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Joint feminist struggle changed society in the Nordic region

Trump in the White House and growing right-wing populism in Europe. It is easy to feel frustrated with the situation in the world. However, it is important to remember the feminist advances that have been made and the multifaceted struggle that is underway around the globe. Today NIKK (Nordic Information on Gender) talks about reforms that have been critical to women’s economic independence and that may never have seen the light of day without feminist resistance and Nordic cooperation.

Which reforms in Nordic gender equality history have had the greatest effect on gender equality? According to Kirsti Niskanen, professor in history at Stockholm University, the issue of women’s economic independence runs as a common thread through the entire 20th century.

‘The liberation in the family sphere has been a gradual process. Throughout history, women’s economic independence have been tied to the home and household in a completely different way than men’s.’

 Kirsti Niskanen, professor in history at Stockholm University

Kirsti Niskanen says that these issues, to be able to earn an income and create a life for themselves, are essential components of the feminist struggle. Today we are witnessing how other rights, such as the right to abortion, are under attack.

‘But to be able to choose whether you want to have children or not, economic independence is of central importance. The same is true for violence in intimate relationships. It is difficult to leave a destructive relationship if you can’t make enough money,’ she says.

Still to this day, women have a weaker position in the labour market than men do. According to Kirsti Niskanen, the parental insurance has been a step in the right direction, as it has enabled women to take a job outside the home. At present, the right to paternal leave differs across the Nordic countries. But they have one thing in common: Men continue to stay home with young children much less than women.

‘The unequal use of the parental insurance affects the position of women in the labour market, their wages and lifelong income. So I believe individualised parental insurance and the right to full-time work are important issues for today’s feminist movement.’

Inspiring feminist struggle

The society we live in today is a result of legislative changes, which in turn are the results of an intense struggle. The women’s movements in the different countries have sometimes joined forces, collaborating across national borders and gaining inspiration from each other.

A first key reform was the new marriage law that Sweden adopted in 1920, Norway in 1927, Denmark in 1925 and Finland and Iceland in 1929. In Sweden, the new legislation removed men’s guardianship of their wives and gave women full rights to their own property. This issue, in combination with women’s suffrage, which was introduced in the Nordic region 1906–1921, was one of the most important to the women’s movement.

‘The vulnerability of married women was a hot topic throughout the late 19th century in Europe. Prior to the reform, married women could own property in Sweden, for example real estate and land, but only the husband was allowed to sell it,’ says Kirsti Niskanen.

Because of previous laws in Norway and Denmark, the new marriage law did not imply the same dramatic change in these countries as it did in Sweden. For example, Danish women had been able to own whatever property they brought into their marriages since 1899. Nevertheless, the last fragments of men’s legal advantage in the family sphere disappeared with the new legislation also in these countries.

 Hilde Sandvik, history researcher at the University of Oslo

‘In Norway, the new law provided that family finances should be managed jointly by the two spouses,’ says Hilde Sandvik, history researcher at the University of Oslo.

The issue engaged the women’s movements across the Nordic borders.

‘At the political level, a special Scandinavian family law commission was established. In 1915, female representatives from Norway, Denmark and Sweden were appointed to the commission, and their inquiry paved the way for the new legislation,’ says Bente Rosenbeck, professor at the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen.

‘There weren’t many jobs’

In 1939, Sweden adopted another law of key importance. It prohibited employers from firing women on the grounds of engagement or marriage. Until then, it was common that women were forced to quit a job when they got married. Back then, many people thought that married women should not be working outside the home, since there was a risk they would push men out of the labour market. In Norway, which was in the midst of a recession, the Confederation of Trade Unions argued that married women should stay out of the men’s way in the labour market.
‘There weren’t many jobs, so it was a commonly held belief that only one person in the family should work. Consequently, married women stayed home,’ says Hilde Sandvik.
In Sweden, a commission was formed and asked to look closer at the position of women in the labour market. Karin Kock, Sweden’s first female professor of economics, carried out the first study of the gender distribution in the Swedish labour market. The commission found that women did not compete with men at all. Instead, they found that the Swedish labour market was highly segregated – men and women worked in different sectors. And if women had similar jobs as men, they had lower valued tasks and wages.

‘The results led to a change in direction, and Sweden became the first European country to prohibit employers from firing women on the grounds of engagement or marriage. This was a very important reform that had a tremendous effect on married women’s opportunities to participate in the labour market,’ says Kirsti Niskanen.

Debate on joint and individual taxation

The taxation issue was the next big challenge for the Nordic women’s movement. At the time, spouses paid taxes on their combined income, so-called joint taxation. This could make the tax liability so high it was hardly worth it for married women to work. Moreover, if both spouses worked outside the home, they often had to pay for childcare and a maid. Individual taxation changed this, there were no longer any financial argument for the old model of family providing.

‘There was an intense debate on joint and individual taxes in the 1960s. The housewives’ association and a successful action group called “Rädda familjen” fought for joint taxation, just as parts of the national Social Democratic women’s group,’ says Kirsti Niskanen.

 Bente Rosenbeck, Bente Rosenbeck, professor at the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen

´The individual taxation meant a change of system. It put an end to the house wife era. Women’s professional work became a rational choice, both from the family’s and the woman’s point of view, she continues.

The issue received attention in Denmark and Norway as well. In Norway, spouses gained the right to individual taxation in 1959. In Sweden and Denmark, laws regarding individual taxation were adopted in 1971. ‘As a result, married women’s finances were no longer tied to those of their husbands,’ says Bente Rosenbeck.
Since the issue was discussed across the Nordic region, each country could refer to what was going on in the other countries when making their points. This increased the opportunities to push for changes that in turn helped increase the gender equality.

Updated 14 February 2024