Feminist letter

29 november 2006

To all Feminists
from Gudrun Schyman
Nov 26th 2006

We are facing the challenge of enduring climate change. In a stream of reports presented over the past few years, the issue has been fiercely debated as to how grave the situation actually is, yet it is (at last!) becoming increasingly evident to a growing number of people that our consumer patterns are to blame for present developments. In answer to the question -what type of consumer behaviour do we need to change, I heard a scientist summarise this brilliantly, steaks, cars and housing (all three start with “b” in Swedish). The inhabitants of the western world eat more, have more living space and a greater number of them drive cars than ever before. Food production, heating and transports to and fro generate a steadily increasing amount of rubbish and effluents, a fact that need not seriously depress anyone too much, since it is perfectly possible to solve these problems that have been known for quite some time. ´Local solutions give rise to global solutions. Global solutions produce effects locally. If there is a will, there is a way. The problem is not the lack of technology, but the lack of long term sustainable energy and environmental policies.

The political climate is also changing. Whether the indoor climate in government offices feels warmer these days it’s difficult to say, but is very clear indeed that there is a chill wind blowing for many people without. Especially women – many in part-time employment and poorly paid – face sharp increases in unemployment contributions and since this coincides with lower levels of benefits, it is not surprising that many choose to opt out of their union. The number of women in part time employment and who use most of the parental leave will probably increase concurrently with the introduction of child care allowances. The wage gap between women and men will increase and eventually we shall see yet more women trying to cope on an inadequate old age pension.

This particular climate change should not come as a surprise to anyone since the alliance who won the election in fact told us in advance what they intended to do. In the government’s declaration of policy speech in Parliament their agenda was elaborated, but there was a passage that attracted little attention, maybe because the declaration was long and this particular passage came close to the end, when the attention of many listeners was slackening. Once again. But this is how it went:

“Let me therefore make it quite clear that everything this government intends to put into operation will be inspired by a few essential values. These constitute a value-based cement that will strengthen the work initiated by the government during its term of office. …..Individuals and families will have more of a say and will be expected to assume responsibility for themselves and for others ….. Basic security and a sense of community lie in a strong civil society involving organised social activities, sports organisations, churches, other religious communities and voluntary organisations. The solidarity inherent in the public welfare systems is complementary to a society characterised by a greater degree of caring for fellow human beings, of responsibility and voluntary efforts….”

So the solidarity represented by public welfare systems are to be complementary. Not basic. Complementary to what? Complementary to the welfare each individual or each family manages to create by their own efforts? Complementary to charity inspired in fellow human beings? Complementary to welfare and care produced by voluntary organisations, churches and other religious communities? This must mean that we have to rebuild the social security and welfare systems that are organised in the way that everyone contributes in solidarity to the financing so that everyone can draw on the common funds when need arises, even if some individuals have not been able to contribute all that much. Universal systems common to all must be exchanged for individual systems. I keep my money (tax reductions) and insure myself and my family in the way I choose and which suits my own financial situation(=complementary private sickness and unemployment insurance, retirement schemes, etc). The responsibilities of society are delegated to the individual and the family, who through their “free” choices in each separate (deregulated)welfare area have more of a say(= old age care cheques, equal sums for each pre-school and school pupil irrespective of needs, child care allowances to supplement the children’s hours at church etc).

This development follows the direction taken within the European Union, play down public responsibility, focus on family responsibilities. Structural problems become individual failures. Issues concerned with power structures in society are reduced to family councils. The consequences in Europe are amongst other things reduced rates of child birth (how many women have got themselves a good education in order to become traditional housewives?), a growing demographic problem and economic stagnation. In other words, ill-advised economic policy, to say the least, but there seem to be quite a number of people who are prepared to pay a good deal in order to defend old patriarchal positions.

These changes do not further the interests of women (as a group). Every time women have strengthened their positions it has been because they have left their kitchens and together put up a fight for their rights. This was true when universal suffrage was the issue a century ago and will probably be true also in the future. Financial independence – not to be financially dependent on a man – should be an objective for feminists across all imaginable borders, geographical, national and political.

Yet if women (as a group) are to achieve independence (in every sense of the word) we must also understand that we need a declaration of independence for the political force that is necessary in order to reach our objective. I mean (once again) that we must continue to uphold feminism as an ideological base for political organising. We are all too well aware of the inability of traditional politics to deal with issues concerned with women’s rights and (other) structural discrimination.

There was no hesitation whatsoever that F! would carry on at the two-day meeting held last weekend. Some 80 enthusiastic members from all over the country discussed the election campaign, the results and future organisational activity. In spite of the election figures everyone agreed that the presence of F! not only constituted an educational campaign of considerable importance, but that it also meant that other parties felt obliged to address feminist issues. We can see now that F!’s idea of a gender equality fund for the purpose of equalising levels of pay between sectors dominated by women and men respectively, has been taken up by Trade Union organisations in the current pay talks. And it is at this point that unity falls apart, that solidarity is no longer self-evident. The male dominated Metal Workers Union uses “its own” women to defend its position in the dispute over raising women’s wages, even though it is the men who are unwilling to contribute to the funding. Women can be useful in many ways, also to strengthen one’ own power position.

F! gained legitimacy as a political force through the election campaign and the number of members has increased. Many joined during the months leading up to the election and when the result was as disappointing as it turned out, even more felt the urge to join. Defeat has a mobilising effect. F! now enters a new phase, strengthens its base and local activity and continues its wide spread efforts to enlighten people about feminism. We turn neither right nor left, but as the educational associations say – we don’t mind going in a circle (the Swedish word for a study group)!