Sweden: Mothers on the Run and Other Atrocities, Sweden 1990

Sweden: Mothers on the Run and Other Atrocities, Sweden 1990

by Phyllis Chesler

SWEDEN: October 1,1990.

The flight is uneventful — except that somewhere over the Atlantic I turn 50.1 arrive in Stockholm almost “as naked as the day I was born,” i.e., they’ve lost my luggage. It’s chilly, I’m wearing summer clothes, but SAS agrees to give me a clothing allowance.

The Hotel Oden: A welcoming row of lamps, perennially lit against the soft, gray Nordic sky: Happiness — a sauna and a machine that serves capuccino, another machine that expertly shines your shoes with you still in them — and a sex club just across the street. Norwegian born feminist theologian Eva Lundgren sends Amy Elman, an American-born graduate student, to my rescue. We buy the most beautiful coat in all of Stockholm: Areally fine birthday present. Over coffee, rich and strong, we discuss, non-stop, the situation of women in Sweden.

Despite its world-class reputation as a humane and enlightened state, and despite the existence of legalized prostitution and pornography, reported rape is on the increase: Only the number of convictions for rape has decreased. So much for the illusion that legal prostitution will limit male sexual violence to the “bad” girls and spare the “good” girls.

Most (80 percent) of Swedish women are segregated into 11 low-paid professions. Women (at least 20 percent, according to one recent study) are also sexually harassed on the job. Those who complain encounter on-the-job retaliation. More important, such harassment is not officially viewed as a problem. By law, men and women are “equal” as workers. If one (female) worker is harassed or raped by another (male) worker there is no redress. The Swedish government does not, as yet, fund research into male violence against women; it funds, but only minimally, the 110 shelters for battered women, some of which have been in existence since 1979. The shelters are largely dependent on female volunteers.

Officially, I’ve been invited by the Swedish Research Council on The Humanities and Social Sciences to participate in a three-day international conference in Stockholm; to give lectures at Uppsalla, Sweden’s oldest university; and at Umea, its newest, not far from Lapland.

My first night in Stockholm, I visit the Europe of royalty, the Europe of tourists: The narrow, cobbled streets of the Old City, the fairytale outline of castles and ships against the sky, and dine by candlelight on smoked fish, caviar, wine.

October 2, 1990. Back to reality. I visit Alia Kvinnas Haus, the Stockholm Shelter for Battered Women. Gun Englund, the second-in-command of ROKS, the shelter’s national umbrella group, is my guide and translator. The shelter is a huge three-story building with three separate entrances and enough room for a bookstore, child care center, meeting hall, theater, offices and a kitchen — in addition to the five private apartments that house 17 women and children. Everything is cheerful, brightly painted. I gaze at the lighted windows of the five apartments on free, feminist soil. (Well, not exactly free. Paid for by the city, by membership dues, by the proceeds from the bookstore and from cultural programs.)

Afterwards .dinner with Gun in a nearby cafe. “Have you ever been to a sex club?” I ask her. I’ve begun to ask this of every feminist I meet. Apparently, no one has. Amy Elman once tried, but was told she couldn’t enter without a man.

“Why do you want to go, Phyllis?” Gun asks me.

“Either we’ll go and enjoy ourselves,” I reply (at this, Gun looks horrified), “or we’ll go and feel our feelings: Embarrassment, desire, fear, terror…”

“Maybe anger,” says Gun. Slowly. “Right,” I respond. “Maybe we’ll overturn some tables.”

“Oh,” says Gun, smiling. “I’ll call up my boyfriend to come with us so we can get in.” (He won’t, it’s getting late, and we part.) Last year, when I gave a lecture for the 10th anniversary of the Feminist Therapy Clinic in Tokyo I also suggested going over to “hang out” in the red-light district known as Shinju-ku — all 800 of us. (Well, why not? A girl can dream can’t she?)

