Credit: sean dreilinger on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)–In a 2002 article, “Gender Equality: A Key to Our Future?,” Lena Sommestad, a women’s historian and then Swedish Social Democratic minister of the environment, explained why Sweden’s “gender equality policies built on a strong tradition of pronatalist and supportive social policies” were relevant to a Europe faced with declining birth rates and aging populations.
According to her, Sweden‘s combination of pronatalism and feminism accounted for the success of Swedish pronatalist policies. She urged feminists elsewhere to overcome suspicion of pronatalism. By enabling women to both work and have children, Sweden maintained high birth rates, unlike countries that supported traditional views of women’s roles. Extensive state intervention was needed to support families with children. Noting that “women’s access to the labor market appears to be a prerequisite for higher birth rates,” she observed that Sweden gives no benefits to women as wives, but only as workers. She argued that “countries that do not stigmatize non-marital cohabitation have a better chance of maintaining higher fertility rates. Since there is a decline in the marriage rate all over the industrialized world with later and fewer marriages and more divorces, non-marital births are needed to compensate.”
Sommestad attributed the origins of Sweden‘s population policies to Gunnar and Alva Myrdal’s work in the 1930s. Sweden constitutes the paradigm of a society based on egalitarian, social democratic and pronatalist policies, and a radical view of the family. Sweden made a series of clear and logically consistent choices. It led the way to the creation and development of the modern welfare state with unequaled determination, consistency and coherence.
A New Synthesis
The Swedish total-fertility-rate birth rate had been generally declining from around 4 at the beginning of the century to below 2.0 in the 1930s, hitting a low of 1.7 in 1935. Before the Myrdals, pronatalism was largely the province of conservatives, who opposed contraception and attributed lower birth rates to the contamination of modern social ideas and the erosion of women’s traditional homemaker role. Reformers and leftists supported neo-Malthusianism; they believed that limiting population would advance social equality.
The Myrdals were the first to create a new synthesis that was not only consistent but synergistic with the Social Democrats’ economic and social policies. In the words of Allan Carlson, a student, but by no means an admirer, of the Myrdals: “The Myrdals successfully wrestled the population issue away from Swedish conservatives and nationalists and turned it towards the service of socialist goals. In a remarkable four-year period, they implemented a large share of their ideological program and helped transform the nature of the Swedish domestic state.” Carlson adds that “their socialist pronatalist program grew out of their independent work, without significant influence from other European sources.”
This was a uniquely Swedish experiment; the Myrdals were its intellectual architects as well as key political players in its development. In her book “Nation and Family,” Alva Myrdal wrote that dealing with the population question required “nothing less than a complete social redirection . . . A population program must work itself into the whole fabric of social life and must interpenetrate and be interpenetrated by all other measures of social change.”
Gunnar and Alva Myrdal‘s 1934 book “Kris i befolkningsfragan” (Crisis in the Population Question) launched the debate over the Swedish population question and made it a national issue. The book became a bestseller.
Population Policy Central Issue
As a result of “Kris,” population policy became an important issue in Sweden and a central issue for the Social Democrats. In 1935, Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson stated that it was the most serious issue facing Sweden. He appointed a Royal Population Commission of which Gunnar Myrdal was the leading member. The commission produced an impressive series of detailed reports that were followed up by legislation in 1937–38. This legislation included financial support for housing large families, prenatal care and subsidized delivery, a maternity bonus and marriage loans. It lifted the ban on contraception and prohibited dismissing women from employment for reasons of marriage, pregnancy or childbearing. In addition, women were given the right to a 12-week maternity leave. The commission reports were very much in the spirit of Gunnar Myrdal’s thinking. Of course, a shortage of money limited what could be done quickly.
There was a creative tension between the ideas of Gunnar Myrdal and Alva Myrdal. Gunnar Myrdal’s preoccupation was maintaining the Swedish birth rate. This justified radical changes in Swedish society that in any case Gunnar Myrdal, as a socialist, favored. Alva Myrdal’s major interest was not population policy but feminism. Her goal was the creation of full equality for women and the transformation of the family structure with greater emphasis on collective child rearing.
In the course of time, the stated goal of population policy in Sweden was largely superseded by the quest for full gender equality. Policies favoring gender equality helped sustain a relatively high birth rate. The rhetorical emphasis shifted from population policy to gender equality, but the two goals were really one, as Sommestad’s previous comments demonstrate.
From “The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do about Falling Birth Rates,” by Steven Philip Kramer. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”
Steven Philip Kramer is professor of grand strategy at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, National Defense University, in Washington, D.C. He was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center from 2010–11.
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