Graffiti of Gudrun Schyman in Linnégatan, Uppsala, Sweden, March 4, 2014.
Barbro Björnemalm / Flickr

On the evening of Sunday, September 14, young women voters were popping corks across Sweden after general election exit polls projected that the Feminist Initiative (FI) party had passed the four percent threshold required to win a parliamentary seat. In the end, their celebrations proved premature, with final counts apportioning the FI some 3.1 percent of the vote. But the surprisingly strong performance of their party -- headed by Gudrun Schyman, a former contestant of the Swedish version of Dancing with the Stars, who’d campaigned alongside ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Pharrell Williams (of “Blurred Lines” notoriety) -- was enough to win the FI headlines the world over the next day.

Founded in 2005, the FI aims to put gender issues squarely and explicitly at the top of Sweden’s political agenda. In particular, Schyman says, she founded the party to tackle pay inequality in Sweden -- where women now earn 86 percent as much as men for the same work, a mere two-percentage-point improvement over the past decade. Schyman’s message has apparently resonated across Sweden: since January, its membership has shot from 1,500 to 18,000, giving it the fourth-largest roster among Swedish political parties. In May, it became the first-ever feminist party to send a representative to the European Parliament, garnering over five percent of the vote nationwide and more than 30 percent in some of the country’s most left-wing districts in cities such as Malmö. Among those who voted for the FI in those elections, some 70 percent were under age 25 -- making it a truly singular phenomenon in global politics.

Prior to this month’s general election, Schyman had predicted that the FI’s momentum would be politically contagious worldwide: “When people see that this is possible, a lot of other countries will follow for the simple reason that a lot of other cultures have the same problems.” But in the United States, at least, FI­-style calls for more politically institutionalized approaches to gender issues are more apt to provoke derision than serious debate -- this despite the New Republic’s recent headline that feminism had “conquered the culture,” after pop superstar Beyoncé danced at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony in front of a huge backlit banner proclaiming her to be FEMINIST.

But American culture is one thing and its politics quite another. From the Supreme Court’s recent reining in of reproductive rights with its Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision in June, in which it exempted family-owned corporations from paying for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act, to last week’s failure in the Senate, for the third time since 2012, to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was meant to close the gap in pay between women and men, the United States’ political institutions have shown themselves uniquely resistant to tackling gender issues on a national scale.

American women in turn, seeing their concerns sidelined again and again in Washington, seem to have turned away from politics. Despite the fact that American women vote at higher rates than men, repeated studies have confirmed that they trail men in other measures of political activity, such as donating to candidates (although recent research indicates this trend is mitigated among women represented by a female senator). Instead, they have trained their focus on nonpolitical means of boosting gender equity. Turning the personal-is-political mantra of second-wave feminism on its head, U.S. feminism has taken a marked turn toward lifestyle issues, with a new focus on empowering women within the political and economic frameworks that already exist.

A glance at one of the United States’ many feminist blogs will reveal endless tips on how to develop an empowered body image or “lean in” to one’s career; endless introspection on how to cope with the travails of motherhood and the “second shift”; endless microexaminations of the power dynamics at play, for example, in how men and women behave on public transport or online dating sites. Much of this lifestyle feminist writing assumes that if women can simply secure well-paid jobs and inform men of the myriad ways sexism permeates society, they can increase gender equity.

Sweden, too, is no stranger to lifestyle feminism. In 2010, one couple made a splash in the local press by refusing to publicly reveal the sex of their two-and-a-half-year-old child, Pop, so that Pop would grow up free of gendered expectations. In 2012, the country saw the official introduction of the gender-neutral pronoun hen to the country’s online National Encyclopedia, a tide of gender neutrality that has also touched Swedish bowling leagues, restrooms, preschools, publishing houses, and much more.

Unlike in the United States, however, in Sweden, lifestyle feminism functions as the long tail of -- not a substitute for -- institutionalized political gender equality. The Swedish constitution incorporates a formal sex equality measure. And although the FI is the first explicitly feminist party in Sweden (in all of Europe, in fact), every center-left party in the country supports the welfare state that has made Sweden the pride of the EU when it comes to family policies that enhance gender equality. Even the centrist Liberal Party has added feminism to its platform, campaigning under the slogan “Feminism without socialism” in the recent general election.

Although Europe has no shortage of welfare states, what differentiates Sweden’s model from, say, Germany’s conservative male-breadwinner model or the United Kingdom’s liberal model is its emphasis on encouraging a two-career family structure. The country runs a flexible parental-leave scheme that grants mothers and fathers a combined 16 months of paid leave, with use-it-or-lose-it allowances of two months for each parent and 12 months that can be shared; both parents may use their leave simultaneously if desired. Fathers now take some 24 percent of all parental leave, much more than in most other EU countries, and receive tax incentives if they take more.

