By Marja

Women’s History Month leads my thoughts to women’s liberation movement even though I have not checked out whether this association is correct or not.  Since I am writing neither a scientific paper nor an encyclopedia article, my artistic freedom allows me intuitively to lump together the two notions.

The implicit reference to feminism is not helpful in narrowing down the subject matter, because the latter term is ambiguously wide, and its content and connotations have altered from decade to decade and from society to society.  Although, at its core, feminism seeks to achieve equal social, political and economic rights for women and men, it still refers to a diverse variety of beliefs, ideas, movements, and agendas for action. Accordingly, the ambitions and the target levels of various feminist organizations deviate greatly.

A long time ago, I remember reading a journal article of an international women’s rights conference where participants came from very disparate countries. For some conference attendants, the big issue was whether it is appropriate for women to go to cinema alone without a male companion.  For others, the battle handled equal pay for the same work and fair career opportunities to achieve leadership positions.

Respectively, I encountered a similar interindividual difference in perception 30 years ago when I attended an international language school. I was complaining to a young French girl at her 20s about lingering inequalities between men and women in the Finnish working life. (People often do not take such accusations seriously as the Nordic countries are considered to belong to the vanguards of equality.) The French girl told me that no such problems exist in France where women always enjoy the equal opportunity. According to her, many French women are working as nurses, teachers and secretaries.

My point is to underscore the significance of one’s cultural background in defining the position from which topical issues are construed and viewed in this context. I write here from a North European standpoint which takes the basic achievements of gender equality for granted so that rudimentary feminist principles seem to be firmly rooted in the national identity. Finland is proud of the country’s long history with women’s political rights.  At present, Finns are excited about Prime Minister Sanna Marin who is earning global fame after becoming the youngest woman to lead a government (see Time, March 1/8, 2021). When Marin’s government was formed, all five party leaders of the political coalition were females, and four of them younger than 34 years.

Rosy the Riveter (Source: Open-Clipart Vectors | Pixabay)

Influential Women Who Made History

Customarily, traditional history books used to place emphasis on victorious kings, heroic warlords, classic philosophers, renowned artists, and other Great MEN, whereas the history of the commoners, minorities, women and children was mainly neglected until recently. Besides, people in subordinated positions had limited opportunities to leave a footprint behind themselves in the old days. These conditions explain why we remember only few female characters from our school history. In the 21st century, however, scholars have adopted new methods and perspectives on historical research which have brought up unprecedented topics as well as ignored or forgotten persons from the twilight of history. This latter-day trend has introduced a number of talented but mostly unknown women to the general public.

Depending on the country where we were raised, our education varies to some extent since each school system naturally stresses the specifics relevant to its corner of the earth, being thus biased. I list below names of the females I learned to know at different stages of my life – both as a schoolkid in Finland and later as a young or mature adult (Table 1). I exclude Finnish characters and concentrate on internationally well-known women solely.  Moreover, I focus on women who accomplished something on their own right, instead of just being a queen or a wife to a famous Great Man.  What would your list look like respectively?

Table 1. Influential women, classified by their visibility in history writing : How and when I heard of them?

School classesTV news & documents & series; films, books, magazines; museums & exhibitions, etc.Most recent publications & radio podcasts | person’s year of death
1978–19861975–20052015 →
Nefertiti, Ancient EgyptTheodora, Byzantine EmpressHatšepsut, Ancient Egypt | 1458 BC
Cleopatra, Ancient EgyptHildegard of Bingen, GermanyBoudicca, Celtic Britain | 61
Jeanne d’Arc, FranceBridget of SwedenWu Zetian, China | 705
Isabella I of Castille, SpainCatherine de Medici, IT–FRTöregene Khatun, Mongolia | 1265
Elisabeth I, EnglandMadame du Pompadour, FranceChristine de Pizan, France | 1430
Maria Stuart, ScotlandMadame du Pompadour, FranceNur Jahan, India | 1645
Christina, Queen of SwedenGeorge Sand, France Émilie du Châtelet, France | 1749
Catharine the Great, RussiaClara Schuman, GermanyMaria Anna Mozart, Austria | 1829
Maria Teresia, AustriaEmmeline Pankhurst, GBManuela Sáenz, Ecuador |1856
Jane Austen, EnglandHelen Keller, USAHarriet Tubman, USA | 1913
The Brontë Sisters, EnglandEleanor Roosevelt, USARosa Parks, USA | 2005
Queen Victoria, Great BritainCoco Chanel, FranceTaytu Betul, Ethiopia | 1913

Most of the exceptional women who had major impact on history or whose actions even changed the world had to break the glass ceiling. They were courageous non-conformists who rejected the narrow, subservient gender role of a woman as the lady of the house, taking care of the family. Instead of retreating from the public life, as expected, many of them rebelled against the societal norms and the status quo with the result that their behavior often caused a stir of disapproval especially among the conservative elites. The latter case held true for the civil and women’s rights activists, among others.

Famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman, nicknamed Moses, became connected to mid-19th century reformers who advocated for women’s rights along with abolitionism. There is tangible evidence of the intersection of the Underground Railroad and the early suffrage networks. While slavery ended with the Civil War, Tubman’s activism did not die with emancipation: the ideals of racial and gender equality inspired her for the rest of her life. After the war, she began another career as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist. Active in the women’s suffrage movement since 1860, Tubman continued to appear at local and national suffrage conventions until the 1900s.  In the 1880s, black reformers began organizing their own groups, because black women were often excluded from organizational positions and their specific problems were not acknowledged. (Source: https://www.achp.gov/news/womens-history-month-harriet-tubman-tour).

Thanks to its effective tactics, the suffrage movement of the early 20th century became the political model for social and political reform movements for the remainder of the 20th century – most notably the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movements in the USA.  This valuable heritage of suffrage is rarely recognized. (Source: https://suffragistmemorial.org/suffrage-history/).

Harriet Tubman, 1870s.  (Photo: Harvey Lindsley/Library of Congress, Source: https://www.audubon.org/news/harriet-tubman-unsung-naturalist-used-owl-calls-signal-underground-railroad)

Finnish Frontrunners

Just like Prime Minister Sanna Marin today, Finland’s first female MPs[i] caught the eye, attracting international attention, since Finnish women became the first in the world to exercise full political rights, including the right to stand for election (not just the right to vote, like in New Zealand). The 19 women who were elected to Parliament in March 1907 were the first women MPs in the world. The parliamentary reform of 1906 created a unicameral Parliament with 200 members based on universal suffrage.

Two years ago, IN Newsletter published an article of mine portraying some of the female activists and reformers who were elected to Parliament in 1907. One of them was brilliant Hilja Pärssinen who was not only a MP and a politician but also a teacher, a journalist and a poet.  Miina Sillanpää is best remembered by history as she became Finland’s first female Minister in 1926 and spent 38 years in Parliament.

When I read Pärssinen and Sillanpää’s biographies, incorporating their authentic notes, I was amazed how up-to-date and relevant their modern initiatives still appear.  They were clearly ahead of their time! Pärssinen and Sillanpää monitored the latest trends keenly and were aware of the state-of-the-art thanks to their international contacts. When I followed their lines of thought, I recognized familiar tones which have shaped fundamentally the mindsets of the younger generations, irrespective of one’s political party affiliation. Once radical and controversial ideas have become accepted as consensual and self-evident. On the other hand, Pärssinen and Sillanpää also struggled with corresponding challenges and prejudices as current women. Moreover, undisguised hate speech of the early 20th century left behind the present-day social media slur.  Progressive women were targeted harshly by the adversary press.

A surprising detail was a revolutionary experiment with a chain of community kitchens in Helsinki in the 1910s. They resembled cooperatives in which participating families paid a monthly fee against the food delivery. Members could pick up all their meals from breakfast to dinner from their nearest community kitchen located somewhere in the immediate neighborhood. The orders were probably submitted on a weekly basis, if I remember right.  The meals were prepared by paid employees. The intention was to liberate working class women from the burden of cooking and diversify the quality of their meals. However, it turned out as the problem that the poorest women could not afford to buy prepared meals from a community kitchen while they lived only slightly above the starvation limit. Hence, it was the better off, like (lower) middle class earners, that mainly benefitted from the community kitchens. The rich upper class families did not need them as they had servants at home.

Hilja Pärssinen and her husband were members of such a food service cooperative in South Helsinki. She wanted to write in the evenings after work, instead of wasting time for cooking.

After achieving the political rights, progressive female MPs, like Pärssinen and Sillanpää, worked hard to improve the living conditions and the dependent legal position of (working class) women, children and families. The elderly care was added on their agenda later on. In other words, they focused on social policy issues, the promotion of which often required heated debates, thick skin, stubborn perseverance and a lot of patience. Slowly over the decades, those tiny steps led to the full-blown welfare state in the 1970s.

