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The Emancipation of man

The charming and intelligent statesman Olof Palme (30 January 1927 – 28 February 1986).


Dear readers,

In celebration of the birthday of Olof Palme, former Prime Minister of Sweden and great statesman, sadly murdered at the age of fifty-nine, I bring you a handwritten translation into Portuguese and a commentary in Portuguese and English of one of his most legendary lectures, “The Emancipation of Man”.

His text is six pages long in .doc file and it looks dusty. It is worth taking it out of the drawer, as it speaks splendidly about a current problem. At the end - you must scroll down - I present a brief analysis of what seemed most pertinent to me; my personal reservations about what has changed in the perception of social roles; and I also propose a strategic reflection on the advancement of this topic in our time.

I hope you enjoy the translation and can use it in your initiatives, artistic projects and discussions.

With love,

Ana Paula Arendt.

Original file:

Download PDF • 1.67MB


By Ana Paula Arendt*

What do I think of Mr. Olof Palme's arguments, and of his lecture “The Emancipation of Man”, and of a man taking it upon himself the duty to lecture women on gender equality? Well, first of all, it is important to take into account that he was speaking to us in 1970, within a very specific historical scenario that was definitely decisive for the immense social changes that countries in general would undergo, admitting women to the most diverse positions in the labour market. It seems that, if we aim for equality, it will be natural to admit that men will join in speaking and proposing policies on the subject. It would not be about equal rights, what we propose, if the gender problem were exclusively a women's issue!

Considering this, I think I have a caveat to present to the reader: that Dr. Palme's speech is concerned and focused mainly on the economic and legal elements related to the functioning of society, taking into account the rights and roles of men and women. Only subsidiarily he addresses the problem of children's health and integral development, and the values that guide society, in the composition of families.

But at that time science – and especially pediatrics – had not yet developed taking into account refined scientific methods. Remember, for example, that in subsequent decades powdered cow's milk became widespread; now infamous in the first year of life. Several doctors started to recommend it as a “stronger” food than breast milk, without presenting any sufficiently reliable scientific evidence to do so. The result of this hasty experiment was a generation with a greater propensity to be overweight and suffer from various illnesses. A pediatrician that I respect a lot, Dr. Antônio Lisboa - recently honored by the Hospital Materno-Infantil de Brasília, which now bears his name - was one of the few doctors who refused to adopt the use of cow's milk as an advantage for the health of the child. Not only did he warn that there was not enough evidence to say that human breast milk was any less suitable for a human being than cow's milk; but he was also responsible for organizing the first breast milk bank in Latin America. Some doctors who snubbed him as someone outdated and backward are no longer taken seriously.

The fact is that Dr. Lisboa, due to his long experience – he was long-lived – is supported by the results found in medical literature on neuroplasticity, by not recommending that a child attend school before the age of three, in line with Eisenberg, Murkoff and Hathaway – and suggests in his book to parents ideally that they do so just after the age of six. He recalls that during this period the child must explore the domestic space under well-defined routines and establish relationships of trust by interacting with the closest relatives. And he affirms that the construction of identity does not depend so much on social interaction with children of the same age, as their learning and development of social skills, their own identity, will be more effective and less confusing interacting lovingly with parents, older siblings, uncles and grandparents, in order to establish communication with each other. I considered – and this he said to me personally – that the equivalence of the roles of men and women in raising children is absurd. Equality being a conclusion that is not supported by health facts, reflecting much more a desire arising from a political discourse of progress than a conclusion about what really contributes and harms the child's development. 

Now, it is natural to realize that the mother's physical contact with the baby has a considerably greater impact on the child during their first years than the contact between the father and the child. Mother and child had another type of biological and physical bond, resulting both from conception and pregnancy, and it also comes as a consequence of breastfeeding. Today we know that moreover it involves the production of chemical substances that calm and regulate the child's nervous system, such as oxytocin. This remains true even in stressful situations when the children are older. Children who receive less physical and affectionate contact from their mother also become more susceptible to illnesses and social difficulties in adulthood. Dr. Lisboa stated – summarizing what several pediatricians with higher academic qualifications also affirm – that the child does not even discern that he or she is a separate part of his or her mother in the first years of life: this growth in perception occurs gradually. He summed it up well when he stated that it is possible to instinctively deduce all of this, when observing the interaction between mother and children, and when comparing its aspects to the interaction between father and children; which does not invalidate or compete with the importance of fatherhood, but makes these exercises fundamentally different.

At this point, Mr. Palme's speech seems to me to fail, since rights must be equal, but motherhood and fatherhood are not equivalent exercises. The separation between mother and children in different spaces is usually a traumatic event for the child and, therefore, affects their development. It also has impacts on maternal health, due to the effects of physical suffering, and not just psychological suffering. Therefore, achieving equality of rights in this regard requires subsequent compensation that respects and takes into account these differences. Furthermore, one cannot simply erase all the richness of human relationships. Human beings are not all the same, on the contrary, nature has provided each one with characteristics in an absolutely unique way. Parents and children, uncles, grandparents, do not all interact in the same way, and it would be foolish to ignore the affinities between mother and children, between father and children, or between relatives, in different homes, before making them equal, uncompromisingly. 

