"The Family in America"    Online Edition    [SwanSearch] 

Volume 21  Number 04


April 2007



Desperate Swedish Socialist Housewives

By Allan C. Carlson, Ph.D.

This essay will appear as a chapter in Allan Carlson’s forthcoming book, Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Crafted Family-Centered Economies...and Why They Disappeared (ISI Books), slated to appear in Autumn 2007.

The nation most often said to embody The Middle Way in modern socio-political affairs is Sweden.  In his popular 1936 book bearing this subtitle, journalist Marquis Childs describes a nation that “avoided” the immoderations of both capitalism and socialism, one that “evolved” between the extremes of collectivism and individualism.[1]

The Childs’ book highlights the founding of Koopertiva förbundet, or The Coöperative Union, in 1899.  In their battle against the corporate trusts, the coöperators sought “lower prices and higher quality” for common commodities, “to be obtained through distribution and, later, production for use instead of profit.”  They showed “passionate hatred of monopoly control,” out-competed capitalist enterprises in fields ranging from grain-milling to galoshes, and generally battled for a fair economic playing field.  Childs describes the system in action:

The Stockholm housewife comes to do her marketing [at KONSUM, the coöperators’ store] as she would in any private shop.  She has read in her newspaper an advertisement listing the day’s prices....If the housewife...is a member of the coöperative society, she presents her membership book to the clerk who enters in it the amount of her purchases....On the total amount of purchases for the year...[she] receives a dividend of 3 percent.[2]

This essay examines the ideal human type briefly featured by Childs in the above paragraph, the female coöperator, also known as the Swedish socialist housewife.  While engaging the Third Way attributes of the cooperatives, the socialist housewife of the early and mid-20th century also represented a remarkable defiance of both capitalist incentives and socialist ideology.  Concerning the former, unbridled capitalism has always sought to draw all able human beings into the labor market: man, woman, and child alike.  At least in the short and middle runs, the housewife represented the inefficient allocation of labor, an amateur generalist in a modern system based on specialization.[3]

Regarding socialist ideology, the dominant view of women’s role came from Frederick Engels.  Writing in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels underscored how “[b]y changing all things into commodities, [capitalism] dissolved all inherited and traditional relations and replaced time hallowed custom...by purchase and sale.”  Even the home became a place founded on commodification and exploitation, where the man represents “the bourgeois” and woman “the proletariat.”  Put another way, the “modern monogamous family is founded on the open or disguised domestic slavery of women” as housewives.  Engels concludes “that the emancipation of women is primarily dependent on the re-introduction of the whole female sex into the public industries”[4] and the end of the housewife as a bourgeois relic.  In the process, “the private household changes to a social industry” and the care of children “becomes a public matter.”[5]

However, an older socialist view also existed, which looked upon the housewife in a far more favorable way.  This orientation actually surfaced at the 1866 gathering of the First Socialist International in Geneva, where delegates approved a resolution calling for bans on the employment of women, suggesting that women’s liberation meant becoming housewives.  The measure reasoned that working women pressed down overall wage levels and displaced men; indeed, working women were the equivalent of strikebreakers.  Later socialists such as Clara Zetkin stressed women’s special gifts as wives and mothers.  Women deserved the vote so they could bring their maternal instincts to play in public policy.  Socialism should reinforce the dignity and value of the mother.[6]  At the 1889 Congress creating Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, delegates approved  measures along these lines. The clear sense of the inaugural party platform was that working class women would find liberation in and through their marriages and homes.[7]


These relatively generous views of the socialist housewife gained a special Swedish twist through the writings of Ellen Karolina Sofia Key.  An author on educational matters and an early social feminist, Key understood that any socialist embrace of the homemaker in the early 20th century required some fancy ideological footwork.  Among most progressive thinkers, the bourgeois housewife was a figure deserving contempt.  Key’s response was to summon forth “the new woman”: active, rational, serious, courageous, and strong… the super mother.

Key’s “new woman” had two theoretical sources.  The first was Charles Darwin.  Under “the religion of the past” [i.e., Christianity], there had been “the adoration of motherhood as divine mystery” seen most clearly in “the worship of the Madonna.”  This had now “been given back to the present by the doctrine of evolution, with that universal validity which the thought must possess to give again to culture a centre.”  Young girls began to understand “that their value as members of society depends essentially upon their value for the propagation of mankind” which turned their “erotic longing” into something “pure and beautiful.”[8]

Key’s second intellectual source for the “new woman” was Friedrich Nietzsche.  As she wrote: “The finest young girls of today are penetrated [sic!] by the Nietzschean idea, that marriage is the combined will of two people to create a new being greater than themselves.”  Praising both “eugenics” and “puericulture”—or the special protection of mother and child—Key lavished praise on the German philosopher, who “has the most profound conception of parenthood and education as the means whereby humanity will cross over the bridge of men of today to the superman.”  This summoning of the “supermother” to raise “super children” necessarily involved a strengthening of distinct gender roles.  As Key explained:

