On 9 May 1986, a new social-democratic government was formed in Norway, and a record established. The new prime minister appointed a cabinet in which nearly half the ministers were women. This act created an international media sensation. The Wall Street Journal dedicated its front page to the story—‘A Distressed Norway Counts on Its Women to Set Things Right’—and another us journal, Ms Magazine, chose the prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, as its ‘Woman of the Year’. Five years later, the media had another record to celebrate: by May 1991 half of the major political parties in Norway had elected a woman as leader. What is more, in the two governments following the Brundtland administration of 1986–89—one non-socialist coalition cabinet and one new Labour cabinet—the same high proportion of ministerial posts was held by women. The last two parliamentary elections have resulted in women occupying about 35 per cent of the seats. This compares to a participation level twenty years ago of below 10 per cent—still the ceiling of many Western countries today.

In the last two decades, Norwegian women’s experience of work-force integration has been one common to most Western countries; this increased participation has been reflected in changing employment and trade-union-membership ratios of women to men. But while in traditional political arenas both horizontal and vertical divisions are being erased, within the market-based sector they largely remain, women here being clustered in a few, albeit large, corporations. Relative to their membership, women have achieved few leadership positions within the major unions. Such positions within private business corporations are still almost exclusively held by men, as they are within the state bureaucracy. Within academic institutions the number of women equals the number of men only at the student level.

There is a growing international demand for a proven formula on the promotion of women by political parties; and politicians and political scientists are now practised in providing answers. But how are we to explain the relatively untypical trends in the process of political integration, and the differing patterns within the public spheres? How should we understand a situation where, in the same fairly small community, some male parties have opened their doors to women—even to the exclusion of fellow men—while their neighbours still keep the safety-catch on? This challenge forms the point of departure for this article on Norwegian feminist influences. Standard explanations of ‘the Norwegian experience’ tend largely to ignore the puzzle of varying patterns within different spheres of public life. Concentrating on the success story of political integration, they stress either favourable contextual factors such as proportional representation and multi-party competition, or a receptive political culture containing strong norms of justice, equality and solidarity, or the political activism of a relatively strong women’s movement.

Such factors are obviously less relevant to the hiring processes within private business, the state bureaucracy or academia, where standards of ‘merit’ still provide the major justification for selective practices that either help maintain, or only slowly change, skewed ratios. While competing for recruits both within and across their own boundaries, these institutions remain largely immune to claims of unfairness based on justifications other than proof of discrimination against individuals. However, references to competition for membership, to the dominant cultural climate, and to pressure politics might have more relevance to selection processes within labour unions, where the leaderships are elected not only on the basis of ‘merit’ but on that of interest protection. Comparing parties to labour organizations, we might thus consider why the norms of equality so beneficial to party women have made less impact on unions, or why a strong women’s movement has primarily influenced political parties.

The process of women’s political integration accelerated dramatically at the beginning of the 1980s, when the Labour Party joined the Socialist Left Party in the adoption of quota regulations for all party posts. But within the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions similar quota demands have met with strong resistance, and have so far been rejected. On this issue of integration politics we thus find the traditionally close labour-movement allies, the Labour Party and the Confederation, as antagonists. Why have the two branches of the movement adopted different and opposing positions?