Global Feminisms

When Feminists Said No to Europe

This article is part of a series on Global Feminisms. Articles in this series explore how feminists have acted beyond the nation. How have global events, ideas and tactics impacted feminism, and vice versa? How have feminists worked across difference – for example, of race, nation, politics – more and less successfully? Read an introduction to the series here.

Six years ago, in the early morning of 24th June 2016, I woke up to the news that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. The shock I felt was visceral and coloured by personal circumstances. I was a Finnish postgraduate student living in Glasgow, who had recently made the decision to stay in Scotland to pursue a PhD. What did Brexit mean for my future? Would my rights as an EU citizen be guaranteed moving forward?

Delapo Ayoade [Unsplash]
The choice to make Scotland – and therefore the UK – my home had not been an easy one. Ironically, a few weeks earlier I had turned down a PhD position at the European University Institute in Italy, a research institute set up in the 1970s by the six original member states of the European Community to promote cultural and intellectual exchange between its members. My rationale? I wanted to keep one foot in the European Union and the other in Scotland – both of which I considered to be integral parts of my scholarly and personal identities. That morning, I wondered whether I had made a huge mistake.

At the same time, I knew that I was one of the lucky ones: I had a support system in place to help me, both in the UK and further afield if circumstances got tricky down the line. And tricky they did get. As a result of Brexit, UK universities are no longer members of the EU’s Erasmus programme. Similarly, British institutions’ access to the EU’s Horizon Europe research and funding network remains uncertain. That emotional morning in June 2016 left me intrigued. How had earlier watershed moments in European integration (and disintegration) played out?

Guillaume Périgois, EU flags at the European Commission Berlaymont building, [Unsplash]
Brexit was largely portrayed in the media as the victory of old white men, disgruntled with change. In other words, gender – alongside other intersecting categories of analysis and identity, most notably class – was clearly at play when it came to Brexit. In the lead up to the referendum, feminist commentators asked why women’s voices were marginalised in both the Leave and Remain campaigns. After the ballots had been cast, simply looking at voter data confirmed that gender mattered: a small majority of women voted ‘Remain’ (51%) whereas a clear majority of men (55%) voted ‘Leave’. In 2019 multiple commentators noted that if the UK and the EU could not strike a deal, a ‘No Deal’ Brexit would have grave consequences for women’s rights and stall progress toward gender equality.

I recently published an article in NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research in which I explored the relationship between left-wing feminism and European integration during the early 1970s from a historical perspective by focusing on developments in Europe’s northernmost parts. Specifically, I examined how and why grassroots socialist-feminist activists in two Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden, opposed their respective countries joining the European Economic Community, or EEC – the precursor to the EU.

A look at socialist-feminist debates in Scandinavia during the early 1970s shows that these Lexit arguments reverberate historically and transnationally; they cross both space and time. From economic arguments stoking fear of rising unemployment to populist calls for more directly democratic processes, the ‘Leave’ campaigns – both on the right and the left – borrowed, perhaps at times even unknowingly, many of their key talking points from earlier moments in time.

The EEC was established in 1957 as an agricultural and industrial customs union, with the aim of fostering liberalized trade within Europe, where people, goods and capital could move without friction. Consisting initially of six Western European nations (France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), in 1973 the EEC expanded to include the UK, Ireland and Denmark. Further expansion took place in the 1980s, when several Southern European countries joined the union. Building on the EEC, in 1992 the EU was established and continued to expand throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Most recently, Croatia joined the EU in 2013.

Júlio Reis, Map of the European Union, colour-coded by accession date of member state [wikicommons].
Danish feminist campaigns opposing European integration had a clear focal point: they targeted the October 1972 referendum on Danish EEC membership, which the Danish people ended up voting in favour of by over sixty percent. Sweden’s relationship to European integration was more complex, due to the country’s commitment to its neutral political identity during the Cold War. Following more than a decade of complex debates, in 1973 Swedish decision makers rejected full EEC membership, instead opting for a free trade agreement with the customs union.

At the same time, in the early 1970s, both Denmark and Sweden saw the emergence of what became known in the region as the new women’s movement. Paralleling the ‘women’s liberation movement’ in Anglophone settings and ‘new feminism’ in Italy and France, the new women’s movement in Scandinavia was part of feminism’s so-called ‘second wave.’ The Danish and Swedish new women’s movements consisted of activist groups focused on eliminating both bourgeois society and patriarchal culture. These groups often functioned under the slogan “no feminism without socialism, no socialism without feminism”. In other words, they subscribed to a left-wing version of feminism, where women’s oppression was viewed in conjunction with a broader understanding of social and structural inequality. The Swedish and Danish new women’s movements were also profoundly shaped by transnational links with women across the world – both tangible and imaginary. From performing comradeship with ‘Third World’ revolutionary women on the pages of feminist magazines to partaking in women’s liberation conferences across Europe and further afield, feminist activists in these two Scandinavian countries were repeatedly confronted by questions regarding exactly how to champion ‘global sisterhood’.