October 3, 1990. Birgitta Holm, on the faculty in Comparative Literature, drives me to Upsalla, Sweden’s Oxford University. Professors in berets ride by on their bicycles in slow motion, as if World War II has yet to happen. Upsalla is where the original Nazi eugenics research was first done. I meet Professors Eva Lundgrenand Mona Eliasson of the Feminist Research Center; they explain that there is only one full professor in each department in every Swedish university. Always, it’s a man.

My lecture is on Human Psychology in the 21st Century, but I focus on female psychology: Colonized, at the heart of culture, yet in exile. I ask: “Has a Nobel Prize ever been given to a woman on behalf of her fight for women’s freedom? Don’t we have our Nelson Mandelas, our Elie Wiesels?” Mona is enchanted by the educational value of raising this idea. “Of course,” I hastily explain, “such a prize would have to be awarded to many women simultaneously from many countries.” I have wine and cheese and, after many happy hours, depart.

Birgitta and I stop in a gas station. A van pulls up and out pile three men in their early 20s. They are tall: Six feet three or four inches, sport an earring in one ear; have bright blonde hair that cascades down their backs. Oh, I am in the land of the Vikings.

October 4. The international conference is at Sodergarn, a retreat on the North Sea. It is damp, windy, already growing dark when I arrive.

There are three women from America, myself included, and 26 women academics from Austria, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Scotland, Sweden and the United States. I’m part of the opening night panel. My colleagues, Eva Lundgren, Rebecca Emerson Dobash, and a philosopher from Paris, are sitting together in the neardark. The atmosphere is tense. The philosopher arrived two days ago by train (“she does not believe in air travel”) and has impatiently been waiting for the conference to begin. The philosopher also does not believe in switching on lights — which is why we’re sitting in the dark. Nor does she believe in communicating with us in anything less than perfect French; an interpreter has been hired just for her.

We introduce ourselves, try to warm things up a bit. No dice. Our philosopher remains disdainful, aloof, amused. Rebecca speaks about her research on violence against women: Our philosopher interrupts. “But you can’t believe that the state actually exists. The state is only an idea. You must respond to this point.” And Rebecca does. “Anyone who thinks the police officer coming to arrest you is only an idea is living in a fantasy of her own.”

I introduce myself. The philosopher interrupts me, too. “My group in Paris decided that with the publication of About Men that Phyllis Chesler was no longer a feminist.” “What was the vote on that?” I wisecrack, but politely, carefully. This is no laughing matter. This woman is capable of destroying our conference. (Is she mad? Does it matter?) Now, our philosopher removes a two-page, closelytyped memo from her briefcase and hands it to the interpreter. This, and this alone, is her introduction.

Afterwards, Rebecca says: “We must not let her polarize us, or drain our energy. I’ve heard this is what she does at conferences.” Eva is worried. The Swedish Council, which funded us, has sent two representatives, Bo Ohngren and Bo Sarlvik, to observe the conference. They are men and they are here.

The/bur of us have two hours to present our papers and lead a discussion. Our philosopher spends one hour reading her paper in French and having it translated aloud, sentence by sentence, into English — this, despite the fact that her paper has already been translated into English and passed out to everyone. She refuses to stop, then abruptly ends by saying that had she known the conference would not be in French she would not have come. (“But our correspondence was all in English,” Eva whispers.)

Shoulder to shoulder, we resolve not to confront her. Instead, we try to save what’s left of the evening. Eva cuts her presentation short, Rebecca does not present at all, I speak for about 10 minutes, and try to rouse the women’s spirits. No one speaks. We/they are too dispirited.

The philosopher is sly, sadistic, imperious, eccentric, and no doubt brilliant. Were she a man, her interpersonal disasters would be smoothed over by her wife, her mistress, her mother. But she is a woman and must bear the consequences of her actions, alone and immediately. Softly, politely, we avoid philosophy; hardly anyone talks to her for the rest of the conference.

