Gender quotas and women’s political agency – Sweden


An article written by Maria Jansson*

A. Introduction

In 1921 Swedish women could for the first-time vote on the same conditions as men. The long struggle for women’s suffrage in Sweden, which was the last Nordic country to grant women the right to vote, include activism, petitions and demonstrations. However, the story also displays strong resistance and arguments against women’s vote which resemble the rhetoric in many other European countries.[1]

In the 1921 elections, one woman was also elected to the parliament’s first chamber. However, it took until 1947 before the first woman took a seat in the cabinet. Research about the pioneer women in the cabinet reveals how they had to struggle against sexism and male conspiracies to get rid of them.[2] This very brief history tells us that women’s presence in political assemblies does not come automatically. Suffrage did not result in hordes of women entering parliament and taking seats in the cabinet. It also tells us that women’s presence is not enough, the conditions under which women are present are equally important. Do women have access to the prestigious and powerful positions on equal conditions as men? Can women act politically from the platforms they are elected to on the same conditions as men? These are questions we need to answer in order to understand women’s political agency beyond numbers.

B. Quotas in Sweden

The discussion about political quotas to increase women’s representation in the 1980s as the number of women in parliament did not increase. In 1987 a public committee report on the topic was published. The debate about gender quotas was occasionally intense, and the arguments against quotas were similar to the ones heard against women’s franchise. Quotas will result in that not the one most suited and merited will be elected, is perhaps the most common argument.[3]

However, in the 1991 elections for parliament, there was a decrease in women elected for parliament. As a reaction to this a “secret feminist network” called the “Supportstockings” (Sw: Stödstrumporna) was formed. The name alluded to the Danish organization Red stockings, which was a common way of speaking of second-wave organized women in Sweden in the 1970s. When two members of the Support Stockings – journalist Maria-Pia Böethius and literature professor and former women’s activist Ebba Witt-Brattström – were interviewed on a popular TV-show they revealed the network and threatened to form a women’s party, unless the already existing political parties would see to it that more women were elected. This pushed several political parties to introduce a voluntary quota on their lists for parliament in the 1994 elections.[4]

There are many different forms of quotas used in the world – some of them are legislated and mandatory, others are legislated but voluntary, and finally a third category, such as the Swedish quotas which are completely voluntary and independent of legislation and used only if the parties have decided internally to do so. Further, quotas differ in how they are designed, which in turn depends on the design of the voting system (e.g. individual votes, or party lists etc.).[5] 

In Sweden, votes are cast on party lists. This means that the political parties are gatekeepers when it comes to elections. To be elected you need to be nominated as a candidate on the party’s list. This means that the nomination process is in the hands of parties. Research has shown that ideas about merits and competence in the parties rest on male norms, and men’s networks have functioned to put men on the lists.[6] In that respect, the voluntary quotas adopted by most parties has been key to increase the number of women. Parties to the right, such as the Neoliberal/Conservative party called Moderaterna, the conservative Christian Democrats and the right-wing populist, xenophobic Sweden Democrats have not adopted quotas.

In the elections after the Support Stockings’ threat, the share of women MPs has been over 40 percent in the Swedish parliament. At the moment, there are 46 percent women in the Riksdag. In local parliaments (municipalities) the share of women is slightly lower – 43 percent. Looking beyond numbers there is still a gender division in politics, both horizontally and vertically. Women are more active in social issues, health care and culture, while there are more men when it comes to infrastructure, defense, and trade.[7] There is also a difference when it comes to top positions in municipalities as well as to chairs in parliamentary committees.[8]

C. Women’s conditions as elected

Beside horizontal and vertical gender division the conditions for women and men in politics differ. A recent survey showed that women, especially younger women and women of foreign descent are more likely to be exposed to threats and harassments connected to their political positions.[9] Further the #metoo movement revealed the extent of sexual harassment which is prevalent also in sphere of political parties and political bodies.[10]

In addition, research by professors Hanna Bäck and Marc Debus[11] has studied seven European parliaments and found that women speak less than men and especially when the topic of the debate is coded as masculine. They also found that within party groups female members of parliament take the floor less often when they are members of parties with many female representatives.

I think that these findings of continuous gender separation both horizontally and vertically and the division of speaking time indicates that gender equality is more than counting numbers, women’s presence must be complemented with analyzing the conditions for women’s political agency once elected, if one wants to understand the dynamics of gender in politics.


*Prof. Dr. Maria Jansson is Professor of Gender Studies at Örebro University, Sweden.

[1] Rönnbäck, Josefine, Politikens genusgränser: Den kvinnliga rösträttsrörelsen och kampen för kvinors politiska medborgarskap, 1902-1921, 2004.

[2] Hirdman, Yvonne, Det tänkande hjärtat: boken om Alva Myrdal, 2021; Karlsson, Gunnel, En kvinna iregeringen Statsrådet Ulla Lindströms liv och arbete, 2020.

[3] see for an overview of arguments against quotas: Dahlerup, Drude/Freidenvall, Lenita, Judging gender quotas: predictions and results, Policy & Politics 38(3)/2010.

[4] Eduards, Maud, Förbjuden handling: om kvinnors organsiering och feministisk teori, 1. Aufl. 2002; Törnqvist, Maria, Könspolitik på gränsen: debatterna om varannan damernas och Thamprofessurerna, 2006; Thomsson, Ulrika Myrvang, Systerskapets strategier. Om kvinnopolitiska praktiker i svensk demokrati, 2015.

[5] Dahlerup, Drude/Freidenvall, Lenita, Quotas as a ‘fast track’ to equal representation for women: Why Scandinavia is no longer the model, International feminist journal of politics 7(1)/2005; see also Gender Quotas Database for information on quotas around the globe.

[6] Freidenvall, Lenita, Vägen till Varannan damernas: om kvinnorepresentation, kvotering och kandidaturval i svensk politik 1970-2002, 2006.

[7] Säll, Line, Kvinnor har det tuffare än män inom politiken, Jämställdhetsmyndigheten 2019:7,, (29.04.2021).

[8] Säll, Line, Kvinnor har det tuffare än män inom politiken, Jämställdhetsmyndigheten 2019:7,, (29.04.2021).

[9] Erikson, Josefina/Josefsson, Cecilia, Jämställdhet i riksdagen – en enkätstudie. Sveriges riksdag, 2017.

[10] Regnér, Åsa,, ”I maktens korridorer ser vi oss över axeln”, Aftonbladet, 18. November 2017.

[11] Bäck, Hanna/Debus, Marc, When do women speak? A comparative analysis of the role of gender in legislative debates, Political Studies, 67(3)/2019; Bäck, Hanna/Baumann, Markus/Debus, Marc/Müller, Jochen, The unequal distribution of speaking time in parliamentary‐party groups, Legislative Studies Quarterly 44(1)/2019.

Suggested Citation: Jansson, Maria, Gender quotas and women’s political agency: Sweden, jean-monnet-saar 2021, DOI: 10.17176/20220523-104307-0

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