Mrs Eeva Ahtisaari, wife of the President of Finland

Paris, March 1, 1996



I should like to start by asking a question:

What mythical elements influence the self-image of women in various European countries? Over the centuries, many factors have moulded women's awareness of their own distinctiveness: their country's political history, the structure of their society and the nations cultural identity. In France, the Revolution produced the figure of a goddess of freedom that was soon given the popular name Marianne. Personifications of justice, freedom and victory were the feminine model, as was the idea of women's equality in education and intelligence. Since then, most European countries have had their own female emblem, their muse.

In Finland the Finnish Maiden (or Suomi-neito in Finnish) in national dress took on nationalistic and patriotic meaning in the second half of the 19th century. Equality between men and women was fostered by the agrarian economic structure, which continued into the nineteen sixties. Both men and women were needed to guarantee everyday survival. Staying alive in the harsh conditions of the far north led to partnership between the sexes, in everyday life as well as in crises.

The Finnish agrarian tradition has furthered the ideal of a strong, independent working woman. This woman, living and working side by side with her husband as an equal in the fields and in the home, can be found in almost every Finnish family history. Both Finnish folklore and our early national literature point to the same truth: farming Finland needed capable women. In every social class, women were responsible for safeguarding the family's existence. Women had to be strong and hard-working while ensuring that their men could also work to the full. Two sons of these strong mothers - Elias Lönnrot and Aleksis Kivi - created Finnish-language literature in the 19th century, as folklorist Satu Apo has shown. In Lönnrots folk epic, the Kalevala, it is the character Louhi, the powerful mistress of Pohjola, that stands out, and in Kivi's play Cobblers on the Heath it is Martta. Both have come to be the archetypes of strong, hard-working Finnish women.

Finnish women have been - and still are - required to show greater independence of their husband and family than their middle-class counterparts on the Continent. Behind the Finnish Maiden symbol and the strong farming woman lies the awareness that Finnish women were the first in Europe to gain universal and equal suffrage, in 1906. This right to vote, something quite new in the Europe of the day, was granted at a time when Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. In the same year, the old political order was replaced by a progressive democratic system in which men and women gained the same rights.

My main theme concerns the political and educational role of Finnish women. One good way to approach the subject is through the life and work of a turn-of-the-century woman that I wrote about for my degree. Hilda Käkikoski was one of Finland's first women MPs; she is interesting in many ways, and also makes a typical case study as an early woman politician. However, I should also like to tell you about another interesting study of the memories of veteran MPs in the Finnish Parliament. The memories of women MPs will open up many interesting viewpoints on political issues of concern to women.

To go back to Hilda Käkikoski: she was a teacher of Finnish and history, a writer, an advocate of women's rights and a Member of Parliament for the Finnish Party in the first unicameral Diet, in 1907 to 1910. She came from a poor farming family, but she had a strong desire for knowledge and in the 1870s continued her schooling at a girls secondary school in Helsinki. Her life reflects the dynamism and excitement of early 20th century nationalism. What she decided to do was in many ways typical of the age, reflecting the social possibilities open to a first-generation educated woman. Hilda Käkikoski made it her goal to achieve full equality with men and the Swedish-speaking upper class. (Swedish was the language of government and education at the time.) The main thing was that she chose education, and sought to make it available to all.

Three great ideologies - nationalism, liberalism and socialism - were influential in Finland from the 1880s onwards. Our national awakening was purely cultural. As a teacher of history, Hilda Käkikoski had studied the ideas of J.V. Snellman, the philosopher of the Finnish nationalist movement. Snellman argued that Finland could not achieve anything by force; its salvation and strength would be its culture. For Käkikoski, this meant raising the educational standard of women.

Hilda Käkikoski was an inspiring teacher, speaker and politician, whose written and spoken ideas spread all over the country. She went round country areas on summer speaking tours using a new means of transport - the bicycle. She was a lively, modern woman; she even cut her hair quite short. The main theme of her speeches was that women had to be given unlimited freedom to acquire knowledge, and that the education of girls was just as vital as that of boys. Let us open the schools and universities to girls so that our home-makers get the finest education society can offer its young people, was her message. She also emphasized a woman's right to work outside the home. Women had to have the same freedom and right as men, and be able to use their abilities for the good of the home, society and the country. Hilda Käkikoski's first proposal in the Diet concerned a woman's right to be elected to State office.

In Finland, the Lutheran church had been teaching the nation - including women - to read since the 17th century. Hilda Käkikoski was a profoundly religious person, and in the 1890s the key question in her life was whether the women's movement conflicted with matters of faith. Was it right for a women to stand up and fight for her rights, or was it Gods will that she should submit and be purified through suffering?

Käkikoski found a supporter for her ideas in Professor Zachrias Topelius, a writer and champion of the women's movement in 19th century Finland. Her discussions with Topelius about poetry, literature, the Bible and eternal life convinced Käkikoski that women's rights did not conflict with Christianity. The women's movement became a social issue for her, something to be worked for with commitment. It would be interesting here to compare Finland's and Frances experiences of the religious question. Has there been similar debate in France in connection with the women's movement?

