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Eugenics and the Making of Universal Citizenship in Sweden: The Social Democratic State Revisited
Södertörn University, School of Gender, Culture and History, Gender studies. Södertörn University, Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES).ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8084-2045
2006 (English)In: “Silence,Suffering,& Survival”: November 1-5, 2006, The Empire Landmark Hotel, Vancouvery British Columbia / [ed] Wenda Bauchspies & Penn State, 2006, p. 128-Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The multifarious paths to modernity correspond with the various dramatizations of national narratives.  Sweden’s development has been composed as a linear success story. As the story goes: since the 1930s when the Social Democrats came into power, they had managed to lead the deprived smallish nation at the outskirts of Europe from the darkness of the poor house into the light of a prosperous welfare state combining a maximum of social security and equality with economic growth. In comparative perspective the Swedish welfare state was not only seen as outstanding in terms of class justice, but also in terms of gender equality.  Some scholars have there deemed it to be a “women-friendly welfare state”.[i] However, regardless of the importance of such narratives for the formation of national identity, success stories inevitably also produce distortions and omissions. The dark side of Sweden’s success story became most painfully apparent at the latest in autumn 1997. An article about forced sterilizations in the “peoples’ home” (folkhem), published in the country’s largest daily newspaper not only set off a heated national debate but it also caused an international sensation.[ii] Contrary to what the media suggested, knowledge of these practices was not a “recent” discovery.[iii] The new and challenging aspect, however, was that publicist Maciej Zaremba no longer attributed the sterilization policy to the zeitgeist or deemed it as a regrettable—although in the greater narrative as a negligible—episode but rather as an integral part of Sweden’s social democratic reform project. Through addressing the dark side of] the Swedish welfare state he broke a taboo that formed the quintessential core of Swedish identity. International reactions added insult to injury by comparing these sterilizations to practices of Nazi Germany.[iv]

The abundance of international attention, among other things, incited the Swedish government to install a commission to investigate the policies during that time and to draft a bill that would afford compensation to victims of forced sterilization. Compared to how victims of sterilization in other countries, particularly in Germany, [v] were dealt with, the Swedish investigative commission and compensation act were exemplary. Yet, for Swedish historians and social scientists it was no easy task to deal with these dark sides of modernity and statehood. A sense of loyalty toward the social democracy and the Swedish model has caused many scholars to oscillate—as some have self-critically admitted—between engaging in scholarship and ideology production.[vi] This might explain why outstanding feminist scholars such as Yvonne Hirdman, which has been a pioneer of a more critical stand on Swedes social and gender policies, has joined the chorus of the welfare state defenders in that debate. [vii]  The fact that Swedish politics have been highly successful in so many ways makes theories, which categorically establish the ambivalences of modernity and the welfare state, not exactly a Swedish specialty.

The same could be said about international comparative research that presents the development of the welfare state as a continuous extension of social rights. The establishment of a social democratic regime with universal benefits based on citizenship is often regarded the ultima ratio of this development.  This is not so surprising, as the power resources approach promoted by Scandinavian social scientists Walter Korpi and Gösta Esping-Andersen decisively contributed to establishing the Nordic state’s model status. Viewing Sweden in terms of a success story is not necessarily problematic because of what it says, but because of what it leaves out.  None of the common national or comparative interpretations can account for how the Swedish social democratic model’s supposedly inclusive welfare state and its universalistic programs could have been compatible with measures that classified people as “inferior” and propagated selection and institutionalization of their own people as well as sterilization as solutions to social problems.

This essay is committed to resolving this puzzle. It focuses on what, today, is subsumed under “family policies” and contains an analysis of the emergence of social benefits in the 1930s, which were geared toward subsidizing and encouraging child rearing, and were thus a forerunner of the universal child allowances introduced in Sweden in 1948. This case study will reveal that measures primarily aimed to meet the needs of women (as mothers)—and were therefore largely considered part of the “women-friendly” concept of social citizenship in Sweden— were actually characterized by an amalgamation of pro-natalism and anti-natalism. In effect, amalgamation meant that those classified as “inferior” or “unwanted” were barred from social benefits.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2006. p. 128-
National Category
Gender Studies Social Sciences Interdisciplinary History
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-39117OAI: oai:DiVA.org:sh-39117DiVA, id: diva2:1358018
Conference
Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Vancouver, Canada, November 1-5, 2006.
Available from: 2019-10-06 Created: 2019-10-06 Last updated: 2019-10-07Bibliographically approved

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