She will preserve upon a higher plane the old division of labour which made man the one who felled the game, fought the battles, made conquests, achieved advancement through victories; and which made woman the one who rendered the new domains habitable, who utilized the booty for herself and hers...all that of which woman’s ancient tasks as guardian of the fire and cultivator of the fields are beautiful symbols.[9]

All the same, Key ably wrapped this reactionary vision in progressive garb.  For example, she urged that “society” pay stay-at-home mothers a full, self-supporting wage.  Given the “degraded nature” of “present marriage conditions” which allowed “the degenerate, uneducated, [and] decrepit” to propagate, she said there should “be no sin, from the point of view of the race” if “the young, sound, pure-minded, and loving...become parents without marriage.”  Put another way, eugenic goals trumped the need for marriage.  She also praised modern sex education as a means for both men and women “to give the race an ever more perfect progeny.”[10]

All the same, Key’s main message was to promote motherhood.  The “higher development of mankind” required “that woman in ever more perfect manner shall fulfill what has hitherto been her most exalted task: the bearing and rearing of the new generation.”  She denounced “amaternalists” such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman who saw pregnancy and childrearing as obstacles to liberation.  Key stressed that a woman’s life was lived “most intensively and most extensively, most individually and most socially” and that she was “most free” when “in and with the physical and psychic exercise of the function of maternity.”  She saw the mother-child bond as “the root of altruism.”  The physical functions of motherhood were “the fundamental reasons” for the gendered division of labor.[11]

Nietzsche himself, Key reported, had declared that “[t]here will come a time when we shall have no other thought than education,” and he placed this charge directly in the hands of mothers.  “The mother who is an artist in education” allowed her child “full freedom” to explore the world under her close tutelage.  The new mother understood “the enormous significance of the first years, when the indispensable ‘training’ takes place.”  The new mother would “lead children out into nature,” encourage “their love of invention and their impulse to play,” tell instructive stories, and “quietly and gradually” initiate her children into the sexual “mystery”[!].  Indeed, such super-mothers stood as “the most splendid fruit” of the woman’s movement, guiding humankind toward a grand evolutionary destiny.[12]

Key also believed that human liberation moved on two tracks: “the emancipation movements of labouring men and of women.”  Men showing manliness held the ascendancy in regard to outward creative powers.  Women showing womanliness held “the ascendancy in regard to inward creative powers.”  Together, they could build a new order based on a new human type.  The sociopolitical goal was this “higher cultivation of the race.”  Toward such an end, “the service of mother must receive the honour and oblation that the state now gives to military service.”  This was the central policy goal of Key’s maternalist socialism.[13]

In 1904, the Swedish Social Democratic Women’s League introduced a monthly magazine, Morgonbris (translated as “Morning Breeze”).  Ellen Key’s influence on the publication was immediate and profound.  As the inaugural issue proclaimed: “There is a close bond between Ellen Key’s ideal goals and the movement growing among working women, in the quest for a higher womanhood.”  Under editor Rut Gustavsson, Morgonbris “sought to shape a new ideal woman, who was not the pathetic home slave nor the weary factory worker, but almost a super-woman of the Nietzschean sort.”[14]

Illustrations for the journal featured muscular, beautiful women, “wild and powerful,” hair tossing in the wind, surrounded by swarms of healthy, happy children.  Articles emphasized women’s role as home educators, with a particular emphasis on the outdoors and nature.  In 1926, Morgonbris editorialized that in “a capitalist state,” a married woman ought to have the right to employment on terms equal to that of men.  However, “in a socialist state this will not be necessary.”  Indeed, the true goal of socialism was to achieve “the protection of women and children,” which among other things meant keeping them out of the factories.  Toward this end, the Swedish socialist housewives made common policy cause at times with the more bourgeois Swedish National Union of Housewives.[15]


The housewives’ domination of Swedish policymaking, however, faced a severe challenge during the 1930’s.  The protagonist was Alva Reimer Myrdal.  Reared in a stridently atheist, socialist, and feminist home, Alva Reimer met her future husband Gunnar Myrdal in 1919.  Married five years later, they formed a powerful intellectual partnership.  Following study at the University of Stockholm and in England, the pair won Rockefeller Foundation fellowships in 1929 for a year of research in America.  Alva Myrdal focused on early childhood education and “the school as a substitute for the family.”  She burst onto Sweden’s public scene in 1932 with plans for construction of a Collective House that would embody her feminist theories.

