The seriousness of their efforts is made clear in two speeches, one by Monica Silvell from the Division of Gender Equality (2004), the other by Margareta Winberg as Minister for Gender Equality (2002).
In the Monica Silvell speech we are told:
That gender equality is an issue directly linked to economic and political democracy is a cornerstone of Swedish Government policy.
... Gender equality is a key to the future.
Margareta Winberg puts it this way:
gender equality is a fundamental factor in democracy ... Gender equality must therefore mainstream all aspects of our lives. This is the expressed opinion of the Swedish Parliament as well as the Swedish Government.
What, though, is meant by gender equality? How is it to be measured?
The answer is predictable. The Swedes are following liberal orthodoxy and taking autonomy to be the key good in life. Therefore, equality means men and women having the same amount of autonomy. This is thought to require women having financial independence from men, and therefore having careers and equal earnings.
According to Monica Silvell:
The basis of independence, choices of one's own and thus gender equality, is money in the hand, in the wallet, in the handbag. The fact that Swedish women are able to support themselves and can live their own lives, if they want to, is the result of the struggles of many generations of women.
Adding to this, Margareta Winberg states:
First I would like to describe my fundamental views as regards the gender equality issue, the rights of both men and women to shape their lives ...
...One of the basic reasons for women in Sweden today having a relatively equal status is that we over time have worked for all women being able to have the opportunity to support themselves from their own employment. Our own income! Own money - our freedom.
This, then, is the starting point for the radical remaking of Swedish society. I believe it to be deeply flawed.
First, it is simply assumed that autonomy is the higher level good around which society should be reorganised. You might think that a community would choose to recognise, as important goods, the behaviours and qualities which allow it to continue as an ongoing tradition, but this is not the case when autonomy alone is selected as the basis of social organisation.
And does independence really so outrank other goods such as wisdom or virtue that we are to be thought superior if we are independent but foolish and vicious? Is it really true that a woman is unequal to me if I provide for her but she is more wise and virtuous and contributes more in service to the community she loves?
Then there are the "hidden" consequences of making autonomy the organising principle of society. If the aim is to make people autonomous, then impediments to the self-determining, self-creating individual have to be removed. This means removing whatever is important, but unchosen, in individual identity, including anything which we receive as tradition or as part of our biological nature. However, it is often the very things most important to us which have become hardwired as part of our biological nature or which have endured as part of a tradition.
Therefore, making autonomy the organising principle of society leads to the odd situation in which individuals are to be "liberated" from the very things which matter most to them. The two most obvious examples are our ethnic identity, which is based on tradition and ancestry and which is therefore illegitimate under the terms of autonomy, and our sex identity as men and women, which is a "biological destiny" and therefore, once again, considered illegitimate.
So even if autonomy really is a good in certain circumstances (which it is), it's unwise to make it the organising principle of society as there is an ultimately destructive logic to the way it unravels.
We could also question the assumption made by the Swedes that it is a career which brings autonomy to a woman. It's true that in the traditional family a woman depends on her husband to provide a family income. In a career, however, a woman will depend on a superior to keep her position, or for promotions or pay. It's often the case that this kind of dependence is more stressful than the domestic one as it's based on performance criteria and office politics, rather than an intimately personal relationship.
A career, too, locks up much of our time; we have to run our lives according to someone else's schedule and we have to perform tasks as instructed by our superiors. For many people this does not equate to freedom, especially in comparison to home life. This explains in part the reluctance of many young people to commit themselves to steady employment and it explains too the preference of many people to be self-employed. And there definitely exist women who, having had the experience of paid employment, prefer the more traditional stay-at-home role.
Which brings me to a contradiction in the autonomy principle. The idea of autonomy is to allow us to "write our own script". The Swedes have asserted that in order to be autonomous women must be financially independent and earn the same amount as men. However, this in itself is a restriction on a woman's autonomy as it means that she cannot choose to stay at home to care for her own children. This is especially true in Sweden where the level of tax is so high and the tax system so favours dual income families that it's not possible for most women to spend more than the allotted time at home with their children. So rather than "writing her own script" a woman in Sweden is likely to have only the choice of a career, due to financial necessity or social pressure.
Autonomy also does a strange thing to equality. It turns equality into sameness. Monica Silvell recognises this in her speech, noting that the effect of the "sex role debate" in Sweden was that:
The old view of men and women complementing one another was replaced by the notion that the sexes were basically similar.
If men and women are going to occupy exactly the same roles at home and at work, then men and women will be assumed to be similar in their natures. If there have been differences in the past, these will be assumed to be socially constructed rather than natural. Monica Silvell is also upfront about this consequence of autonomy theory:
The government must regard "male" and "female" as social constructions, i.e. patterns of behaviour determined by a person's upbringing and culture, by economic conditions, power structures and political ideology.
Note that Monica Silvell places the terms male and female in scare quotes, as if their real existence is to be questioned. This scepticism toward the reality of sex differences brings Swedish society into conflict with two significant forces, namely science and heterosexuality.
Heterosexuality is based, after all, on an appreciation of gender difference. Can we really love the feminine qualities of a woman and then doubt their real existence?
Modern science, too, has more than adequately confirmed the basis for naturally existing gender difference, both in terms of hormones and differences in the structure of the male and female brain.
Finally, there's the issue of patriarchy. The Swedes are convinced that gender was constructed as an act of patriarchal dominance. The masculine role, assumed to be more autonomous, is identified as the superior one, with women being limited to an inferior role. Margareta Winberg complains, for instance, about:
the social structure that keeps separate and segregates the sexes, women and men, and which tells us:-that the norm is men, and women are the exception-that men are superior and women are inferior-that men have great power and women have little power.
Monica Silvell warns:
we must be aware of the existence of a gender-based power structure that makes women subordinate to men.
But this argument has its own problems. First, it does exactly what Margareta Winberg doesn't want to it to do - it makes the male role the superior, socially desirable one. It means that women have to align themselves to the masculine in order to be considered equal, whilst men somehow have to be persuaded (against their best interests presumably) to share in the inferior feminine pursuits in order to make things even.
Second, it leads to the view that men traditionally were set against women, and that the patriarchal structure of society led men as a superior class to enact violence against women as an inferior class.
Monica Silvell writes:
Men's violence against women is largely an expression of the imbalance of power that prevails in the relationship between women and men. Thus, preventing men's violence against women is a gender equality issue of great importance.
Margareta Winberg contributes this claim:
This power and gender structure is also the reason why men in the present society are sexually harassing, abusing and exploiting, raping and exposing females to other kinds of physical and psychological violence.
This view of domestic and sexual violence leads to inflated claims of female victimisation; it leads to false portrayals of the most mainstream of men as being responsible for violence; it establishes an unhealthy degree of suspicion and resentment toward men among some young women; and it misjudges the motivations of men in their traditional roles of protecting and providing for their families.
The view of men and of masculinity arrived at via patriarchy theory is a road to nowhere, as is the larger Swedish effort to remodel their society along the lines of gender equality. The Swedish understanding of gender equality is too flawed at a fundamental level to maintain social stability over time. There is reason enough to reject the policy in principle and to find more worthy goals to guide the organisation of Swedish society.