Sweden also runs a system of universal, high-quality subsidized child care that has attracted an enrollment of 95 percent of children between ages three and six. Parents who do not enroll their children in day care between ages one and three also receive a monthly stipend. Finally, to adapt to changing family structures, the country has recently set up the Committee on Financial Cooperation Between Separated Parents to tweak these welfare provisions as needed to support the sharing of child care between divorced parents.

As a result of these measures, as of 2012, the country had the largest proportion of working mothers in the European Union, with Swedish women working an average of five fewer hours per week than men, the smallest differential in the EU. In fact, at 3.1 percent of GDP, the country boasts one of the EU’s highest shares of public spending on family benefits and a gender pay gap of 15.8 percent, an improvement on the European average of 16.2 percent. It also has one of the EU’s lowest child poverty rates and one of the world’s highest rankings for child well-being in 2007. Swedes overall report a life satisfaction of 7.4 on a scale of 1 to 10, higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 6.6, with Swedish women reporting even higher levels than men -- 7.7 compared with 7.1.

Despite these outstanding results, though, even the most zealous feminists in the United States have so far failed to take Schyman’s lead and establish their own feminist political parties. That reticence certainly reflects activists’ awareness of the many impediments to importing FI-style politics to the United States.

For one, there are the demographic issues. Sweden’s largely homogeneous population hovers under ten million, whereas the United States’ much more diverse population tops 300 million. Such diversity and size make collective-action problems bigger for all U.S. political organizers, feminist or otherwise.

Then there are the differences in the two democracies’ institutional design. Sweden’s party-list parliamentary system fragments political power and forces the larger parties to build coalitions in order to govern. This, in turn, amplifies the voices of smaller groups such as the FI. Even if the FI lacks delegates in parliament, it will be able to contribute to public debates -- particularly now that, having surpassed 2.5 percent of the vote, it is entitled to public financing for the first time. The United States’ terminally gridlocked two-party system, on the other hand, requires far more consensus to bring political proposals into mainstream debate. Politicians tend to see public campaign financing as uncompetitive, turning instead to private fundraising. This leads to a political-economy equilibrium between private economic interests and legislators that functions to restrict the political agenda.

It is this political-economy equilibrium that has proved most effective in turning American feminists away from political engagement and toward lifestyle issues. For example, the activist Johanna Brenner has chronicled how second-wave feminists viewed Swedish-style welfare programs aimed at socializing the work of child care as fundamental to the emancipation of women. In 1971, these feminists did manage to secure legislation for a federally funded universal day-care program. U.S. President Richard Nixon apparently viewed the implicit redistribution of political power and wealth embedded in such a program as too extreme and promptly vetoed the bill. As Washington’s neoliberal orientation solidified over the following decades, feminists moved toward lifestyle issues and cultural activism in order to adapt to harsh political realities.

The consequences of political disenchantment have proved enduring. The United States remains the only advanced democracy to lack any provision for paid parental leave. Huge gaps yawn between women at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: in 2012, the poverty rate among families headed by single mothers was around 33 percent for white women, 47 percent for black women, and 49 percent for Hispanic women. Meanwhile, thanks to the post-second-wave emphasis on equal labor rights over social welfare, high-performing and affluent women enjoy greater opportunities than ever before. For instance, women now hold five percent of CEO positions and 14.3 percent of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies (although these gains have fallen disproportionately to white women).

New platforms such as Twitter are mainstreaming marginalized voices in U.S. feminism’s conversations, particularly of black and other intersectional feminists -- sometimes to the consternation of the lifestyle wing. (In February, for instance, The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg wrote an article titled “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in which she wondered, “Whose movement is it?”) Further, young millennials, who have grown up being told (and believing) that their opportunities are substantively equal to those of their male peers, are increasingly politically activated as they begin to plan for and experience maternity and are surprised by the career vulnerability and penalties that tend to accompany it.

Bringing feminism into mainstream American politics will certainly require a coalition that cuts across many different groups. But Sweden’s FI has shown that simply exercising citizenship rights can, at minimum, help bring gender issues to the forefront of debate at the highest levels of politics. Young Americans may have heard from their country’s current feminist in chief that “girls run the world.” And now they have to do it.

  • SAMANTHA EYLER is a freelance writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She writes a fortnightly column on feminism and gender issues at the digital magazine Role Reboot.
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