Myrdal’s historical arguments resembled those of Engels.  The old family structure resting on the housewife and the mother-in-the-home was a fading artifact of history, she said.  In the pre-industrial world, the relationship between men and women had been in harmony.  Both husband and wife worked on their small farm or in the artisan’s shop.  Then came industrialization, which severed the family home from work.  This structural shift, Myrdal explained, had left women in empty, deserted places without productive activity.  Rather than becoming Neitzschean supermothers, though, housewives tended under modern circumstances to grow indolent, fat, and self-absorbed.  The reality of birth control in conjunction with the “gloomy solitude” of the industrial era home also brought a precipitous fall in Sweden’s birthrate.  Private housekeeping by housewives increasingly stood as a hindrance to personal and social development.[16] 

The alternative was to build Collective Houses, places which recognized that “work, productive work, is a woman’s demand, and as such a social fact.”  Presenting a plan developed in conjunction with young architect Sven Markelius, Myrdal described a high-rise building in a park-like setting.  “Family units” would contain closets, a bathroom, a dumb-waiter, cupboard space, and bedrooms for adults and larger children.  There would be a central kitchen where all food would be prepared, either for distribution via the dumb-waiter or for consumption in the central dining hall.  Of greatest importance would be the collective nursery.  The infants’ section would provide 24-hour-a-day care for children, from birth through age two.  The nursery section would care for children through age five, serving as both pre-school and day-care center.[17]  As Myrdal elaborated in subsequent articles and lectures: “the modern miniature family is...an abnormal situation for a child.”  All small children needed four to six hours daily of being with others their age, so they could be raised to become “effective members of society, not overexcited homebodies.”[18]

In 1934, Alva Myrdal co-authored with her husband a blockbuster political treatise, Kris I befolkningsfrågan (Crisis in the Population Question).  The book used the plummeting Swedish birth rate to demand a radical shift in public policy.  Arguing that the breadwinner/homemaker family model was doomed to irrelevance and sterility, they called for a new family form.  All able adults—men and women—would be employed outside the home and all the costs of childrearing would be socialized.  This latter change, the Myrdals reasoned, would eliminate the “living standard penalty” imposed on young couples by children.  Moreover, state provided health care, dental care, education, daycare, breakfasts and lunches, clothing, and summer camps would allow for planned efficiencies.  As the Myrdals explained:

In the new family,...the wife will stand as a comrade with her husband in productive labor....During working hours,...the family will be divided to accommodate the broader division of labor in industrialized society: working adults must be at their jobs; the children must play, eat, sleep, and go to school.  Shared housing, shared free time, together with that elusive, subtle personal bond that is, we believe, a constituent element of the family, will remain.[19]

Elsewhere, the Myrdals were more explicit:

Clearly housework still offers possibilities, as both a mother or a servant, for frail, imbecilic, lazy, unambitious, or generally less well endowed persons to get on with life.  Also, full-time and especially part-time prostitution is an escape route always open.[20]

The Myrdals won ideological control of the Royal Population Commission of 1935, which produced eighteen major reports over the next three years.  Subjects included housing, nutrition, maternal health care, ethics, family taxation, marriage loans, home aid to mothers, contraception, abortion, sterilization, children’s clothing, women’s right to work, day-care, and rural depopulation.  Except for the final report, all of these documents followed what came to be called “the Myrdal line”; and all presumed irrelevance of the Swedish socialist housewife.[21]


These women, though, soon had their revenge.  Working through other politicians, they eventually undermined the Myrdals’ influence within the 1935 Population Commission.  Obstensible Commission Chairman Nils Wohlin took control of drafting the Final Report, inserting numerous references favorable to the housewives.  Gunnar Myrdal, already in America to do research for the Carnegie Foundation, fumed that the final draft “smacks of Naziism from a distance.”[22]

“The Myrdal line” faltered in other arenas.  In 1938, the lead organizations of Swedish capital and labor—the Swedish Employers Confederation and the Trade Union Federation (LO)—signed the historic Saltsjöbaden Agreement.  Fixing wages for the entire market sector, the pact tacitly accepted the “family wage” compensation principle for male workers.[23]  In the early 1940’s, as Sweden went on a defensive war footing, Fru Lojal—or “Mrs. Loyalty”—became a central propaganda figure for the Social Democratic government.  This iconic housewife stood by her Man in wartime, dutifully producing her brood of children.[24]

This surge in nationalist pathos also led Sweden’s Riksdag (or Parliament) to create the Population Commission of 1941.  Unlike its predecessor, this body was firmly in the control of the housewives and their male allies.  Leaders of the Swedish Social Democratic Women’s League, the Swedish Agrarian Women’s Union, the National Union of Housewives, and the Frederika-Bremer Federation—all bastions of homemaking—dominated the Subcommittee for Home and Family Questions.[25]  However, these women faced delicate ideological problems.  To begin with, Ellen Key’s female ideal from the century’s early years could no longer be fully mobilized.  Appeals to create Nietzschean Supermothers simply would not work in an era and region threatened by Naziism.  Moreover, pursuit of the Myrdal line during the 1930’s had popularized the notion of social engineering toward functionalist ends.  Appeals to Duty would again no longer suffice. 

