Linda Briskin and Mona Eliasson, eds. Women’s Organizing and Public Policy in Canada and Sweden. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999, 374 pp. $65.00 cloth.

This book responds to the growing demand for literature on women and public policy, and adds to the three-decade-long debates on women, the state, welfare and citizenship. The 11 articles are a welcome contribution to comparative studies in the western context, and reflect the more recent focus on transnational research and globalization.

The comparison between Canada and Sweden is well founded. There is a need for research that surpasses the North American tendency to idealize Nordic countries as a Paradise for women. The range of articles in this collection explores this myth with reference to a wide range of public policies: immigration, employment, political participation, education, family policy, health, sexuality and sexual orientation. The authors generally succeed in bringing out the main theme of women’s organizing in different public policy areas in the two countries. However, there is some unevenness in the incorporation of women’s organizations into the discussion of various policies. Some (e.g. Rianne Mahon), focus less on women’s organizing, whereas others (e.g. Barbara Cameron and Lena Gonäs) present a more dynamic view in which the actions and reactions of women’s organizations are more fully explored. This unevenness may be reflective of the interdisciplinary nature of the collection, and in no way diminishes the solid thematic unity of the book.

Linda Briskin’s introductory article about the themes in women’s organizing in Sweden and Canada is an excellent overview of the dilemmas presented by the differences of insider vs. outsider organizing in the women’s movement. The chapter is nicely complemented by the tightly packaged overview of women’s organizing and state initiatives in Sweden and Canada by Christina Bergqvist and Sue Findlay. Together, these two contributions are a useful addition to feminist organizational sociology where the insider/outsider conceptual theme is being fully developed in the late 1990s. This main theme is explored by most of the other authors in this collection, most of whom avoid the dangers of oversimplification of the distinction between Sweden’s institutionalized (insider) women’s politics and the general social movements (outsider) orientation in Canada. Together, the articles present a rich and complex picture of women’s input in different policy areas in the two countries.

A most useful contribution in this regard is by Barbara Cameron and Lena Gonäs, whose examination of economic and political integration (North American free trade agreements and the European Union) gives substance to the frequently abstract and overly generalized arguments about the dangers of globalization. The authors identify specific concerns of women’s organizations regarding the balance of labour market policies and social services. The commonalities between Canada and Sweden give substance to the general observation that more centralized mechanisms are less conducive to women’s participation and input. The authors conclude that the Swedish women’s insider position in politics is better able to forward a women’s agenda. However, they also imply that Swedish women’s political locus promotes an incorporation of a wider range of women’s political ideologies. This may result in the muting of a more critical feminist viewpoint, even though women are being institutionalized in the structures of the European Union. Accompanied with this paradox is the legal dichotomy between production and reproduction which calls for completely new organizational strategies and alliances in the women’s movement. The complex dynamics of women’s participation and representation are brought forth with crisp clarity.

Some of the other articles do not fully live up to the theoretical promise and methodological rigour of the contributions mentioned in the last two paragraphs. In the light of recent theorizing in the area of women and citizenship, I would have welcomed more fresh insights that would catalyze further research. Thus, although generally useful and sound, Rianne Mahon’s treatment of child care policy, Linda Briskin’s chapter on women in unions, Mona Eliasson and Colleen Lundy’s article on violence against women, and Becki L. Ross and Catharina Lundström’s discussion of lesbian identity and organizing are somewhat predictable. Chantal Maillé’s treatment of women’s organizations and political parties is more promising because it begins with a theoretical discussion of representation. Unfortunately, the theoretical premise is not fully carried to the conclusions. The chapters on immigration by Wuokko Knocke and Roxana Ng, and on education by Rebecca Priegert Coulter and Inga Wernersson, clearly outline the policies in the respective areas. However, both would benefit from additional comparative statistics, to orient readers to the significance of the issues they discuss. A similar weakness is evident in Georgina Feldberg and Marianne Carlsson’s chapter on women’s health. More justifications are needed for the selection of fibromyalgia as an important health issue for women over such major health concerns as cardiovascular diseases.

In the end, the book is a definite improvement over the traditional sanitized, detached and revisionist presentation of research methods and research designs. In their extremely interesting preface, the editors point to the multiple problems that each of the researchers faced in engaging themselves in a comparative research project, including a discussion of the problems that arise from privileging the English language in collaborative transnational research, issues of collaboration, and how to overcome competitiveness in comparative research. These frank exchanges are helpful in orienting readers and researchers to the problematic tangle of social relations, expressions and concepts that can plague comparative collaborative research. In drawing a parallel to the criticism of western researchers by women in developing countries (p. viii), the collection is critical of both western and non-western essentialism.

Vappu Tyyskä
Department of Sociology
Ryerson Polytechnic University

November 1999
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