The discourses circulated and arguments made by socialist feminists in 1970s Scandinavia feel eerily familiar, when studied in a post-Brexit landscape. The main rationale provided by Swedish and Danish feminist activists for opposing EEC membership was based on a socialist reading of its economic outcomes – and it is precisely here where we begin to see repeated parallels with Lexit arguments during the 2016 referendum. European integration – including the freedom of movement of people, goods and capital – was seen as worsening the labour rights of the Scandinavian proletariat. In conveying these economic reservations, Swedish and Danish new women’s movements circulated stories that warned of devastating upheavals to industries that employed the Scandinavian working classes, especially women. For example, the Danish Redstockings – the country’s largest new women’s movement – depicted how women working in a Belgian weapons factory had gone on strike demanding equal pay, only to have production be moved to West Germany. Sweden’s most notable new women’s movement Grupp 8 similarly detailed how the multinational footwear company Bata had expanded its production to Sweden. Bata had captured the country’s shoe market and bought up the the Swedish company Oscaria, only for Swedish production to be shut down and moved to countries with cheaper labour.

Feminists in early 1970s Sweden and Denmark also emphasised how the socioeconomic position of women in Scandinavia was relatively strong vis-à-vis women elsewhere in Europe – and argued that it was worth defending even if this meant favouring protectionist and nationalist policies.

During the 1972 referendum campaign the Danish Redstockings published an article in their movement’s internal magazine that mockingly depicted women’s rights in EEC countries.

They relied on cultural stereotypes to do so: a cartoon depicted a German man in hunting uniform walking both his dog and a but pearl-wearing bourgeois woman on a lead. Similarly, an Italian man was portrayed as sitting on the back of a naked woman, using her as a bench, while he read about the rights of women from a newspaper.

Also featured was a protest song titled “Kvinden i EEC” [Women in the EEC], which described French, German and Italian women as agency lacking birthers, domestic servants and sex objects under capitalist patriarchy. The song ended on a sober rather than satirical note, warning Danish women that they were “up for sale” and that they could show solidarity to and tangibly help their sisters across Europe only if they themselves remained free from the subjugating pressures of the EEC. These socialist-feminist anti-EEC campaigns were thus sites of cultural value judgements, where subtle yet perceptible hierarchies were fashioned between Scandinavia and Central and Southern Europe. This was done through using cultural stereotypes, more often the purview of the right, rather than the left. This was starkly discordant with the new women’s movements calls for a transnational sisterhood, which emphasised how women around the world shared the same plight.

Swedish and Danish feminists rejected EEC-led supranationalism on anti-elitist grounds, arguing that membership in the customs union would obscure direct democracy and take the nexus of political decision-making further away from the people. The new women’s movements were especially critical towards the harmonization of social policies within the EEC. Instead of leveraging Scandinavian influences within the EEC and attempting to thus increase women’s access to parental leave, childcare and equal pay on a pan-European level, Danish and Swedish feminists argued that making these uniform across Europe would chip away at these provisions women enjoyed in Scandinavia, largely thanks to the region’s commitment to social democracy and a well-functioning welfare state. The Danish Redstockings succinctly summarized their stance during the 1972 referendum campaign by stating that striving to lead by example was unrealistic under the EEC’s bureaucratic and male-dominated organizational structures. Instead of striving for a global sisterhood, or even a European one, when it came to the question of the EEC Danish and Swedish feminist chose a pragmatic path safeguarding the rights they had already achieved ‘at home’.

Scandinavian feminist perspectives on European integration have certainly changed since the 1970s. Sweden finally joined the European Union in 1995, alongside its neighbouring Finland. While the promotion of social equality and anti-patriarchal attitudes are still at the heart of the region’s feminist thought and praxis, a feminist approach championing European integration and co-operation has emerged and prevailed as well as a more developed understanding of what closing EU borders means for migrant women. In 2014 the Swedish political party Feministiskt initiativ (Feminist Initiative) won its first seat in the European Parliament. The party had made waves already five years prior when, during its first European Parliament campaign, F! received a one million kronor donation from ABBA front man Benny Andersson. In their most recent European Parliament bid, F! called for the free movement of people and the abolishing of borders, both within and beyond the European Union.

Calandrella, Feministiskt initiativ at a demonstration for migrants rights in Sweden, in Kungsträdgården, Stockholm [wikicommons].
The Scandinavian anti-EEC campaigns of the early 1970s highlight the challenges and complexities of calling for a transnational ‘global sisterhood’ among women. Even on a European – rather than fully global – scale, cultural stereotypes, geopolitical hierarchies and protectionist impulses were insidious parts of the conversation. At the same time, what a focus on these Scandinavian socialist-feminist campaigns demonstrates is that leftist opposition to the EEC and later the EU has a gendered history where women’s voices mattered. What might however come as a surprise to many is that this left-wing history of opposition to European integration is deeply intertwined with feminism’s past. This reminds us that women’s activism did not exist in a vacuum nor void but was in constant dialogue with broader social and political currents, which both intersected and clashed with feminism as an ideology and a practice.

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