What is a Woman Friendly State?


Written by: Kelly Fisher


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Photo by Annie Spratt

An American reflects upon Norwegian State feminism, the Universal Caregiver system—and how exactly Norway became one of the most gender equal countries in the world.  

For those within Scandinavia, “State Feminism” is a term you might be familiar with, but from other parts of the world it might be the first time you are hearing of it.   

So, to understand Norway’s leading position in the world for gender equality, let’s take a look back in history to make sense of where we are today.    

The Welfare State and Women 

Helga Hernes is widely known as the mother of state feminism and gender quotas.

After the Second World War, Norway experienced broad social changes with the development of the Welfare State. And with the political action of feminist activists that was occurring within Norway and other parts of the world during the 1970’s and 1980’s, women gained more access to the workplace and political sphere as well.  This also included the election of Gro Harlem Brundtland as Prime Minister in 1981, Norway’s first female Prime Minister.    

In 1987, Helga Hernes published her influential and important work, Welfare State and Woman Power: Essays in State Feminism. Hernes had worked in a variety of academic and research positions during the 1970s and 1980s.  In these essays, Hernes wrote about and analyzed the ways in which Norway’s development as a welfare state had allowed for more women to enter into working life and the political sphere. Additionally, it reflects on the conditions and changes that had helped to ease this process, and how Norway could further progress with boosting gender equality. 

Woman Friendly State 

Hernes coined the terms “woman-friendly state” and “state feminism”.   

She describes a woman-friendly state as:  

“A woman-friendly state would not force harder choices on women than on men, or permit unjust treatment on the basis of sex.”  Furthermore:

“In a woman-friendly state, women will continue to have children, yet there will also be other roads to self-realization open to them.”  

Helga Hernes

This idea of a woman-friendly state would prove to be highly influential in forming social policies that would hopefully help achieve the goals that Hernes outlined.   

While it is one thing to create and outline goals, it is another thing to achieve them.  So, what have been some of the specific strategies that Norway has introduced to achieve this goal?   

The debates around gender equality have been dominated by a larger question: is gender equality best achieved by creating policies that treat women the same as men, or different than men?  

In other words, should we create policies that help women enter the workforce more easily, or do you create policies that try and boost the status of care-giving work, which women are engaged in at higher levels than men?  

Who’s the Breadwinner? 

Nancy Fraser, a prominent professor from the New School for Social Research in New York, whose work has focused on gender bias in work environments and organization structures, developed the terms “universal breadwinner” and “caregiver parity” to capture these policy ideas.  In one of her essays, Fraser wrote about these strategies reflecting on which one was better. 

Her answer?  Neither.  

Fraser saw both approaches as dissatisfactory for several reasons.  One of the main challenges she saw to these strategies is that in society there will always be a need for care work. 

The universal breadwinner model does not consider that this type of work will continue to exist and is important work that needs to be done in a functioning society.  As women often are the ones who take on the role of caregiving, they most likely would not be able to advance in the same ways in the workplace as their male colleagues due to the double burden of working a job and maintaining a household.   

A Caregiver Parity System 

The caregiver parity system, however, works to establish that caregiving work is given the same recognition and status of that of a breadwinner in society.  Fraser saw this strategy also being a problem, because for women who do want to enter the workforce, they might face assumptions and stereotypes that would tie them to care work.  For these reasons, Fraser argued instead for a new strategy, which she called the “universal caregiver model”.  

The goal of the universal caregiver model was to create policies that would both help women enter the workforce, while also encouraging men to do more care work.  In the universal caregiver model, care work would be recognized as the important work that it is, while also helping women enter the workforce. 

Considering what Hernes described as a woman friendly state, the universal caregiver model can be seen as an effective strategy for this goal.  This strategy can also be seen in the policies that Norway has enacted:  

  • Government subsidized kindergartens so that it is easier for both parents to work, generous maternal leave, and key to the universal caregiver goal, leave for fathers as well.  
  • Fathers in the Scandinavian countries are some of the most engaged in the world when it comes to care-work.  
  • Norway, along with other Scandinavian countries, have some of the highest rates of female employment in the world.    
Photo by Jose Jovena in Stockholm, Sweden.

An American in Norway 

These policies have created change and contributed to moving countries in the direction of closing the pay gap between men and women.   

My personal impression is that to those growing up in Norway, these policies and ideas can be taken for granted in some ways.  Conversely, as an American who lives in Norway, I marvel at these policies and achievements, and hope that they can be implemented in more parts of the world.   

Achieving gender equality is not a simple task, and the conditions that exist in Norway today are built upon the research and work of people going back decades.  Recognizing who are some of those important figures—and ideas—can help us both appreciate where we are today, and challenge us to think about how do we go forward, and make things even better?  Those are the types of the questions which are needed and are the ones that drive SHE Community every day in our work. •