But let's look at today's scientific evidence as a whole that favors Palme's proposal: physical contact between mother and children is beneficial when it is affectionate and well proportioned; and a frustrated mother, who lives in a subjugated or alienated way about her condition, despised in the exercise of her rights and without better prospects for her future, will hardly be able to carry out this carefully, demonstrating balanced affection, in practice. This is something that Mr. Olof Palme's reasoning captures very well.

I am of the opinion that today we still suffer from this problem because we ignore it: women who are subjugated or alienated about their own condition simulate their own feelings. As a result, they develop very superficial family relationships, focused on themselves, because they have a permanent need to be fed and to reinforce a self-esteem they lack. Also in the social environment, they fail to make the contribution they could and to live amicably with other women, because they assume being less than others; and, as a result, even if assured in their role by social contracts, they react as if they were constantly threatened in their social role. 

From the point of view that concerns Mr. Palme, the impact of women's professional achievement and greater paternal presence on the child's development, and therefore well-being of a society, it is necessary to remember that the mother's affection towards her children and towards the other members of the family must be authentic, true, spontaneous: otherwise, the children will have emotional deficiencies and will also start to simulate their feelings, instead of expressing them. Thus, family dynamics will not provide a healthy environment, where energies are restored, but rather an environment of permanent tension, distance and dissatisfaction. And this is also true for the father who slows down at work to compensate for the hours when the mother is unavailable: if the family places too many expectations on the father's professional performance, he will be frustrated, sharing caregiving duties with children and household chores. Which leads me to think that social reform and the emancipation of man depend not just on these new institutional devices prepared by a government, but rather on the public debate and re-discussion of values about what success is. However, this is my perspective, from my personal experience of observing different families and what leads some to be happier than others, even if they do not show material signs of success or so much good appearance.

As I stated previously, it is necessary to take into account that, although the Swedish Prime Minister was concerned with early childhood, he had before him issues pertinent to the entire childhood and the impact that this care had on the professional development of women in the long term. Women did not just go through an overload of work in the child's first year of life, or in their first three years of life: they had to work double shifts until their children became independent, because society was moved this way by inertia. He was referring to a situation regrettably still experienced by many homes, in which the woman assumed 100% of the domestic responsibilities and all responsibility for caring for the children. What was under discussion, therefore, was also the division of domestic work and childcare, and not just reintegration into the job market after motherhood. In this sense, he seems to be telling us about two fundamental rights of each and every human being: the right to economic independence, and to income generating work that, in general results, does not reflect an inequality between the sexes; and the right to be happy having a profession.

Therefore, this old debate does not seem outdated at all, because Mr. Palme's arguments are developed in an honest and rational way. If, in his time, there was the scientific and medical information available today, he would certainly incorporate into his speech other types of social policies that aim to guarantee equal opportunities and rights between men and women, without disregarding the facts – such as the possibility of adapting work spaces to keep a close interaction between mother and children and between fathers and children, an idea that has been gradually developed with the adoption of daycare centers in the same workplaces. Certainly, in the future, new discoveries about what favors or harms children's health, or maternal and paternal health, could change the content of the proposed policies. What seems absurd today, the adaptation of work spaces to welcome and hold convivial relations with children, may be something obvious in the future. From which we may consider it very strange that a father would be so embarrassed by the unexpected visit of his young son to his office during an interview for a television channel…! After all, maybe the obligation to be sexually available, in a competitive professional sphere, is perhaps what generally leads to excluding and hiding family reality. That appears as a contradictory feature to clarify: if professional life depends on and benefits from personal happiness, as a success.

Leaving this important detail aside - the factor that motherhood cannot be equated with fatherhood for biological reasons, at least in the early years - the core of Mr. Palme's arguments, that it is antiquated to direct children to assume sexual roles in all spheres of life, seems extremely relevant, because he noticed a complete intransigence in society in separating these roles. Determinism seemed incompatible with the idea that an individual must enjoy fundamental freedoms to develop and discover new affinities. When he states that women are a neglected reserve of talent that is necessary for national development, and that women need to assume leadership positions and productive occupations to relieve men, so that they can assume greater responsibilities in raising children, he proposes to reformulate what real happiness and well-being are for men.

His ethical side also arises when he points out that it would be inconsistent to offer opportunities to women and, in practice, deny them those opportunities: if men do not effectively take on a more balanced part in domestic responsibilities and raising children, how can women compete in the job market and develop their talents? In a way, he draws our attention to the need for public policy to be honest and plausible.