Käkikoski's life opens up many interesting questions related to the early history of the women's movement in Finland. Irma Sulkunen has studied the development of Finnish women into full citizens. Neither suppression of women nor extreme suffragettism was a dominant feature in Finnish society in the early 20th century. Despite natural differences, the sexes were felt to be partners rather than opposites. This partnership integrated both men and women into a citizens society on equal terms, and allowed both to exert political influence. The history of the women's suffrage movement in Finland was thus unusual, because there was basically no conflict between the sexes. Sulkunen stresses that, in Finland, gaining the vote was not a separate target for women at the beginning of the century. Indeed, both rural men and women and the urban working class, who were all unable to vote or stand for election, fought side by side regardless of sex.

Irma Sulkunen also found that before getting the vote, Finnish women were more active than their European counterparts in joint organizations, in the temperance movement, in workers associations, in youth clubs and in religious revivalism, side by side with men. In many respects, the Finnish situation is comparable to the tradition created by the French Revolution. Women did not feel they were a suppressed group or the victims of sexual tyranny. It was felt that all classes and both sexes were entitled to the same universal rights, regardless of wealth or where they lived.

The active role played by women in the popular education movement at the end of the 19th century was a special characteristic of the Finnish women's movement. Moreover, the creation of a nation state and achievement of the first great social reforms took place just as the women's movement was gaining ground. After Finland, universal, equal suffrage gradually became a reality all over Europe, furthered by the upheaval of the First World War. The next wave of reform came after the Second World War, when society and politics were overhauled. It was then, in 1945, that the women of France gained the vote. One wonders why French women, who are so culturally, intellectually and socially aware, did not gain political influence until rather late by European standards.

The Finnish nation state was created while the country was still part of the Russian Empire. The national identity was strengthened in schools and adult education work. The aim was to eliminate inequalities - geographical, social and sexual. When first founded in the 19th century, primary school was open to all children. Thus, girls had full equality with boys. Both middle-class and working-class women took up the cause of national education. Right from the start, it was on the programme of women's movements and organizations. For both men and women, education has proved the best way to improve the quality of life.

The sense of morality of both men and women in Finland - and, indeed, in the Nordic countries generally, was built on the ancient virtues of self-control, hard work, self-sacrifice, temperance and thrift. National education was built on a strong Christian foundation, esteem for humanist learning and proper behaviour. By the turn of the century, the national education ideal had filtered through to the whole nation, and women had access to higher education, including university a process that took place in Finland fairly easily and without any great sense of drama.

Both of the factors determining a Finnish women's life - its focus on work and education - have been tied up with the social reality of the country's relative poverty and homogeneity. At times of crisis, the importance of the working woman has been enhanced. This was first the case during the Civil War in 1918, which arose out of the Russian Revolution and Finland's declaration of independence. The situation repeated itself again during the Second World War. The war and the reconstruction period made it possible for women to take over many jobs formerly dominated by men. The war placed women on an equal footing in working life and education in a way that earlier efforts could never do. It would be interesting to hear whether Frances experience was the same, and how your experiences during the war, in the years of occupation, and afterwards, affected the standing of women.

Over the last hundred years, the status of women in Finland and the strong state have gone hand in hand. The emergence of welfare states has been largely dependent on the contribution of educated women working outside the home. Finland has needed an equal contribution from all social groupings and both sexes, which has in turn made it possible to increase education and well-being, and eradicate regional inequalities. Education is the key to improving the standing and political status of women. Education liberates women from the idea that marriage is the only factor defining womanhood.

The work of socially and politically active women over the last hundred years has been an energetic investment in a better future. Women have shared the desire to face up to something new and not to give in. Throughout, they have devoted themselves to what they need to do. The same spirit has shown itself among the educated and the less well educated. The Finnish Parliament Library has been studying what is called oral history since 1988, interviewing veteran MPs about their work in politics. I am personally familiar with this work and its goals, having myself worked as an interviewer.

The interviews show clearly the emergence of the Finnish welfare state in the 1960s. Women played a conspicuous part here. Over the decades, the education and social welfare committees of Parliament have been dominated by women, including the chairmanships. Male politicians have traditionally left most of these socially vital areas to women. Many of the women MPs that I interviewed were agreed, irrespective of party or schooling, that education at all levels should be developed. Though the multi-party system introduces ideological tones into this work, everyone, from Conservative to Communist, has somehow managed to agree on the need for reforms.

The personal histories revealed by the interviews illustrate the spirit in which political issues have been handled since the '60s. The rise of the education committee in the hierarchy of Parliament committees in the 60s and 70s coincided with its first real results. It was women politicians that carried through the major comprehensive school and university reforms. Many of the women I interviewed had the same motive: their own education had been cut short by force of circumstance, and now they wanted to support every possible advancement of education. And not only education: many other major reforms in culture and social welfare - for instance, the public health act, the national pensions system, and the children's day care act - were largely advanced through the efforts of women.

It would be interesting to know how the contribution of French women has shown itself in politics and Parliament since women gained the vote. Have there been some clear focus areas? Have women relied on each other in key political issues? Have the memories of politicians been systematically collected by researchers in France? Do we have something to give each other in this respect?

All the signs indicate that the great upheaval of the 90s is putting both men's and women's standing to the test. One is prompted to ask whether education will again be the means to control change. Several of my foreign friends have been greatly interested in the special characteristics of the life of Finnish women. I am personally fascinated and encouraged by the idea that there may well be a natural sense of equality built into Finnish culture and that there is a natural human relationship between the sexes in Finland. It is one product of our Nordic civilization, and something that we can be proud of in a changing Europe.