Centenary of women's full political rights in Finland

The path of Finnish women towards liberty and education

Saara Tuomaala

In the late 19th century, society was faced with a sea change in Europe and in the rest of the Western world. The prevalent Christian world-view began to fracture and was replaced at least partly by a scientific one. The old status-based society was disintegrating and replaced by a class-based society. The main factors in the emergence of a class society were industrialisation and urbanisation. Migration took place from the countryside to the towns and industrial communities as well as to other continents. The European standard of living began to rise due to industrialisation and its composite effects. At the emergence of the market economy, occupations were liberalised and expanded: agriculture was no longer the sole sustainable livelihood. At the same time, society became politicised. The turn of the century was a time when strong ideals, ideologies and political movements emerged and influenced Western societies. In Finland, the Finnish nationalist movement and socialism were the most vigorous of these movements. On the other hand, the impact of liberalism remained less significant in Finland; it has had a remarkable influence in Western countries, especially in the creation of the urbanised way of life and the values attached to it. However, liberalism had an effect in the attainment of the legal rights of women and in the expansion of personal liberties. The feminist movement was one of these political movements.

Another characteristic linked to all political movements was the conceptualisation of education as the key to a new, advancing society and nation. Education and culture had to be first and foremost of a national kind: Finnish and in the Finnish language. There were ever louder demands for education and civil rights for disenfranchised groups – peasants, labourers and women. What was at stake was the individualisation and autonomisation of groups that had been subordinate in status-based society; this was linked to the emergence of the modern idea of humanity and a new way of life. The change taking place in the status of women began to show in public discussions, declarations and demands, and gradually in political decision-making as well. Women and their male supporters who insisted on change were of the opinion that the sexes had been created equal, and thus they had to be given equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These social, economic and political processes that began in the 19th century continued and strengthened in the early 20th century.

Private schools for girls that had been established in Finland in the early 19th century were complemented by public Swedish-language schools for girls in Turku and Helsinki in the 1840s. In the beginning, these schools were reserved for girls from the higher classes (nobility, clergy, bourgeoisie, landowners) and it was not possible to pass the baccalaureat and continue in university-level studies. A grammar school regulation from 1856 ordered that “only students whose upbringing and manners are impeccable and whose company cannot be regarded in any way as being detrimental to other daughters of respectable and cultivated parents can be taken into the school”. In practice, this limited grammar school education to girls from the established classes. In 1864, a private grammar school for girls began to function in Jyväskylä. In late 19th century, public schools for girls were complemented with advanced classes, colleges and co-educational schools which made it possible for girls to obtain the matriculation examination. In 1882, women were given the legal right to teach in grammar schools for girls, but they had no right to public posts.

In 1863, a teacher training college for primary school teachers was established in Jyväskylä, and it had a section for women. Of the total number of students, fifteen female students began the training, of whom one was not from the established classes. Many of the men in the college were from a less privileged background and had no previous training. From 1889 women could teach in teacher training colleges, but they could only teach female students. Primary school teacher training was the same for women and men, but men received a better salary. The general Primary School Act in 1866 about giving non-obligatory elementary education concerned women as well.

Legislation that granted full powers for unmarried women of 25 years of age was passed in 1864. However, one could still remain under male guardianship if one so wished. Married women were left automatically under the legal guardianship of their husbands. A husband had the right to his wife’s salary, and if there was no prenuptial agreement, to her property as well. The economic independence of unmarried women which was part of their full powers materialised gradually: already at 15 years of age, women could control their wages by declaring so, and at 21 they could control their property by submitting an application to a court of law. At the same time, a daughter’s right to decide about her marriage herself was acknowledged with an imperial decree. It meant abolishing the match-making system, but daughters were advised to listen to their parents’ opinion when choosing a spouse. The 1864 legislation on the full legal rights and independence of unmarried women alleviated the maintenance obligations of the established classes, as the number of unmarried women was considerable and their maintenance was regarded as a growing social and economic problem. Unmarried women in other Nordic countries had been invested with full powers a little bit earlier: Denmark in 1857, Iceland in 1861, Norway in 1845/1863 and Sweden in 1858/1863/1864. Unmarried women had been invested with full powers in many other European countries as well, in Russia already in the times of Catherine the Great, except that this did not concern the huge part of the population under serfdom. In 1898, the age of majority in Finland for both men and unmarried women was lowered to 21.

