Centenary of women's full political rights in Finland

Finnish Women Acting in the Nation from the 1830s to the 20th century

Eira Juntti

Recognizing the constructedness of nation states and nations has become a commonplace in studies of nationalism, and such studies have appeared also in Finland. But what is far less recognized and has had far less impact on studies of nationalism both in Finland and in many other countries is the way in which nations are gendered spaces, and that the gendering of the nation was an integral part of the nationalist ideology and the creation of social practices that accompanied the creation of the nation. Karen Hagemann in her analysis of the nationalist discourse in the early 19th century German speaking states argues that ”contemporaries conceived of national identity in gender-specific terms and of gender identity, in its concrete cultural incarnation, in national terms” (Hagemann 2001, 7). The newspaper texts from Finnish language papers published from the 1830s through the 1850s lead to the same conclusion: Finnish national identity was gender-specific, Finnish women were depicted as having different characteristics than Finnish men ¹, and were therefore envisioned to participated in the creation of the nation in a different capacity then Finnish men. In other words, it is not that women did not participate in the creation of the Finnish nation but that they participated in a very different capacity then men did.

When it comes to gender and nationalism and specifically women’s political participation, Finland is often signaled out – not least by Finns themselves – as an example because of the fact that Finland was the first European country to franchise women in 1906. In light of my argument that gender was of profound importance in ’ordering’ the Finnish nation and that the contemporaries were fully aware of the gendered nature of the nation they were building, I would like to attempt to put the fact of women’s early enfranchisement in a perspective. Obviously, the fact that women were included in the demands for universal enfranchisement can then not be an oversight or an accident, but the result of a conscious doing of the contemporaries.

Gisela Kaplan has presented the argument that Finnish nationalism is a kind of ’feminist nationalism’, meaning that in Finland women and their demands were part of the process of building the Finnish state from the early 20th century on, that their demands were integrated as part of the national agenda unlike in many other states (1997, 30-31). Kaplan views the first Finnish women’s rights organizations from the late 19th century as both feminist and nationalist: she argues that on one hand, ”the first Finnish women’s movement was in itself to some extent a proclamation of Finnish nationalism,” while on the other hand ”the ideological platform of the new women’s groups was certainly left wing in orientation and in many ways already distinctly feminist” (1997, 30). I think that describing Finnish nationalism as feminist nationalism is a misreading of both Finnish nationalism and Finnish feminism and perhaps a misinterpretation of the whole historical situation in the early 20th century Finland. There is no question that the late 19th century women’s rights groups were nationalist. But we have to remember that even the Social Democratic Party in Finland, formed in 1899, was nationalist. That is, there was perhaps no civic or political organization at the time that was not nationalist. But Finnish nationalism was not feminist in the sense of envisioning men and women in similar and interchangeable roles. As this work indicates, in the nationalist discourse Finnish women had their own distinct role as Finnish mothers and caretakers of the society. Nevertheless, women who stepped into the political arena as political actors (not as emblems) in the first parliamentary election in 1907 were not necessarily welcomed.

In a comparative perspective, if we look at the developments regarding women’s position in society and in politics both in the 20th century and before that, during the 19th century, the developments in Finland parallel developments in other European countries. As the newspaper texts from the 19th century Finnish newspapers show, Finnish nationalist discourse was very similar to nationalist discourses in other European countries, for example in the German speaking areas, in France, and in Great Britain. In the mid-19th century, gentry women in Finland formed charitable associations just like their counterparts in other European countries had already before that. Unmarried women were granted legal competence in Finland in 1863, at just about the same times as in other European countries. When the reform of elementary education was carried out in Finland in the 1860s, women could also be trained as teachers, but again this is not exceptional for more and more women entered the profession of teaching also in other European countries. In sum, neither on the level of nationalist rhetoric or on the level of actual social and economic changes were the developments in Finland much different from what was going on in other countries.

As Irma Sulkunen has argued regarding Finland, and as many studies of ’nation building’ in general have argued, the concept of citizenship though based on democratic ideals of equality was also a concept deeply divided by gender (1990, 50; Landes 1988; Kerber 1998). Sulkunen has noted regarding the early women’s rights organizations as well as other civic organizations from the turn of the 20th century in Finland that their views of gender were remarkably similar, and though considered progressive at the time, they were nothing like the late 20th century feminist views which would stress equality over difference (Sulkunen 1990, 50). In other words, at the turn of the century the women’s rights organizations fully subscribed to an ideology that was compatible with the nationalist ideology, which saw as the ideal role for women the role of the mother and a caretaker. This was the kind of ’new woman’ that the nationalists began advocating already in the mid-19th century. As my analysis of the short poem by Isa Asp ² – one of the first generation of women to enter the teacher’s seminary in Finland – indicated, the very caretaker role was appealing to many gentry women who were in a position to step into the new professional roles as teachers, social worker, nurses, and office workers. They also saw it as liberating, as well as an opportunity to serve one’s nation.

Though women’s professional roles were extensions of their maternal role, they were still seen as more than the ’traditional’ role. The emphasis of women’s maternal role did not mean that nationalists took an old patriarchal gender ideology and simply instilled it as part of nationalist ideology, pushing women to the feminine sphere. I have argued above that there was a more all encompassing process of change going on, the ideas regarding gender changed in the late 18th and early 19th century, and the whole gender order was renegotiated over that period of time in Europe as well as in North America, and women were part of the process of renegotiating it. On one hand, as the example of post-revolutionary France in the early 19 th century indicate, women did become excluded from the public sphere and public debate compared to the 18th or 17th century, on the other hand, the feminine sphere began to spread outside of the home with the creation of the social, and especially women from the elite and the rising middle class were integral in creating the social sphere in the late 19th century.

