Women, Politics and Policies of Equality in Europe

5.1 Introduction


What is the position of women in politics in the member countries of the European Union? What are the differences between European countries when looking at women's participation in political life at the national and local levels? What kind of strategies have been developed in different European countries in order to promote equality between women and men through public policies?

In this chapter we will analyze the situation of women in politics in four of the Member States of the European Union and in Norway. In addition, we will look at the role of the state policies in the promotion of equality between the sexes. We will start by looking at historical developments and statistics in these countries in order to give a general picture that will help to understand some of the difficulties that women encounter when participating in politics. We will also look at some of the solutions that have been successfully used to overcome them. However, our aim is to go beyond quantitative questions and statistical data. We will also ask more qualitative questions concerning the possibilities that women have to transform the political agenda and to influence the conditions of political decision-making. These questions lead us to the problematization of the whole notion of politics: what is politics, how is politics and the political arena defined? In this context, the notions of "politics" and "political" are not regarded as fixed entitities, and more attention is paid to the processes of politicization: how are different questions and spheres of life politicized, how does something become political.

"Personal is political" has been the famous slogan of the women's movement in Europe and the USA since the sixties. The new women's movements have questioned the traditional way of defining politics as an activity that takes place on the premises of public power, in the government and Parliament, in the municipal councils and boards. They have also questioned the split between the public and the private spheres that has very often been regarded as a division between men's and women's lives, and at the same time, between political and non-political. Women's movements have pointed out that traditional notions of politics often exclude issues crucial to women's lives, and they have introduced to the political agenda questions concerning for example sexuality and reproduction (see also chapter 1.4.5.). One example of this politicization of "private" issues is that in the seventies, in countries like France, Norway and Finland, women's movements have played an important role in the adoption of laws legalizing free abortion.

However, although new women's movements emerged in nearly all of the Western European countries in the sixties or at the beginning of seventies, there are important differences in the formulation of their policies and strategies as well as in their relation to the state. In the Nordic countries, most of the women's organizations have trusted the state as an ally in the feminist cause, and their aim has been to change the institutions from within. Many activists in the women's or equality movements during that time have later worked in different levels of public bureaucracy as "state feminists" or "femocrats".

Two illustrative examples of the differences between women's or equality movements founded in 60s and 70s can be seen in the cases of Association 9 in Finland and the feminist movements in France. Association 9 was founded in 1966 to "fight against the limits on women's and men's lives" and to "change the existing social division of sex roles and of labour to be more just and more functional". The Association fought e.g. for an extensive system of municipal day care centres and for free abortion. Both women and men participated in the activities of Association 9; it fiercely opposed the idea of separate action for women and men.

As Anne Holli points out, Association 9, despite its radical basis, never opposed the State as an institution. For Association 9, the state was an important participant in the promotion of equality between women and men. One of the aims of the Association was to set up a permanent organ for sex equality. This was achieved in 1972 with the creation of the Council for Equality under the Prime Minister's Office (from 1986 onwards under the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health). When the founding of the Council was certain, Association 9 decided to cease its activities.

In the 70s, in the aftermath of the student radicalism of 1968, a new feminist movement emerged in France. At first the movement did not have any specific structure, but soon three main wings appeared: revolutionary feminism, syndicalist feminism, and egalitarian feminism. Of these three, revolutionary feminism was the most visible, and it is often labelled, especially abroad, as the French feminism.

As was true for Association 9 in Finland, the feminist movement in France was influenced by the leftist movement, especially the far left. However, as Mariette Sineau and Jane Jenson have pointed out, to influence state policies and legislation was never a primary goal for revolutionary feminism, and the most radical wing of the movement rejected participation in electoral politics altogether. Its main aim was to transform relations between women and men through cultural change and the construction of new social relations. Furthermore, it stressed the differences between women and men as well as the women-centered basis of women's activities.

However, in order to illustrate the different political strategies used by the women's movements, it is important to note that in France one part of the women's movement successfully fought for legal abortion throughout the 1970s. Using such strategies as mass demonstrations, petitions, public law-breaking and legislative lobbying, their role was crucial in having the abortion law adopted in 1979.

These examples from two European countries show how women's movements have not only influenced the traditional arenas of politics and the formation of state equality policies, but at the same time have also managed to bring new issues and perspectives to the political agenda, transforming the whole notion of politics. One important factor has also been the cooperation between independent women's organizations and women working inside the political parties, parliaments and local politics. The number of these networks functioning as arenas of cooperation for women coming from different backgrounds has increased during the 1980s and 1990s. They have played an important role in creating new forms of activities to promote equality between women and men - and to politicize issues (such as violence against women) that have been considered private matters without political importance.