But even if men were to reject this concept of “emancipation of man”, which he proposes to us as a real-life improvement of the male condition, previously focused on the material standard of living and professional status, Mr. Palme states that men, by enjoying family life and taking on greater responsibilities in raising children, produce a more harmonious and happy community. Now, men's and children's health is therefore rethought, but the point he makes us notice is thinking about the problem for the community as a whole, with women being half of that community. It is not just a problem related to women, or an update of public policies in relation to the rights we have achieved: it is also an update of our values. This reasoning seems particularly important for thinking about public policies related to gender issues. His spirit of freeing himself from prejudices suggests looking at the problem without turning it into a passionate or jurisdictional dispute; and, once a consensus has been reached on the facts, he suggests thinking about concrete solutions.

However, I don't want to summarize or substitute a commendable speech, very well written in his time, nor risk disorganizing such well-placed ideas. Mr. Palme brings us a valuable historical survey, telling us in detail how things were and how things changed in Sweden – after all, there was a time when that country faced the same social problems and the same persistence in antiquate ideas that we observed in less developed countries. And if social change was possible in that place from ground zero, today characterized as one of the most advanced societies... Now, wouldn't there be possible improvements in the other countries as well? He demystifies this idea that family roles have always been the same, as ultraconservatives try to sell us, remembering that, before the industrial revolution, men were more present in the home, and that they had much greater responsibility. The family was not always about the man working outside the home and the woman taking over the house.

The arguments he chooses also lead me to reflect on his immense courage. As we know, this Swedish Prime Minister was assassinated under extremely dark circumstances. More than 150 people confessed to his murder, when there was only one killer, according to witnesses. However, it would be insufficient to summarize his tragic fate simply by looking at who was the individual responsible for the shooting. The fact is that political assassinations generally occur due to a combination of many factors.

It would still be naive on our part to believe that someone, when proposing social changes that were so deeply rooted in his time, would not result in significant opposition! As Voltaire stated: preaching the truth and proposing something useful for humanity is an infallible recipe for being persecuted. Men who hold hegemony and wish to keep women excluded from what they have taken as their exclusive domains articulate themselves quickly and naturally. Perhaps Olof Palme encountered such resistance, and he notes this by stating that he cannot go into detail at the end of his address: “[Gender] problems are connected with other political problems that I cannot go into detail now.” , he claims. Men who wish to maintain the division of labor structure in which the complete burden of domestic service and childcare remains on women often use religious speeches to keep their advantages, often attracting other women to endorse them. Such men search to control the agenda that serves them most, by means of religious pretext or other ways. We find this also to be the case among men solely, when they belong to different political groups.

Nevertheless, when the political opposition fails to stop the changes, and they irreversibly spill over into a debate in public opinion, preventing any attempt to control the agenda, political violence inexorably erupts. It is expected, then, that fanatics and non-conformists encourage all types of people to join their hatred against these changes and invite more disaffected people to direct this hatred towards those who lead these transformations. After all, for women to occupy commanding positions, and not just subordinate ones, it is necessary for men to be displaced from these commanding positions. This proves to be extremely difficult in practice, as those in power have many instruments to retain it, or to maintain at least a hegemony for controlling the assignment and demises in command positions. In this regard, the transformation of values proposed by Olof Palme proves to be the most essential recipe.

But how to think about the security and defense of an agenda that involves too many dissatisfaction, and how to defend those men who come to adhere to common sense, so that they are not targets of reputational predation? Or even victims of violent attacks, when their reputation, being unblemished, cannot be diminished. The problem of protecting the lives and reputation of emancipated men is not just in theory, nor does it belong to a speculative dimension, by the way. 

It is an issue that has real consequences and economic effects, when we remember the succession in companies, in family conglomerates and in the monarchical governments of countries that are today great economic and technological powers, since the overcoming of the Salic law. The stability and governance of corporations and states, when women are at the helm, depend on well-thought-out architecture and solutions. A gradual adaptation to the new reality and simply let recalcitrant people accept the aimed new reality as a fact did not prove to be sufficient practices - at least History shows that they are not. Recalling the controversial circumstances at the time of Mr. Olof Palme's murder, and also the situation of recalcitrant men, who find themselves forced to abandon their motives, upon becoming targets of disapproval from their male and sometimes female peers, should lead us to think of better strategies on how to preserve these men from public hatred, from their peers and from lunatics. It seems also a challenge that we protect the relevance of emancipated men; without at the same time reducing the great amplitude of their opinions, or the scope of the political activity in which they engage.

At this point, the Swedish Prime Minister did not seem at all concerned about the political risks, but rather demonstrated that he was dedicated, at least in this address, to reflecting freely on these new values of equality that his country had been proudly supporting, demonstrating, and dreaming possible. It is difficult not to admire his courage and well-defined masculinity: he is an emancipated man, but who retains his primitive characteristics of throwing himself into battle. If he knows and describes the problem of the male role so well, it is because he has certainly experienced many difficulties. For all this, and not least, for his many political agendas, Olof Palme was so valued as a relevant leader in the world, in his time. Reading his text was a pleasant experience, and his words resonate as a relief of common sense even today. I recommend my readers to share it as much as possible. 

* Ana Paula Arendt, literary pseudonym of R. P. Alencar, is a political scientist, poet and diplomat.

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