SJFE : Women and Law in Europe

WOMEN AND POLITICS IN SCANDINAVIA

January 1997 (English, French)

Anu Pylkkänen (University of Helsinki)
E-Mail : anu.pylkkanen@helsinki.fi

Finnish women : from quantitative to qualitative equality

Finland can be taken as a good example to demonstrate what is usually characterised as “Nordic” equality : independency and integration of the women at all the levels of society. As Finland and the Finnish women have just celebrated the 90th anniversary of the suffrage and eligibility that were accorded to women in 1906, it is now a good opportunity to analyse both the successes and the problems of these developments. Finnish women, as well as those of the other Nordic countries, have been in general treated as positive examples of gender equality - for instance, in the surveys of the United Nations. On the other hand, such progressive change has not been implemented without problems.

Formal equality and (almost) a parity model of politics having come into being, it is now about time to direct the discussion on equality to new paths : it is not a matter of quantitative questions only but rather of more qualitative ones. In fact, there has always been a discrepancy between quantitative and qualitative equality, but up until very recently formal equality and a certain illusion of equality have hidden the persistent gendered structures of the Finnish society, e.g. wage gap, gendered division of the labour market, sexual harassment or violence against women. In this sense, the Nordic countries cannot be described as the paradise of women they often are claimed to be. The rather contradictory developments in these countries show that not only the formal equality in the public sphere but also the gendered hierarchies in intimate relations should be reconsidered and reformed so as to achieve real equality. In this respect, it is of vital importance to ask if feminist politics concentrating on these issues is possible, whether it exists, or if it is, on the whole, possible to overcome traditional political distinctions. And what is more important, we must ask ourselves if we need feminist politics as such, considering how divergent the situations and interests of different women can be. I would myself answer this question of a possibility of feminist politics in the affirmative but, at the same time, it is important to be aware of the danger of assigning women as a whole to one particular interest group or category. 

History : Finnish women were among the first in Europe to stand for suffrage

Finnish women have a long history of participation in political life. Finland, among the very first countries in the whole world, in 1906 gave the vote to women, including the possibility to stand as candidates in parliamentary elections, and the Finnish Parliament was the first in Europe to be essentially democratic. Finnish nationalism united the people, women included, in the campaign against Russian imperialism, and it is this fact that probably has much favoured the vote for women. But it has equally been maintained that in reality this was an achievement of women themselves : without an active women’s movement (not only a suffragist movement but women from all parties, liberal, conservative as well as social democratic women), the reform might not have taken place. The other Nordic countries passed similar legislation a little later : Norway in 1913, Denmark in 1915 and Sweden in 1921. At the same time, the marriage legislation was reformed throughout Scandinavia to give married women full legal capacity.

History : 15-17 th century : prevaling domestic and rural values.

To my mind, this phenomenon has its roots in Scandinavian history. According to the oldest prevailing sources, the sagas, women in mediaeval society lacked neither social nor political power. When all Scandinavia was a Union in the 15th century, Queen Margaret reigned over the whole area. The Christian influence seems to have increased control of women, ending their strong public role, and during the 17th century absolutism in the feudal military state, the control of especially female sexuality reached its peak.

But as the Swedish Empire was large and it was impossible to implement all the disciplinary aims equally effectively in all parts of the state, local agrarian customs remained for a long time strong, for example in Finland, which remained part of Sweden up until 1809. In other words, the centralised state could not discipline and normalise all its people despite its systematic effort to do so, and thus the common people could continue to apply the traditional agrarian values : for example, the strong position of the household matron, parallel working roles of men and women, or the concept of honour in the sexual relationships diverging from that of the official rules of matrimony. Evidently, the poverty of the country was “favourable “ to women : their labour and responsibilities were of vital importance to the community. These traditional agrarian values did not cease to influence society - the modernisation of society was on the whole a late phenomenon - and in fact the modern national (welfare) state is to a large extent based on the values and solidarities of the agrarian society.

In modern politics, the rural values can be identified in the importance of female waged labour, a tendency to think in communitarian ways (understood as a way of seeing the whole nation as a community), or an absence of a strong bourgeois or civilised culture (and absence of the kind of ego constitution as defined in the European intellectual tradition). The differentiated gender structures are, in fact, relatively weakly developed. This also means that there actually is an equality conception based on a one-dimensional thinking of gender where equality is considered an issue of the public sphere only. The problems of the private life and intimate relations are less discussed and analysed.

Going beyond formal equality

Throughout this century, there have always been women members of parliament. In 1907, 10% of MP’s were women, in 1991, 39% and in 1995, 34% (Sweden has now the world record with its 43% of women MP’s). In the other Nordic countries also, it has been a rule for women to constitute one third of the MP’s. The proportional suffrage and coalition governments (especially in Finland) are perhaps some of the most important factors behind this phenomenon, but it is equally a question of nominating the candidates in the parties. The proportion of women elected increased in the same proportion as the candidates. The first woman to become a minister was Miina Sillanpää in 1926, and the present government has 7 women ministers out of 17 (the ministers of foreign affairs, finance, communications, labour, defence, and both ministers of social affairs). Up until the 1980’s, there was a stricter division along gender lines : most women ministers were in charge of the social and health affairs, education or culture. On the other hand, in the past few decades, we have witnessed an emergence of women’s networks that have included women politicians from all the parties.

The promotion of gender equality by the welfare state

Finnish women have always relied on the state as the means of promoting gender equality and women’s interests. But we could claim that the Finnish welfare state is to a large extent a creation of women politicians. As women have been integrated into politics at an early date, the interests of women and the nation state have been considered parallel. The integration of women has thus followed the masculine model, or at least it is evident that the private life and family affairs have never been totally differentiated from the public or social interests.