The Women of 1941—as feminist historian Yvonne Hirdman calls them—resolved these tensions by throwing themselves into the arms of “domestic science,” or modern “home economics.”  They defined housewives as “mothers working at home” and set out “to clarify what manner of organizing the home is rationally justified in our times.”[26]

The Swedish housewife would become the vehicle for rationalized consumption in the home.  Using the analytical tools of home economics, government agencies would investigate a range of family issues, including:

...family members’ different needs, home furnishings and appliances, and household chores: the distribution of household tasks among the various family members, the labor time required for various purposes over the various stages of the family’s evolution,...and finally consumer habits, eating habits, clothing habits of the different family members, habits of hygiene,... habits of child care in the broad sense, leisure time habits, etc.[27]

Of course, the whole purpose of such intensive detail was to defend the housewife by draping her activities in scientific numbers and professional language.  As the Women of 1941 explained in their major report for the Population Commission: “the simple solution is to give housework in modern society a place alongside other normal occupations, analyze the special inconveniences and advantages that housework has, and organize it in the best possible way for those who perform it.”[28]  Toward this end, the Women of 1941 urged an expansion of the state’s Home Research Institute, to provide home consultants (much like extension agents in agriculture) trained in sewing, food preparation, child care, the washing of clothes, housekeeping, and home furnishing.  As justification, they noted that women had “no objective, scientifically researched and tested rules” to make even the simplest decisions, such as “what kind of shoes should be worn during pregnancy” or the rational rules for “cycling, smoking, or the consumption of wine and alcohol.”[29]  To correct these deficiencies, the Women of 1941 demanded several years of mandatory education in home economics for all Swedish girls.  While the Social Democrats formally continued to endorse equal employment rights for men and women, this new strategy actually emphasized the training and socialization of all young Swedish women as future housewives.[30]

However, a serious contradiction lay at the heart of this strategy.  The mobilization of Taylorism and other theories of scientific efficiency behind the housewife actually pointed toward a radically different end: the collectivization of what remained of housework.  As Hirdman summarizes:

Behind the efforts to create the well-organized family, in which the well-organized woman as housewife was the chief architect, old female dreams concerning the emancipation of women in society resided, not according to the Alva Myrdal recipe, but by turning the values upside-down, and making the home the most important element.  The norm, however, was borrowed from the ‘big’ world, with a male factory job as the model.[31]

In the hands of social engineers, pursuit of “efficiency” and “science” would in the end consume the housewife.

All the same, the socialist housewives pressed their momentary political advantage.  The Social Democrats’ “Post War” policy manifesto declared that “women’s work in the home is of extraordinary importance both for the living standard and for happiness in society.”  The party pledged to support the housewives’ work through improved housing, affordable appliances, and subsidies for child-rich families.[32]  The housewives won mandatory education for all Swedish girls in housekeeping and child care.  They won tax policies that made the married couple, rather than the individual, the unit of taxation, which strongly favored the breadwinner/ homemaker family model.  And in 1947, they won another key victory when the Riksdag approved a universal child allowance program, which provided cash payments to mothers according to their number of children.  Alva Myrdal had opposed this approach, seeing it as giving encouragement to full-time motherhood.

Renewed celebration of the housewife filled the popular culture, as well.  In a series on “To Be a Woman,” the public Swedish Radio Service described women’s quest for the good life.  The inaugural show emphasized a “woman’s power to accept herself as a woman, to accept her longing for a husband and children, to be responsible for a home, to be able to give and receive love from those who are in her care.”[33]  Under the editorship of Signe Höjer, Morgonbris found new life and purpose.  In a January 1947 editorial, she summoned the stay-at-home mothers of the working class to action: “We homemakers are a powerful working group.  In consumer cooperatives, clubs, study circles and at home in the kitchen we have an influence that can be exercised to the great benefit of society.[34]

“For us,” she continued, “Democratic Socialism stands out clearly as the third alternative, which alone can accord humankind both freedom and security.”  The journal summoned its readers to march in the pending May Day rally under the red flags of socialism.[35]  As a drum beat, Morgonbris emphasized how the Social Democrats are building “a social, economic, and cultural model-state” and that “mothers and children receive special attention in this ongoing work.”[36]