But though women primarily subscribed to the same gender ideology as nationalists, that does not mean that the gender ideology was not contested in any way. Though there were no women political activists in the mid-19th century Finland, for example the first novels written by gentry women in Finland indicate that there was unease about the ideals of femininity and masculinity and what they demanded of women and men.

Regarding women’s role in society, one of the often noted paradoxes in the case of Finland is that though in many ways women have made headways in many areas in the 20th century, there has never been a radical feminist movement in Finland. Following Kaplan’s lead the explanation for that could be that the Finnish nation state from the start accommodated women’s demands and thus there was no need for it. But I think that explanation falls short. We can find many examples of legislative changes which have improved women’s position especially in the labor force which have come about only after prolonged debate and battle. For example, despite numerous efforts by women MPs from 1907 on, married women did not gain full legal rights, including the right to property and the full guardianship of their children, till 1929 (e.g. Ollila 1993, 60; Pohls 1990, 68). When the national health insurance and national pension systems were created in the post-World War II era, the systems would not have included non-wage earners who, at the time, were mostly women, had it not been for the efforts of the women who served in the government (Kuusipalo 1994, 170-77). That is, the state has not just automatically accommodated women, certain changes have had to be fought for.

I think a better way of approaching the issue is focusing on the nationalist ideology from a different angle. The ideological roots of Finnish nationalism are in Hegelian philosophy and in the way that it constructs subjectivity … Even if Hegel did not see women as part of the state, his way of constructing political space and subjectivity has had an effect on how they both are constructed in Finnish nationalism and political ontology, as well as in Marxist political ontology: there is a supposition of shared political identity. According to Pulkkinen, in the Hegelian-Marxian tradition, ”the political community as a will is founded on a shared cultural identity, a common structure of norms and the social construction of individuality” (2000a, 134). The implication of constructing the political community in this way is that it is difficult for any separate interest group to be formed within it, as for example women who have tried to do it within Marxist political movements have found out. Likewise, in any nationalist movement based on the Hegelian political ontology, as in Finland, it has been difficult for women to step out from the shadow of the nation and form an interest group based on their gender identity ³.

In other words, the nationalist discourse prevalent in Finland since the 1840s has so effectively subsumed women in the nation and made them part of the nationalist narrative, that in the realm of politics it has been and still continues to be difficult for women to set any agendas that emphasize their individual rights separate from the nation, or would contradict the nationalist agenda (Juntti 1998, 412-15; Pylkkänen 2001, 108, 124-25). This does not, however, mean that women would have been unwilling participants. What it means is that their activity has been accepted within certain parameters, just like in the example from early 20 th century Puerto Rico: women have been able to participate as Civic Madonnas (Jiménez-Muñoz 1993). Nevertheless, women have themselves negotiated their participation rather than just followed the lead of male nationalists. One can speculate that perhaps one of the reasons why in Finland women’s suffrage was won so early and at the same time as universal male suffrage in 1906, was because at the turn of the century, due to the prevalent political ontology, women did not seem to have any interests that would contradict the national interests.

In sum, Kaplan’s argument that Finnish nationalism would be an example of feminist nationalism does not hold together when scrutinized against a careful historical analysis of the nature of the Finnish women’s rights organizations and other civic and political organizations at the turn of the 20th century. The history of women’s organization in Finland also indicates that women themselves had internalized this way of thinking: they worked for the common good, not for themselves or women’s rights. As Sulkunen has explained, instead of building a wide-based and publicly visible women’s rights organization, Finnish women were part of the wider process of mass mobilization, participating in organizations which were perceived as having general rather than gender specific goals. Therefore, at the turn of the century women were not identified to be an interest group and women as a group were not perceived as a serious threat and therefore there were few objections to enfranchising women.


1) A slightly modified excerpt from the Conclusion of ”Gender and Nationalism in Finland in the Early Nineteenth Century.” Dissertation. Binghamton University, 2004. The dissertation is based on an analysis of the following Finnish newspapers: Sanan Saattaja Wiipurista (1833-36, 1840-41), Kanawa (1845-47), Sanan-Lennätin (1856-58), Oulun Wiikko-Sanomia (1829-34, 1836-37, 1840-41, 1852-79), Suometar (1847-66).

2) The poem referred to is this: Kiitos hälle, joka sääsi/ naisellekin oikeuden/ kalliin isänmaansa eestä/ elää, kuolla myöskin hän!/ Miks’ ei hän sais’ yhtä hyvin/ isänmaata hyödyttää?/ Oisko hänen Luoja luonut/ että mieltään tyydyttää/ semmoisissa askareissa,/ joissa vuosisadan hän/ usein nähtiin kuolettavan/ suuret riennot sydämen? (Huhtala 1989, 153).

3) Pulkkinen mentions Germany, Russia and Italy as other example of national movements which have been influenced by Hegelian philosophy (2000a, 133).

Literature and sources

  • Hagemann, Karen: 2001. Family and Fatherland: The Gendering of the Concept ’German Nation’ in the Late Enlightened Discourse. Paper for the History of Concepts Group Conference on Rhetoric and Conceptual Change, 28-30 June, 2001, in Tampere, Finland.
  • Huhtala, Liisi: 1989. En ole turhamaisuudesta kirjoittanut [I did not write for the sake of vanity]. Sain roolin johon en mahdu. Suomalaisen naiskirjallisuuden linjoja [I was given a role which does not fit me. Trends in Finnish women’s literature]. Ed. Maria-Liisa Nevala. Helsinki: Otava. 146-54.
  • Jiménez-Muñoz, Gladys M: 1993. A Storm Dressed in Skirts: Ambivalence in the Debate on Women’s Suffrage in Puerto Rico, 1927-1929. Ph.D. diss., Department of History, Binghamton University.
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