The women are extremely friendly, highspirited, accomplished, and refreshingly non-competitive; we range in age from our 30s to our 60s. Working together gives me pleasure. Everyone has something of enormous value to contribute. Perhaps not everyone has to be an activist or sacrifice her all to bring a feminist government into being.

October 7,1990. Umea, an hour’s plane ride north of Stockholm, a university town of 80,000. Ingegard Lundstrom, Maggi Wikstrom and Agneta Lundstrom of the Women’s Crisis Center have invited me; their collective is reportedly the most radically feminist in Sweden. They deal with incest, rape, battery. Lately they’ve had to deal with mothers and children in custody crisis — which is what they want to focus on in our workshop. They’ve also arranged a lecture for me at the university, which to their surprise, is very well attended.

The Crisis Center women are quite wonderful. Professionally, they are nurses, physicians, psychologists and grassroots leaders. They’ve been together for 11 years. Agneta has just published a book on incest and sexualized violence against women; Ingegard, a psychologist, was on the faculty at the university, but is now working at the Crisis Center fulltime. They’ve cooked a splendid dinner for us and quite ceremoniously light candles for our workshop. (Even at the university, they light candles in the lecture hall.)

There’s a growing custody crisis in Sweden: The Umea feminists have all read my book Mothers on Trial in English. They tell me that the media, the judiciary, and the Parliament are sympathetic to fathers rights and that social workers and psychiatrists are suspicious of any mother who interferes with any father’s right to visitation or who accuses a father of incest or child abuse. (Am I surprised? Did I somehow think that Sweden was a feminist paradise?) Nora, in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” knew she wouldn’t be allowed to take Helmer’s children with her when she left; Ingmar Bergman in “Fanny and Alexander,” shows us a typical 19th century Swedish custody battle: A mother’s new, legal husband simply kidnaps and imprisons her children as his rightful marital property.

My point is that we don’t shed our histories so quickly. Today, there are mothers on the run, mothers in hiding, in Sweden. For example, a mother I’ll call Anna, has been in hiding for nearly a year. Divorced since last year, she began to grow concerned when, in 1988, her two- and-ahalf-year-old son returned with a reddened anus after visiting his father. The boy began putting items into the anus of dolls; he said he didn’t want to see his father.

Anna was reluctant to believe that anything was wrong; the boy’s child care center began to ask the hard questions. A local shelter for battered women helped Anna find two sexual abuse experts, both of whom confirmed the abuse. However, a prominent psychiatrist claimed that “no one,” including himself, “had enough knowledge to say if a child had or hadn’t been sexually abused.” (Shades of our own Elizabeth Morgan case, where this also happened. (Anna finally refused visitation to the father and was fined by the judge. Then, with the help of the “best” woman lawyer in Stockholm, Anna fought to deny him visitation. Nevertheless, the judge awarded the father sole custody, citing a new law which gives custody to the parent deprived of visitation. (This is very similar to a trend, not a law, in our country.)

Anna dropped out of sight a year ago, her life on hold, an outlaw.

The Umea feminists tell me about other recent atrocities: The case of two doctors who photographed their autopsy and total vivisection of a young prostitute. (They were arrested when someone finally remembered having processed the photographs for them.) The physicians claimed they didn’t kill her and had no explanation for why they cut her up, kept the pictures and quietly disposed of her body parts. Neither man was convicted.

Strong, Jack-the-Ripper stuff. I’ve always wanted to create a memorial to our wounded and our dead, perhaps based on what happens to women, worldwide, in just one month, the number of women beaten, tortured, raped, killed…This memorial would have more names on it than the Vietnam War Memorial.

The Umea feminists treat me to a Swedish massage and to a tour of the museum; they present me with a silver moose necklace for my birthday — a copy of a recently discovered cave painting nearby. I’ll treasure it.

I’m blessed by such feminists in the world. They/we are the feminist government in exile.