Even Alva Myrdal was swept up in the enthusiasm.  In 1956, she co-authored a book with Viola Klein, entitled Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work.  While still giving considerable attention to the woman as worker, the co-authors acknowledge how studies of family separation during World War II showed “that small children need the permanent, stable devotion of one particular person,” and that that person should be the mother.  In a dramatic break with the older “Myrdal line,” the co-authors actually conclude:

Obviously, mothers cannot go out to work if they are to live up to these new and exacting standards of motherhood.  This has to be accepted as the consequence of the existing knowledge that love and security are essential to the growth of a harmonious personality.[37]

This unusual attention by Alva Myrdal to the needs of small children apparently represented a genuine (if short-lived) conversion on her part, not some accommodation to her co-author.[38]  In recommending that a mother stay home full-time from the birth of her first child until her youngest child entered school at age six or seven, Myrdal joined—however tentatively—in “the golden age of the housewife.”[39]


By the early 1960’s, however, there were signs of new trouble in this Third Way paradise.  At its root was a tension between the socialist goal of “equal pay for equal work” and the reality of housewives at home.  The system would hold together only so long as the vast majority of Swedish women aspired to the housewife role and “equality” took a backseat to the job categories, seniority systems, and restrictions on female labor codified in the Saltsjöbaden agreement and supporting state regulations. 

However, other forces were in play.  On the LO’s Women’s Council, for example, pressure grew to forego “part-time” work for women with small children, since this tended to subvert the goal of equal pay; full-time employment and daycare were the better answers.[40]  Meanwhile, the LO’s commitment to “full employment” kept stumbling on the status of women.  Over time, both labor leaders and government manpower planners came to see housewives as an underemployed labor pool, complicating broader policy goals.[41]  In addition, a new generation of university-educated professional women moved into public life during the late 1950’s.  Some had been schooled in sex-role theory and had rediscovered the original view of Alva Myrdal that women’s liberation came through paid work, not the home.  They saw housewives, be they bourgeois or working class, as holding an unsustainable position in their modern society.[42]

This breed of socialist feminism focused its ire, in particular, on public policies that provided benefits to women through their financial dependence on men.  In the 1962 book, The Changing Roles of Men and Women, Alva Myrdal lent her powerful voice to the old/new complaint:  “Today, men who want to divert female potential to care for their personal wants in marriage receive considerable tax subsidies from the state, whether or not there are children in the family.”  She added, though, that new “stands” by young activists “have clearly been taken against all ‘wifely privileges,’ tax advantages, widows’ pensions and other social welfare benefits that accrue to a woman solely by virtue of her status as a wife.”[43]  The Swedish socialist housewife was again under siege.

The last manifesto in her defense appeared in 1964.  Entitled Bara en hemmafru (Only a Housewife), the author was Nancy Eriksson, a long time Social Democratic member of the Riksdag.  Eriksson faced the same ideological challenge that confronted Ellen Key and The Women of 1941.  How can the housewife be justified in a modern, specialized, industrial economy?  The appeal to scientific efficiency used in the 1940’s now seemed as tattered as Key’s call for Nietzschean supermothering.  So Eriksson crafted a new answer: the housewife is a vital service provider, particularly of child welfare and neighborhood solidarity.  As she wrote in one emotional passage:

When the oaks blow down on the west coast, the topsoil weakens and the cliffs grow cold.  When the housewife is abolished, we shall also discover that with her has disappeared much which constitutes our way of life.  When every door in a neighborhood is closed between 8 am and 5 pm and the houses lie as dead as nightclubs during the day, then must a new service institution be created.  The child with a key around her neck must have an institution to take care of her when the school is closed....Not a door bangs the whole day.  A small child, who wants true human contact, must wait for his parents to come home.[44]

Eriksson condemned the young female academics trying to push women out of their homes into the rough-and-tumble capitalist world.  She seethed over claims by feminist author Eva Moberg that marriage and homemaking approximated prostitution.  Eriksson indicted day care centers, which spread disease and denied small children the emotional support that they needed.  Indeed, these women served as a form of social lubricant, smoothing over the rough edges of modern, industrial life.  She called for “economic equality” between the mother in the home and the employed mother, “especially when the children are small”; for universal maternal insurance; for homemaker occupational pensions justified by women’s prior care of children; and for a tax system that treated marriage as a living partnership, an economic union.[45]

And astonishingly, as late as 1964, the labor force participation rate for Swedish women remained steady at 30 percent, lower even than the American figure for that last baby-booming year.  Only 25,000, or a mere three percent, of Swedish preschool children were in public day-care centers.  As two feminist analysts would later admit, the “increasing attention extended to working women [in Sweden] did not result from an overwhelming constituency demand from women themselves.”[46]

