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Women have been involved in politics in Finland for so long that their long history in this area makes it easy to include the question of equality in all decision-making, says Päivi Setälä.

    Tough Finnish women

    - statistics and myths

    Maria Seppälä


If we are to believe the statistics, women in the Nordic countries are equal to men. Nordic women have full-time jobs, they look after the children and the home, and even take part in politics. But what has it taken for the Nordic woman to gradually enter the working life of her country, and by that token, its social and political discourse? The book The Finnish Woman, edited by the wife of the Finnish Premier, history teacher Päivi Lipponen, and Docent Päivi Setälä from the University of Helsinki´s Department of History, has approached its subject from the angles of feminist history, cultural politics and folklore as well as labour culture. The book was published this autumn in Finnish and English.


"Foreigners often ask us how we Nordic women with families manage to work full-time. Our answer is that it is made possible by school lunches and the statutory right to day care." This quotation is from the preface of the book The Finnish Woman. According to Setälä, they did not set out to create a mythical image of the Finnish woman, but to relate and analyse those issues that have led to the improvement of female status and to legal equality in Finland. They also wanted to show how in Finland, unlike in other countries, tenacious hard work towards equality in both the Parliament and the non-governmental organisations has yielded good results. Since Finland´s presidency has now turned the eyes of the other European Union countries towards her, Setälä and Lipponen found it especially important to seize the moment and promote Finnish feminist research.

The role of the state in the Nordic countries is very different to that in many other European Union countries. Even the concept of a Nordic welfare state is different from its equivalent in the Catholic world. The Nordic model is based on the individualism of the citizen. For example, there is no family taxation in Finland - women work outside the home just as the men do, and are not financially dependent on their husbands. One of the achievements of the Finnish welfare state is the statutory right to day care. It places local governments under an obligation to provide full-time day care for all children under school age. In Finland, children begin school at the age of seven, or a year earlier if the parents so wish. The legislation has thus played a significant part in enabling mothers to work full-time.


Still not equal

Despite the fact that men and women are still not socially fully equal, they have always worked side by side in Finland. Political parties and labour union organisations have traditionally had their own women´s organisations, working alongside the men towards correcting social wrongs. The birth of a separate feminist culture is relatively new. Only the so-called radical feminist movement created a demand for the development of activities exclusively for women, and started emphasising the respective special gender characteristics. "The more radical feminist trend has to do with the general wave of social and political consciousness which started in the 1960s. Women have often been part of the birth of new social movements, although the history books keep quiet about them later," says Setälä, who herself has encountered the masculinity of written history while doing research on women of antiquity.

Although it has been a question of emancipation, the women´s groups have not acted outside society, but rather tried to change it from within. "The fact that women have had a voice in Finland is based on their presence in all of the social forums. In the traditional agricultural society, the women were strongly present, as they still are today, as influential members of both political and non-governmental organisations," Setälä says, and continues: "For example in Italy, where I lived for several years, women´s organisations act outside the social decision-making process. Their voice does not reach the cabinets."


Equality has its roots in tradition

In agrarian Finland, the woman of the house looked after the farmstead and the children while the men worked the fields or did timber work. The division of work was not always, however, so clear-cut. The poor agrarian country needed the labour input of both women and children, including for physically demanding work. And today, despite the fact that she works full-time, the woman usually ends up being in charge of the household work and child-rearing. "Still, female labour has always been under-estimated," Setälä says. Even though their status has been secured in law, the female-dominated professions are generally lower-paid, and socially undervalued. A man draws a bigger salary than his equally-qualified female colleague for doing the same job.

On the other hand, the previously-mentioned legislation has underlined the importance of women´s education and labour. In the Nordic countries, women are not tied to their homes. This also has to do with the idea of individualism. "Nobody assumes that the elderly are looked after at home, or that the women rush home to feed their children in the middle of the day," says Setälä, underlining the difference between Finland and southern Europe.

"Women have been involved in politics in Finland for so long that their long history in this area makes it easy to include the question of equality in all decision-making," Setälä explains. Finnish women were the first in Europe to be granted the vote, in 1906, and of the first elected parliament, ten per cent were women. "Although women, once they enter politics, mostly concentrate on the traditional women´s issues - the welfare of mothers and children, and domestic issues - one has to bear in mind that in recent years Finland has seen women in positions such as the Minister of Finance, and Minister for Defence," Setälä reflects. "Soon, gender discrimination in the labour market and in politics will be history. There simply aren´t such people in decisive positions any longer who would consider issues of equality as insignificant. That would be political suicide. That´s how politically incorrect it is," Setälä sums up. But there is a counter-argument to her opinion, and it too is represented in their book. According to that argument, the Finnish social and political situation could best be described with the term Ågender consensus´. Gender consensus contains the idea that issues of equality are not discussed in the open, because true equality has already been achieved in Finland. Therefore, feminism and equality work are often branded as fanaticism, which is considered both embarrassing and slightly ridiculous at the same time.