Sweden's Liberation Goes Only So Far Women Here Say This Socially Progressive Country Still Has Some Changing to Do

By Wendy Sloane, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Sweden's Liberation Goes Only So Far Women Here Say This Socially Progressive Country Still Has Some Changing to Do


Wendy Sloane, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Five years ago Cecilia Omo was just another optimistic student preparing to graduate from dental school and begin a career in one of Stockholm's many state-run clinics.

Today, Omo and her partner, now in private practice, run a booming business and make more money than their husbands.

"If I were a woman, I'd rather be a woman in Sweden," Omo says, taking a hurried break between patients. "We can do anything that men in other countries want to do. Women in Sweden have it the best in the world."

Sweden has long had a reputation for being among the most sexually emancipated countries in the Western world. Both men and women here espouse such progressive views on gender that they would be considered radical in many other countries.

Compared to women in many countries, the typical Swedish woman has it all: a great career, 2.1 children, and a husband who is as willing to fry the bacon up in a pan as he is to bring it home.

Homemaking and baby-care classes have long been required school subjects for both boys and girls. Discrimination laws make it difficult for employers to hire or fire on the basis of gender, and liberal maternity and paternity leaves, along with subsidized quality day care, facilitate women combining career and family. Fifty percent of all government ministers and 41 percent of the parliament are women.

But despite such statistics, Swedish women still talk of gender-bias problems. While Swedish women in general seem happier with their lot than their counterparts around the world, they are still likely to complain of a "mommy track" and inequality in the workplace.

For instance, while 84 percent of Swedish women work, only 48 percent have full-time jobs. And women who work full time earn 80 percent of what men earn.

While the gains Swedish women have made are considerable, feminists note that they have come about only in recent years. And although the status quo is changing rapidly, some achievements seem more style than substance.

Still, a 1995 United Nations report measuring women's participation in political, economic, and professional activities gives Sweden the highest marks of 130 countries investigated. In a gender index contrasting female literacy, life expectancy, and economic data compared with men, Sweden came in first place with a score of 0.92 out of a possible 1.

"This is a country where women don't have to choose between having a job and having children," says Ebba Witt-Brattstrom, a well-known feminist, literature professor, and soon-to-be mother of four. "We have state feminism."

Swedish feminism often begins at birth, when both mothers and fathers are encouraged to stay home with their infants until they are old enough to enroll in day care.

All Swedish women are paid 80 percent of their salaries from the state if they take time off to be with their children.

Also, the government pays allowances of 750 kruna (about $100) a month per child, regardless of family income, to encourage women to have children, until the child turns 18. Child support and alimony legislation is also generous in favor of mothers.

Since few men have have taken paternity leave in the past, a new law encouraging them to do so offers parents 90 percent of their income, instead of the usual 80 percent, for 90 days - if the father stays home with the child for at least one month.

Such a climate may be behind the country's having the highest birthrate in Europe: 2.1 children per woman of child-bearing age. Roughly 90 percent of all Swedish women become mothers, putting the country second only to Ireland, where Roman Catholicism encourages high birthrates. In Sweden birth control is freely available and sex education in schools begins early. Abortions have been legal for more than 20 years.

On the whole, Swedish women often have their first child relatively late: when they are in their late 20s or early 30s. …

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