The pressure came instead from governmental functionaries and familiar intellectual elites.  Regarding the former, the Labor Market board began an advertising campaign in 1965 to lure mothers at home into employment.  Two years later, the Board’s director general declared that women “must be regarded as every bit as valuable a part of the labor market as men.”  A change in Swedish home traditions to encourage working mothers was “imperative.”[47] 


Regarding the latter, attention ultimately turned to the income tax, where numerous and steep tax brackets tied to income splitting for married couples did give a decided advantage to the male breadwinner/female housewife family.  The debate began in 1962, sparked by an opinion essay in the liberal daily, Dagens Nyheter.  Within a year, that newspaper—joined by the Social Democratic Aftonsbladet—had endorsed the alternative: individual taxation.[48]  Eva Moberg argued that the existing tax system condemned educated women to “lifetime imprisonment within the four walls of the home.”  In 1965, the People’s Party—historically libertarian, individualist, and pro-corporation in orientation—also endorsed tax reform: mandatory individual filing would affirm liberty and equality; and it would also be good for business.[49]

The Social Democratic leadership soon fell in line, agreeing with the party of business that recognition of marriage and the housewife in the tax code must go.  A joint report by the LO and the Social Democratic Party, issued in 1968, concluded that “there are...strong reasons for making the two breadwinner family the norm in planning long-term changes within the social insurance system.”[50]  The following year, Alva Myrdal returned with her own report for the Social Democrats, Toward Equality.  With the housewives squarely in its sight, the document declared that in “the society of the future,...the point of departure must be that every adult is responsible for his/her own support.  Benefits previously inherent in married status should be eliminated.”  It added that income taxation should be based on individual earnings, without preference for any “form of cohabitation,” Myrdal’s new and deflating term for marriage.[51]

As Riksdag consideration of a bill to abolish joint taxation proceeded in 1968-69, the real stakes became clear.  The key issue, debate revealed, was whether the family was an independent economic and social unit, bearing its own rights and claims.  Doctrinaire socialists said “no,” for the family interfered with the desired direct dependence of the individual on the state.  Pro-business libertarians and equity feminists also said “no,” for they saw family bonds as drags on efficiency and individual liberty.  The socialist housewives, joined this time by several social conservative groups, said “yes”: the family household based on marriage must be defended as a distinct social and economic entity, for it provided persons with a necessary zone of liberty.[52]

As the bill approached final approval in early 1970, Brita Nordström of Näsbypark organized the Swedish housewives’ last stand.  Called “The Campaign for the Family,” it identified the enemy as “young, well educated women, often unmarried or single mothers with children” and “persons in radical left circles with strong communist or marxist-leninist worldviews.”  Nordström denounced women who “wanted to be men” and the concept of gender equality.  Women had “special gifts”: “it is women who bear children into the world.  Not men.  This is a biological function grounded in biological differences.”  She condemned the day-care policies of the new Social Democratic Prime Minister Olaf Palme, for whom “equality for children means obligatory day-care just as equality for women means being ‘liberated’ from children.”  Nordström labelled the proposed reform a “tax on housewives.”  She sparked a letter writing campaign: an unprecedented 50,000 letters poured into the Prime Minister’s office.  In late February, several thousand housewives from Näsbypark and Västerås marched on the Riksdag building in protest:  “History’s first housewife demonstration,” commented the conservative Svenska Dagbladet.[53]


In fact, this actually turned out to be the last march of the Swedish socialist housewives.  The next month, the Riksdag gave final approval to individual taxation.  Overnight, the housewife became an expensive luxury.  State employment bureaus mobilized to find work for the women.  Within eighteen months over 600,000 housewives had been placed, a vast change in a nation of only eight million people.  Daycare enrollment also soared.  In his 1972 address to the Social Democrats’ Annual Congress, Palme announced that he would abolish the party’s Women’s League, the housewives’ last sphere of influence.  Women would now be “real members” of the Party, he said, dealing with “common issues” alone.  Ominously, he added:

In this [new] society, it is only natural for both parents to work.  In this society it is evident that man and woman should take the same responsibility for the care of the home and the children.  In this society...the care of these future generations is just as naturally the responsibility of us all.[54] 

In the words of historian Christina Florin, “The Epoch of the Housewife was terminated,”[55] replaced by the comprehensive welfare state.

In this way, the revolutionary vision of Alva Myrdal from the 1930’s took full form.  Her curious genius lay in her Trojan horse tactic of socializing home consumption.  By invading the home under the labels of “family policy” and “rational consumption,” she smuggled socialist forms into capitalist society until they brought the entire system down from the inside.[56]

The radical nature of this change can be seen in the peculiar quality of women’s work in the new Swedish order.  In agriculture and forestry, the number of working women actually declined after 1970; in private business and industry, it grew only modestly.  However, in the service sector (primarily governmental in Sweden), the number of working women rose from 350,000 in 1970 to 819,000 by 1990.  Meanwhile, in the education and health care sectors (exclusively governmental in Sweden), the number of working women nearly tripled, climbing to over 1 million by 1990.