In reality, the egalitarian policies have never been able to change the gendered power relations. This is the critique that unites women in criticism in all Scandinavian countries. Despite the long traditions of formal rules of equality and parity model politics, power has always escaped women. The democratic process has not altered the hierarchical divisions based on gender. This fact alone shows that, in addition to formal parity, we also need a reassessment of values and thinking patterns. Of course, one cannot deny the importance of equal political representation and agency as an essential aspect of a democracy on all levels.

EU economic and monetary integration : a challenge to women’s rights

But it is especially the qualitative discussion we lack in Finland : how can women influence the conditions of politics ? What would be the contents of feminist politics ? For example, women have been the strongest critics of the European monetary union and single currency because of their direct influence on women’s interests ; the threat they pose to the welfare state, especially to its system of modern social services (e. g. day care) - that, at least in Scandinavia -, are considered as the primary condition for real equality. The process of convergence is taking place at the same time as public budgets are being radically reduced. Indeed, a majority of all committees and working groups connected with economic integration are of male composition, especially in the ministry of finance - against the quotas rules of the Equality Act of 1987 (revised in 1995). Therefore, it is European integration and the decisions of privileged corporatist elites that make women feel uneasy right now. But, as the political tradition defines economy as an entirely male issue, questions of gender equality seldom appear in the discussion on economy, and, on the whole, men and male biased rhetoric dominates the field. 

Redefining feminist policies

To sum up, I would like to raise an issue about the whole concept of female agency and female policy : how does it fit into the structural inequalities and gender as social construction ? What are we talking about when we talk of women and women’s influence in politics ? As I have been trying to show, the parity model for equality does not solve the problem ; either it is a question of adjustment into the maleness of the politics or, despite overt distinctions, there are social, cultural and political practices that persistently reproduce differences along gender lines. To avoid both essentialism and total nihilism, we should be able to redefine the concepts of female subjectivity and political agency, as well as the feminine, as something beyond the present symbolic order of gender hierar-chy. It seems to me that the traditional thinking of equality, as well as equality policies themselves, do not necessarily help us get away from the dichotomous thinking of gender and gender equality. Why should, for example, the questions of family, social security and health belong only to women ? This is why we need a more subtle and qualitative analysis of both the agents and contents of policies for women. I hope we don’t need to continue a campaign for equality where women again are totalised as a group and again the voices of all different women with different sexual identities, races, ethnic origins or social standings would be included in a concept of femininity as if it were a mysterious and coherent, if not even natural, identity. The ethics and morals of feminist politics should be derived from multiplicity - the values and rationalities we want to include in politics should be ones that would tend to disperse rather than centralise political power. What is most important is that women everywhere are included in the political processes, their voices heard, and questions connected with gender hierarchy openly discussed.

Proportion of women in the Finnish Parliament from 1907 to 1995 (out of a total of 200 MP’s)

year per cent
%
number year per cent
%
number year per cent
%
number year per cent
%
number
1907 10 19 1922 10 20 1951 15 29 1983 31 62
1908 13 25 1924 9 17 1954 15 30 1987 32 63
1909 11 21 1927 9 17 1958 14 28 1991 39 77
1910 9 17 1929 8 15 1962 14 27 1995 34 67
1911 7 14 1930 6 11 1966 17 33
1913 11 21 1933 7 14 1970 22 43
1916 12 24 1936 8 16 1972 22 43
1917 9 18 1939 8 16 1975 23 46
1919 9 17 1945 9 17 1979 26 52
1948 12 24

 

Milestones on the path to equal opportunities

(Source: Women and Men in the Nordic Countries. Facts and Figures 1994. Nord 1994:3. The Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen.)

 

Milestones . Denmark
year
Finland
year
Iceland
year
Norway
year
Sweden
year
Inheritance Equal rights of inheritance for women and men 1857 1878 1850 1854 1845
Majority
Unmarried women attain majority
- at 25 years
- at 21 years

Married women attain majority


1857
-

1899


1864
1898

1930


1861
-

1900


1863
1869

1888


1863
1884

1921

Politics Women gain right to vote and become eligible to be elected
- in local elections
- in parliamentary elections

First woman in Parliament

First woman Cabinet Minister

First woman as Prime Minister

First woman as President of Parliament

 

1908
1915

1918

1924

1981

1918
1906

1907

1926

1994

1909
1915

1922

1970

1988(1)

1910
1913

1922

1945

1981

1993

1908
1921

1921

1947

1991

Family planning Contraceptive pill approved

Women’s right to abortion on demand

mi 1960

1973

1961

(2)

1966

-

1967

1978

1964

1975

Parental leave Parents granted shared paid maternity/ paternity leave after a child is born

Part of parental leave is reserved for the father

Right to 6-hour-working day for parents of small children


1984

-

-


1978

-

1988


1980

-

-


1978

1991

-


1964

(3)

1979

Education and
economic activities
Women admitted to universities

Same rights as men in the civil service

Women granted right to ordination

First woman bishop

First woman on Supreme Court

Equal pay for same position in civil service

Equal pay for same position in private sector

Act on Equal Opportunities at Work

1875

1921

1947

-

1953

1919

1973

1978

1901

1926

1988

-

1970

1962

1962


-

1911

1911

1911

-

1982

1945

1961


1973

1884

1938

1952

1993

1982

1959

1961


-

1873

1925

1958

-

1968

1947

1980


1980

Act on Equal Opportunities . . 1987 1976 1979 .

(1) Of Lower House only in 1961
(2) Abortion legislation 1970, on social and medico-social grounds
(3) Government Bill February 1994, “father’s month”.