Bernie Sanders, über-feminist: Making America more Scandinavian would mark a gender equality breakthrough

Scandinavia: the land of lingonberries, herring, living wages for fast food workers, and gender equality

Published May 7, 2015 3:24PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Bernie Sanders wants America to look a lot more like Scandinavia, the land of lingonberries, herring, tasteful minimalism, paid family leave and living wages for fast food workers. The newly declared presidential contender told George Stephanopoulos over the weekend that he wants to lead a “political revolution” and make the United States more like Sweden or Denmark when it comes to healthcare, education and the social safety net.

“In those [Scandinavian] countries, health care is the right of all people,” Sanders said on "This Week." “College education and graduate school is free. Retirement benefits [and] child care are stronger than the United States of America. In those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.”

Stephanopoulos replied: “I can hear the Republican attack ads right now: ‘He wants America to look more like Scandinavia!’”

“What’s wrong with that?” Sanders asked.

Nothing at all, Bernie. Nothing at all!

And while having a socialist make the cable news rounds talking about a “political revolution” may seem like the kind of thing that would scare the average voter, the policies he’s talking about -- subsidized child care, paid family leave and a living wage -- actually have wide support from people across parties.

According to data released earlier this year by the Make It Work campaign, 79 percent of voters -- including Democrats, Republicans and Independents -- want to require employers to provide paid sick days, 78 percent want to expand tax credits to families and 75 percent want to see childcare made more affordable. Most Americans also support raising the minimum wage.

But Scandinavia has more going for it than just paid family leave and universal preschool. Beyond having supports in place to give families options when it comes to balancing work and home life, there has been a whole lot of experimentation in these countries to find how to make those programs really work.

We can look to Sweden for a case study on the limits of simply having a paid leave policy without challenging other barriers -- like cultural norms and pay disparities -- to gender equality. It’s been 40 years since Sweden replaced its paid maternity leave policy with a family leave policy that all parents could use as they wished. The change meant that each family was given a lump sum of time to split up according to their preference, and either parent could use it.

The new policy gave men the option of staying home with their families, but many still didn’t take it. Instead of using the time themselves, lots of men were just giving their portion of leave to their female partners. Women were still doing most of the childcare and facing the same kind of career interruptions and gendered divisions of labor that the new family leave policy was supposed to help address.

It was a lead a horse to water situation. Sweden had a progressive policy in place, but lackluster progressive outcomes.

Here’s Katrin Bennhold at the New York Times on why it wasn’t enough to just give dads the option of staying home:

Sweden, [former deputy prime minister Bengt Westerberg] said, faced a vicious circle. Women continued to take parental leave not just for tradition’s sake but because their pay was often lower, thus perpetuating pay differences. Companies, meanwhile, made clear to men that staying home with baby was not compatible with a career.

“Society is a mirror of the family,” Mr. Westerberg said. “The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share the parental leave is an essential part of that.”

Introducing “daddy leave” in 1995 had an immediate impact. No father was forced to stay home, but the family lost one month of subsidies if he did not. Soon more than eight in 10 men took leave. The addition of a second nontransferable father month in 2002 only marginally increased the number of men taking leave, but it more than doubled the amount of time they take.

More than offer paternity leave, Sweden went one step further and incentivized it. Only then did the numbers start to turn around. And the change did more than just make relationships more equitable and encourage men to spend more time with their kids -- it contributed to an increase in women’s earnings. A study published by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation found that a woman’s future earnings increased by an average of 7 percent for every month of paternity leave her partner took.

It's a useful thing to keep in mind as the United States inches ever closer to doing the basics when it comes to working families. President Obama signed an executive order earlier this year to give federal workers paid leave and Democrats have doubled down on the push for the policy, but the lesson to take from the Swedish model is that the option isn’t enough, particularly as women in the United States still face pay disparities.

It’s simple common sense. If one parent in a two-parent straight household is going to stay home, it needs to be financially viable. But because women still make, on average, 78 cents on the dollar, the calculation may end up keeping them home while their partners keep working fulltime. Which is why laws like the Paycheck Fairness Act, a raise to the minimum wage and a more robust family leave proposal that creates an incentive for men to take it will be required to start changing the status quo.

Sanders is right about what the United States could learn from Scandinavia. While fast food workers across the country are organizing for a $15 wage and moving the center on the issue, people working at Burger Kings in Denmark have reliable hours, livable wages and health insurance. While the number of women in executive positions in tech and business remains dismal, Norway, the first country to set a gender quota for board seats, is leading in gender diversity in executive boards.

Stephanopoulos may be right that Sanders' enthusiasm for Scandinavia will make him the target of Republican ridicule, but Sanders has got it straight: there's a lot we can learn from countries like Sweden and Norway when it comes to advancing gender equality and addressing poverty.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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