In brief, tax reform and “family policy” had been used as levers to achieve something “truly revolutionary”: the shriveling of private homes resting on marriage and complementary gender roles; and a massive expansion of the state sector, using female labor to socialize remaining family functions.  Pointing to the experience of Alva Myrdal, feminist historian Yvonne Hirdman triumphantly remarks:

New ideas of gender replaced old-fashioned ideas about the couple.  We witness [here] the birth of the androgynous individual (and I speak about the explicit ideal) and the death of the provider and his housewife.  We thus witness old ideas popping up, ideas that had been buried for decades—but ideas that very quickly found their advocates...:  people, men and women, eager to speak the new tongue of gender.[57]

And, as Hilaire Belloc would add, people living in a comfortable, late 20th Century version of the familiar Servile State.


1 Marquis W. Childs, Sweden: The Middle Way (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1974 [1936]): xiv.

2 Childs, Sweden: The Middle Way, pp. 1-5, 13-15, 20-24.

3 For a classic statement of this view, see: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1966 [1898]).

4 Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, trans. Ernest Untermann (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Company, 1902 [1884]): 89-90, 96.

5 Ibid., pp. 90-91; see also: Christina Carlsson, Kvinnosyn och Kvinnopolitik: En studie av svensk socialdemokrati i 1880-1910 (Lund: Arkiv avhandlings serie 25, 1986): 32-55.

6 See: Yvonne Hirdman, Den socialistiska hemmafrun (Stockholm: Carlssons, 1992): 46-48.

7 Hirdman, Den socialistiska hemmafrun, pp. 39-40.

8 Ellen Key, The Woman Movement (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912): 170, 211-12.

9 Key, The Woman Movement, pp. 170, 175, 215.  Emphasis in original.

10 Ibid., pp. 163, 171, 213-14.  Emphasis added.

11 Ibid., pp. 177, 186-87.  Emphasis in original.

12 Ibid., pp. 198-206.  Emphasis in original.

13 Ibid., pp. 218-19.  Emphasis in original.

14 Hirdman, Den socialistiska hemmafrun, pp. 53-57.

15 Ibid., pp. 66-83.

16 Alva Myrdal, “Kollektiv bostadsform,” Tiden 24 (Dec. 1932): 602.

17 Myrdal, “Kollektiv bostadsform,” p. 607.

18 Alva Myrdal, “Kollektivhuset,” Hertha (Jan. 1933): 11; and Alva Myrdal, “Yrkeskvinnans barn,” Yrkeskvinnor Klubbnytt (Feb. 1933): 63.

19 Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, Kris I befolkningsfrågan (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1934): 319.  More broadly, see: Yvonne Hirdman, “Utopia in the Home,” International Journal of Political Economy 22 (Summer 1992): 27-46; and Allan Carlson, The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1990): 35-99.

20 Myrdal and Myrdal, Kris i befolkningsfrågan, p. 209.

21 Carlson, The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics, pp. 177-84.

22 Gunnar Myrdal to Johan Persson and Disa Västberg, 15 Dec. 1938, Gunnar Myrdal Arkiv 11.2.4, Arbetarrörelsens Arkiv, Stockholm, p. 4.

23 Nils Elvander, “A New Swedish Regime for Collective Bargaining and Conflict Resolution.”  Paper prepared for the Department of Economics, University of Uppsala, 2002.

24 Johanna Overud, “I Beredskap med Fru Lojal: Husmodern i nationens tjänst 1939-1945,” in Helena Bergman and Peter Johansson, eds., Familje angelägenheter: Om välfärdstat, genus och politik (Stockholm: Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion, 2002): 85-99.

25 On the formation of this new commission and its conservative nature, see: Ann-Katrin Hatje, Befolkningsfrågan och välfärden: Debatten om familje-politik och nativitetsökning under 1930-och 1940-talen (Stockholm: Allmänna förlaget, 1974): 47-85.

26 From Yvonne Hirdman, “‘Social Planning Under Rational Control’: Social Engineering in Sweden in the 1930’s and 1940’s,” in Pauli Kettanen and Hanna Eskola, Models, Modernity and the Myrdals (Helsinki: Renvall Institute for Area and Cultural Studies, University of Helsinki, 1997): 72.

27 Quoted in Hirdman, “Utopia in the Home,” p. 80.

28 Statens Offentliga Utrudningen [SOU] 1947: 46, Betänkande angående Familjliv och Hemarbete (Stockholm: K.L. Beckman’s Boktryckerie, 1947): 157.

