Some time ago, I received a letter from my Slovenian friend Jelica Kosin describing with great enthusiasm her latest reading experience. The book in question was "The 'Lady with the Bow', the Story of Finnish Women written by Finnish women researchers, which I had given her not long before. This is what Jelica said about her reactions to the book: "You Finnish women are the product of your cultural heritage. Your wise forefathers let you maintain your inherent equality, which was not denied you even by Christian culture. Therefore, gender differences are not a problem for you. For you, the relationship between men and women is a natural relationship between two human beings."

Inspired by my friend's letter, I began to reflect on the subject of my speech today, the significance of equality. The life of academic women has been on my mind in other contexts, too, recently. My own research and literary work has focused on Hilda Käkikoski, who lived at the turn of the century. Käkikoski, a Finnish language and history teacher and a women's activist, was elected to the country's first unicameral parliament, in 1907. She was also the subject of my master's thesis.

My studies of Hilda Käkikoski's extant writings revealed that she reflected deeply on the relationship between a women's calling, the Christian faith and work. Käkikoski believed in total equality between men and women, and demanded that all the doors be opened to women. "Open the schools to girls; open the universities to girls."

As well as being a teacher, Hilda Käkikoski studied at the Imperial Finnish University of Alexander in 1895-1896. The world of academia enthralled her. The objects of her scientific interest were primarily history and philosophy. In 1896 she wrote to a friend about the seductiveness of science: "I have never felt such a great desire for knowledge before - nor experienced such an indescribable feeling, now that the doors to the world of knowledge are open. You can't imagine the debt of gratitude I owe to the men and women who have cleared the way so that we can now listen to lectures, use the university library and complete degrees - God bless them!"

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the date on which the first woman, Emma Åström completed her master's degree at this university. At the Faculty of Philosophy degree ceremony in 1882, the festive music paused and the audience stood up to honour Åström as she entered the auditorium. Åström's graduation in the 1880s coincided with the early burgeoning of the women's movement and debate on the aims and targets of general education.

Women's admission into the university in Finland evolved without any major problems or drama. The ideology of women's education a hundred years ago had a good sounding board in Finnish society and helped to open up the universities to women students. The best talent - regardless of gender - was needed for building the nation. The number of women students grew rapidly: in 1910 the proportion of women was already as high as 30% of all new students. Although the figure seems impressive, the reality was less rosy. There were references to the women's poor success rate as early as the 1910s. In fact, only one in seven women accepted for university in the early half of the century completed a degree.

Women's education did not become common until the 1920s, after which no legal obstacles remained in their way. Only then did women's university degrees qualify them for public office. At that time there were more women students in Finland than anywhere else in the world. Subsequently, women made steady progress and the number of women graduating from high school already exceeded that of men in the academic year 1948-1949.

However, the legislation had not eliminated attitude problems connected with women who wanted to study. Debate about underpayment for intellectual work stepped up in the post-war years. It was believed that the hordes of women students and their presumed weaker intelligence lowered the level of course requirements, "paving the way to a continuous flood of women students into the universities", as Rector Långfors expressed the matter in 1949.

Another problem which existed until very recently was a shortage of academic women models. The first woman professor was not appointed until 1930. Twenty years later the situation was as bad - the university only had one woman professor and six senior women lecturers. In the 1960s, however, attitudes finally began to change, prompted by the debate on gender equality. This brings to mind our class meeting last spring, when Professor Marjatta Marin reminisced about the early beginnings of her university career. In the early 1960s, when she worked as an assistant in the Department of Sociology, she was not allowed to lecture on courses, as "nobody believes in what women say", nor was she allowed to sign any examination results, as "you can't trust women to do the marking". Only when Professor Allardt came back from the United States was the procedure changed. The female argument was dropped and women assistants were allowed to teach.

Today, 60% of Finnish university students are women. Women with a doctorate account for more than one third. Women now predominate in the public sector and the same applies to lower-level teaching posts at the university. However, the number of women professors is still only 10%. Although all the signs point to a major change taking place in this pattern in the next few years, we should take special steps to encourage our under-represented gender.

Women have played a major role in building and developing Finnish society at various stages. The basis of our welfare state today is founded on putting the talent potential of women to good use. The struggle for equality began at the University of Helsinki in 1898. Our aim must be to achieve a more equal gender structure in all fields of academia. This means equal and comprehensive use of the knowledge, experiences, characteristics and skills of both sexes, at all levels of university life.

In practical work we need good woman models, brave thinkers and innovative academics. The first Maikki Friberg Prize awarded by the University of Helsinki was in 1996. This award may help to bring to the fore individuals, institutions, societies and groups which have engaged in long-term, ambitious efforts to promote equality. The women pioneers of the past encourage us in this work. Maikki Friberg, the first Finnish woman to be awarded a doctorate abroad, continues to show us the way.