earlier campaigns, men and women were given the same responsibility for parental leave--"Half each!"

Keywords: fatherhood, masculinity, gender equality, parental leave, Sweden

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The idea of a mutual process where women enter the traditional realms of men, and men the traditional realms of women, has been the ideological foundation of Swedish family and equal status policy for the last 40 years. Sometimes this policy has been described in terms of the "dual-earner, dual-carer family" ("carer," meaning "one who performs care work"; Morgan, 2006). From the beginning of the 1970s, almost unanimous political attention has been paid to this basic vision. In the mid-1970s, a young parliamentarian summarized the political undertaking as "getting morn a job and making dad pregnant" (Klinth, 2002). When it comes to getting "room" a job, the political vision has been successful. In the mid-1960s, the average employment rate for married women was less than 25% (Furst, 1999). In 2005 this figure was 80%. Men had a work rate of 86% (Pa tal om kvinnor och man, 2006).

The most significant political effort to realize the other part of the vision, "making dad pregnant," was the introduction of parental leave insurance. The new insurance came into force in January 1974 and it was unique in the world. For the first time in any country men had the right to paid leave to take care of their small children. However, "making dad pregnant" has proved to be a tough political challenge. More than 30 years after the reform, men only use around 20% of the leave available to the family (Arsredovisning 2005, 2006). Since the mid-1970s, different political means have been used to increase men's uptake of parental leave. In 1975 a state commission suggested a fatherhood quota in the parental leave insurance (SOU, 1975:62). The proposed quota, which meant that one of the months in the parental insurance could only be used by the father, proved to be controversial and it took another 20 years before a "father's month" was finally introduced to parental leave insurance (Proposition, 1993/94: 147).

Instead of fixed father quotas, the primary solution was attitude change, and since the mid-1970s numerous campaigns and other forms of opinion molding have been launched to persuade men to use their right to parental leave. Through TV-spots, posters, brochures, antenatal and postnatal education classes, information meetings, etc., government authorities and service providers have tried to change attitudes about paternity leave. In the public eye, the representations of fatherhood displayed in the campaigns probably have had a greater impact than any policy declaration. A crucial question is, however, "What do the representations of the new father represent?"

This article explores the way fatherhood and gender relations have been understood and communicated in government initiated paternity leave campaigns over the last 30 years. Its overall purpose is to analyze the image of the new father in relation to the basic ideology of the Swedish family and equal status policy. …

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