29 SOU 1947:46, Betänkande angående Familjliv och Hemarbete, p. 140.

30 Statens Offentliga Utrudningen 1945:4, Betänkande angående Den Husliga Utbildningen. Angivet av 1941 års Befolkningsutredningen (Stockholm: K.I. Beckmans Boktryckerie, 1945): 6-7, 26-33, 56-80, 151-55.

31 Hirdman, “Social Planning Under Rational Control,” p. 75.  Emphasis added.

32 Arbetarrörelsens efterkrigs program (Stockholm: Sveriges Socialdemokratika Arbetarparti, 1944): 25-26.

33 Radiotjänst, Att vara kvinna: Elva radioprogram kring temat att vara kvinna i dag, 1948-1949 (Stockholm: Radiotjänst, 1949): 12.

34 Hemmafrun, “Husmödrar upp till kamp!” Morgonbris 43 (Jan. 1947): 17.

35 Cover, Morgonbris 43 (April 1947); and “Under Frihetens Räda Fanor!” Morgonbris 43 (May 1947): 8.  Emphasis in original.

36 “Tänk på detta!” Morgonbris 43 (Nov. 1947): 21.

37 Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956): 125.

38 E. Stina Lyon, “Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein’s Women’s Two Roles: Women Writing About Women’s Dilemmas.”  Discussion paper at the International Conference: Alva Myrdal’s Questions to Our Time, Uppsala, Sweden, 6-8 March 2002, p. 5.

39 Gro Hagemann, “The Housewife Dilemma: Women’s Two Roles Revisited.”  Paper prepared for the International Conference: Alva Myrdal’s Questions to Our Time, Uppsala, Sweden, 6-8 March 2002, p. 2.

40 Ylva Waldemarson, “Att föra kvinnors talan: LO’s kvinnoråd 1947-67,” in Chrstina Florin, Lena Sommestad, and Ulla Wikander, eds., Kvinnor mot kvinnor: Om systerskapets svårigheter (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1999): 90-92.

41 Yvonne Hirdman, Med kluven tunga: LO och genusordningen (Stockholm: Atlas, 1998): 77-81.

42 Christina Florin, “Skatten som befriar: Hemmafruar mot yrkeskvinnor i 1960- talets särbeskattningens-debatt,” in Florin, Sommestad and Wikander, Kvinnor mot kvinnor, pp. 120-21.

43 Alva Myrdal, “Foreward,” in The Changing Roles of Men and Women, trans. Gunilla and Steven Anderman, ed. Edmund Dahlström (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971 [1962]): 14-15.

44 Nancy Eriksson, Bara en hemmafru: En debatt-inlägg om kvinnan i familjen (Stockholm: Forum, 1964): 36-37.

45 Eriksson, Bara en hemmafru, pp. 61-62.

46 Dorothy McBride Stetson and Amy Maxur, eds., Comparative State Feminisms (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995): 241.

47 Quoted in Stetson and Mazur, Comparative State Feminisms, p. 241.  Also: Lilja Mosesdottir, “Pathways Towards the Dual Breadwinner Model: The Role of the Swedish, German, and American States,” paper prepared for The Social Sciences Educational and Research Center, Luleå, Sweden, 2000: pp. 15-16.

48 Florin, “Skatten som befriar,” pp. 111, 114.

49 Kerstin Sörensen and Christina Bergquist, Gender and the Social Democratic Welfare Regime: A Comparsion of Gender-Equality Friendly Policies in Sweden and Norway (Stockholm: Arbets-livsinstitutet, 2002): 9.

50 Quoted in: Jane Lewis and Gertrude Åström, “Equality, Difference, and State Welfare: Labor Market and Family Politics in Sweden,” Feminist Studies 18 (Spring 1992): 67.

51 Alva Myrdal, et al., Toward Equality: The Alva Myrdal Report to the Swedish Social Democratic Party (Stockholm: Prisma, 1972 [1969]): 17, 38, 64, 82-84.

52 Florin, “Skatten som befriar,” pp. 109-113.

53 Ibid., pp. 126-29.

54 SAP Congress Minutes, 1972, p. 759; quoted in Yvonne Hirdman, “The Importance of Gender in the Swedish Labor Movement: Or a Swedish Dilemma.”  Paper prepared for the Swedish National Institute of Working Life, 2002: p. 6.

55 Florin, “Skatten som befriar,” p. 107.

56 An insight borrowed from: Hirdman, “Utopia in the Home,” p. 29.

57 Hirdman, “The Importance of Gender in the Swedish Labor Movement,” p. 10.  Emphasis added.





Copyright © 1997-2012 The Howard Center: Permission granted for unlimited use. Credit required. | contact: webmaster