The Local: Sweden’s cash-strapped feminists hold house parties to lure voters

13 januari 2014

As the tiny Feminist Initiative party readies for its third stab at parliamentary seats despite nearly non-existent campaign funds, its co-founder Gudryn Schyman has launched a "house party" tour. Find 25 friends and a venue, and she'll show up free-of-charge to talk ideology.

Schyman has rows of potential voters in front of her. It’s her third house party this drab Thursday, with a fourth scheduled for the evening.

”At first I said I’d do evenings, then that I could do afternoon tea, and lunches. Now I’m doing breakfasts,” the veteran politician and former leader of the Left Party says. ”By the end, maybe we’ll have to have midnight mass and a night shift.”

She later tells The Local that her tour has taken her to addresses on Stockholm’s millionaire waterfront Strandvägen and the bourgeois villas of Gamla Enskede, but also to Tensta and other pockets of the badly-in-need-of-repairs Million Programme housing enclaves in the suburbs, marked by publicly-funded housing apartment blocs meant to house the working class during Sweden’s post-WW2 industrial boom.

In 2010, the upstart feminist party that Schyman helped found nearly a decade ago got 0.4 percent of the vote. That’s the equivalent of 24,000 voters – the population of Märsta, a satellite town roughly halfway between the capital and Uppsala. That challenge doesn’t faze Schyman; or perhaps the headline-grabbing politician knows never to admit that it does.

”We’ll get in this time. 2014 is when feminism gets its parliamentary breakthrough, in the Riksdag and the European parliament,” she tells The Local.

Feminism does not appear to be a hard sell to this particular crowd, but then they wouldn’t be here unless one of their friends had jumped on the opportunity to host a Gudrun Schyman house party. The campaign harnesses online social networks for ”IRL” (‘in real life’) gatherings.

At this particular meeting, hosted by Turteatern theatre in the Kärrtorp neighbourhood south of central Stockholm, a hipster current runs through the audience. There is a bleached mohawk, and a Chaplin hat. One woman has her hair tousled into a braid echoing the Yulia Tymoshenko braid, the jailed former Ukrainian prime minister, while a few seats away a young man sports a t-shirt and a scarf with black-and-white stripes that clash haphazardly.

 

Schyman has shunned the microphone, pulling herself into a straight posture and projecting her voice to the back bleachers. What follows is classic Schyman – a degree of showmanship laced with acerbic criticism of those who think ”Equality has gone too far”.

”Has it?” she muses and shows the audience a booklet from state agency Statistics Sweden that compares figures related to women and to men. ”This is a useful little book. Ask that person in what area we have achieved equality, look it up in this book. then you can go ‘Oh, really? But this book says…’

”You can’t have opinions about equality. There are facts, there is research,” Schyman continues. ”Anyone who says otherwise goes against our entire tradition of a knowledge-based society.”

Did Schyman just basically say that anti-feminists threaten the Enlightenment? It would appear so. Not everyone can be saved, she says. The real nay-sayers, the ones that huff and puff? ”Don’t even try,” she tells a young member of the audience.

Feminist Initiative (Feministiskt initiativ – Fi) started as a political movement in 2003 before eventually morphing into a fully-fledged political party. The so far tepid support doesn’t frighten Schyman. One-issue parties have succeeded in the past.

”The Greens came into parliament at their third attempt,” she notes, before admitting that she was guilty of bullying the environmentalists when they first tried to enter the political stage. At the time, Schyman was a Left Party politician. In retrospect, she says there was no difference between her and members of the conservative parties when it came to belittling the Greens.

”We said ‘ugly cardigans, ugly beards’,” she recalls. ”And we said we don’t need any Greens because our party includes environmental concerns in its party programme.”

Nowadays, however, the Greens are Sweden’s third largest party and they have advanced the environmental agenda countrywide. That is what Schyman wants for Fi.

”The big parties will spend 40 to 60 billion kronor ($6.1 to 9.2 billion) on campaigning this year, we’re hoping to reach 500,000,” she says, before thanking Abba founder Benny Andersson for a recent donation to the party.

Thus the feminists have gone grassroots. It’s not just the house parties, but supporters can join the actual political party via SMS. And it is hoping the supporters that Schyman attracts on her house party road show will help with the nitty gritty – printing ballots and handing them out at polling stations on the big: parliamentary elections in September. The party doesn’t get any campaign funding support from the state as it hasn’t climbed over the four-percent barrier to get into parliament.

They would have to add more than seven Märstas to its voter base to get that far.

She has scribbled, dramatically and furiously, on a white board throughout the first half of the two-hour session. Parliament has turned into a crow’s nest of smeared ink, the party names listed on the right side.

”You forgot one,” an audience member points out.

”A Freudian repression,” Schyman jokes, adding the initials SD to the board – the Sweden Democrats.

”One country, one people, one church, one state, one sex… and an add-on,” she says raising an eyebrow. ”The Sweden Democrats offer a half-hour indictment of women’s rights at (political conference) Almedalen, but the only thing the media reports on is that they want women to have the right to work full-time.”

Schyman says the minority, far-right party has spent so much time and effort rebranding itself that the fight over what words to use gets in the way of the real debate about what the Sweden Democrats want, including what they want for women.

”They are the only party that wants married couples to be taxed as a unit (sambeskattning), despite the tax reform in the 1970s being widely credited as a huge step forward for women’s labour participation. And they are the only Swedish party that wants to curtail abortion rights,” she says.

”Hatred of women, sexism, racism, and homophobia go hand in hand,” Schyman later tells The Local in reference to the Sweden Democrats. ”That’s why we need a party that describes society’s complexity.”

Whatever happens next autumn, Schyman is hoping for an election campaign that isn’t as ”boring” as the last one, later adding that ”bloc politics are embarrassing”.

”Where was the ideology?! The vision? The talk about what kind of society we wanted to live in? Not just a battle about selling yourself as the best public administrator of the budget,” she says.

”Is that the meaning of life? Are you going to lie there in you coffin and think to yourself, ‘At least I balanced the budget’.”

Ann Törnkvist (ann.tornkvist@thelocal.com)

The Local. Sweden’s News in English.