Economic independence of a woman, her sovereign right to manage her assets and property, access to education, and facilitation of balance between family and paid work outside home (e.g. access to affordable child care) constituted the classic cornerstones of the feminist agendas in the early 20th century. The last item continues to remain as an ever-lasting dilemma until these days.

My grandparents got engaged and married in 1910.  Although they were young, poor people from the countryside, they entered into a prenuptial marital agreement. The marriage contract described what personal property my grandmother brought into the marriage known as “pre-marital” assets. The document stated clearly that the husband – i.e. my grandfather – could not claim ownership to them. Under the prevailing legislation, man was otherwise automatically in possession of a household’s property and assets.

Finnish suffragates’ protest march, 1906, (Source: https://suomenkuvalehti.fi/jutut/kulttuuri/feministit-voivat-nykyaan-olla-mita-mielta-vain-siksi-he-riitelevat-jatkuvasti-keskenaan/)

Contemporary Reflections on Empowerment

Everybody is not a famous historical figure who breaks barriers.  Although the power of their shining example is inspiring, it may be hard to identify with their extraordinary achievements – unless you are an optimistic American who believes in the mantra that anyone can become anything.

As a pessimistic Finn, I find more personal comfort and encouragement from interviews and autobiographies of strong, successful female leaders who tell readers/listeners how they also faced arrogance, discrimination or psychological mistreatment during their careers but how they overcame those hardships and moved on even though it was not always easy. Finnish MEPs[i] opened up this year how female MEPs may experience scorn and inappropriate treatment by some male colleagues in the European Parliament. It is not usually sexual harassment but, for instance, difficulties in taking the floor in committee meetings while being treated as invisible. Many of us recognize such a familiar meeting situation, mentioned repeatedly by a number of women.  When you take turns to propose a solution, your suggestion is overlooked by signalizing what an uninteresting comment. A bit later, a male colleague copies the very same idea and puts forth it.  Then, your idea is suddenly welcomed by applause and regarded as ingenious.

If you encounter an identical situation, you will realize that you are not necessarily a stupid idiot, deserving to be ignored, but there is a pattern to silence too active women who present a threat to the patriarchal structures. Competition of power is the name of the game. Empowerment comes from the awareness that it is not you as such and you are not alone there. You can make it in spite of the obstacles, which are unfortunately pretty common, although they are never mentioned on formal occasions and fine speeches.

What I consider most harmful is the tendency of sweeping the problems under the carpet by emphasizing what a model country of gender equality Finland is. The message between the lines announces that there can be no problems. This kind of toxic positivity shifts to the sole responsibility of a failure to the shoulders of an individual.  If you are not being heard, it must be your own fault.

Accordingly, it is unsolidaric to undermine a colleague’s report of experienced gender discrimination at work.  When a young female officer raised the issue of bullying in the army, another young female officer stressed how she had never been bullied.  The latter woman hinted that either the complaining officer was too soft-skinned and humorless or she had caused the situation by her own behavior.  The denier, by contrast, supposed to be a successful individual.  Even when a problematic phenomenon does exist, it does not mean that everyone is bullied everywhere although it is probable.  In this case, it is appropriate to cite Madeline Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

My two favorite TV series are uplifting and elevating in the sense of empowerment, as well. They represent the kind of role models that appeal to my kind of audiences. Their protagonists are capable, fearless and principled ordinary women who have their edges, too. The programs are Scott & Bailey and McLeod’s Daughters. Scott & Bailey (2011–2016) is a British police procedural series which revolves around the personal and professional lives of two female detectives and their boss (she). McLeod’s Daughters (2001–2009) is an Australian television drama series which takes place in a ranch run by women in rural Australia.

I was delighted to leaf through a doll magazine called American Girl. Its pages were full of girl dolls presented in all kinds of smart professions, especially in STEM[ii] fields, such as astronauts, chemists and medical doctors. The company puts its missions as follows: “While we’re best known for characters who empowered an entire generation, our 35th birthday celebration gives voice to real girls whose stories—and actions—have inspired others to change the world.” (Source of the quote: https://www.americangirl.com/herstory.)  Although the mission statement sounds slightly exaggerated, American Girl offers diverse, open-minded and encouraging role models for girls to buck twisted tradition and chart their own path.  Girls can realize that there are also other options than to become a nurse, teacher or secretary.

Girlboss (Source: Jasmin Sessler | Pixabay)

[i] MEP = Member of the European Parliament (ref. European Union)

[ii] STEM = science, technology, engineering & mathematics

[i] MP = Member of the Parliament, cf. Congresswoman in the USA