The first woman to pass the matriculation examination was Marie Tschetschulin in 1870, the daughter a Helsinki merchant. She followed courses at the university for a while, as it was allowed for women the same year if they sought a dispensation of their sex. The number of female students matriculating rose in the 1890s and at the turn of the century girls made up 65% of those passing the matriculation examination in co-educational schools. The curriculum of grammar schools for girls was rewritten in 1906: middle school was extended to six years for girls, when it was 5 years for boys. The additional year was added in middle school in 1915, and the reason for this was a pan-European concern for the over-exertion of girls, which would threaten the health of future mothers and thus the genotype of the nation. There were attempts to eliminate this threat with eased and practical curricula, which included household subjects and handicraft in addition to physical education and health education. The six-year curriculum was adopted in public schools for girls, but not in private grammar schools, which were often co-educational. Especially due to co-educational schools, the number of girls attending grammar school increased considerably, surpassing the number of boys for the first time in the 1910s. The first female students to matriculate from public schools did so only in 1909 from the Helsinki Finnish School for Girls and Svenska Fruntimmerskolan i Helsingfors, a Swedish-speaking facility.

Women who “wished to avail themselves to the medical profession could benefit from teaching” given at the Faculty of Medicine at the university in Helsinki already in 1871. Rosina Heikel became the first female doctor in Nordic countries by special permission in 1878. In 1897, women in Finland obtained the right to practice the medical profession. Emma Irene Åström was the first woman to become a Bachelor of Arts and she was conferred as a Master of Arts in 1882 at the Imperial Alexander University of Finland. Women began to study at the university with special permission particularly in the 1890s. In 1897, they were accepted as official members of students’ unions, where their presence was thought to refine the “rough and crude” collegial life. The first woman to defend a doctoral thesis was the surgeon Karolina Eskelin in 1895. In doctoral studies, apart from medicine, in doctoral studies women advanced in history, in which Tekla Hultin defended her thesis and became a doctor of philosophy in 1896. The first female docent and lecturer was Alma Söderhjelm, who was appointed as an additional professor in general history in Åbo Akademi in 1927.

The dispensation from their sex required from women to study at university level was abolished in 1901, when almost 14% of the attending students were women, and in the 1920s they comprised a third of the student body. However, departments were allowed to restrict the possibilities of female students to attend courses, and female students did not continue in academic research, teaching or administration, as their career development was hindered not just because of attitudes but also due to regulations disqualifying them from the civil service. Positions at the university were opened to women in 1916. In 1926, women in Finland were given comprehensive rights to public positions. The number of women holding doctoral degrees began to increase substantially only in the 1930s, when it grew fivefold in a decade. In the period 1930-1940 the percentage of women of all new PhDs was 7.5%.

The legal protection and the economic situation of married women were improved gradually. The 1868 prenuptial agreement reform gave a woman the right to separate her property from that of her husband’s. Furthermore, she could make her own prenuptial agreement without a matchmaker. The senate gave a decree according to which a wife could seek the protection of her property in a potential bankruptcy situation. The 1878 inheritance act gave equal rights of inheritance to city and country dwellers alike. The 1879 livelihood decree liberated common women and men from duty of service and women from legal impediments in paid employment. Both married and unmarried women remaining under guardianship could also work with the permission of their husbands or guardians. The 1889 legislation allowed wives to control their earnings and loose property, if a prenuptial agreement was in place. The first four-week maternity leave was given to women working in manufacture in 1917. Married women were allowed to make employment contracts independently without the consent of their husbands in 1922.

The married woman was freed from the guardianship of her husband in the marriage legislation that came into effect in 1930. It was not easy to pass the reform, despite the efforts which feminists and politicians had made for decades, in order to achieve legal independence for married women. Until 1930, politically and professionally competent female citizens, even when they acted as parliamentary representatives, civil servants and PhDs, were under the guardianship of their husbands and partly comparable to their under-aged children. At the same time, the division in the public and private lives of Finnish women ended at least on a juridical level.

Literature and sources

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