by Marja

Illegal coffee parties were exploited by women as a method of non-violent civil disobedience and underground resistance against the Tsarist regime in the first years of the 1900s when the Grand Duchy of Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire.  These political coffee parties were one of the many ways Finnish female activists were rebelling against what they deemed to be unfair laws that violated the constitution and confined civil liberties, such as freedom of assembly and expression (vs. censorship).

“Harmless” birthday parties and “innocent” sewing circles

In the summer of 1904, the authorities denied permission to organize an annual representatives’ assembly of the Social Democratic Women’s League.  The males’ party congress was likewise prohibited. Since the consequences of defying such a ban could be serious, the Social Democratic men cancelled their congress.  The women, instead, did not give in but decided to arrange their meetings in secrecy, showing great ingenuity, resourcefulness, and courage.

Training courses were simultaneously taking place in Helsinki.  The delegates who intended to participate in the secret assembly of the Social Democratic Women’s League (SDWL) disguised their trips to Helsinki as if they attended those classes.  The extra benefit of “attending the course” was that the course participants were entitled to a cheap discount ticket on railways. In the morning, they indeed listened to the lectures, although their actual program began in the afternoon.

The venue was the challenge: where to hold three meetings without attracting the attention of the police and the gendarmes?  The smart solutions looked as follows:

  • The first assembly was disguised as a birthday party of Mrs. Mimmi Kanervo who belonged to the leading figures of the SDWL.  Mimmi’s husband sat on a windowsill with a fiddle at hand.  He was supposed to start playing the fiddle in case he noticed anything suspicious.  The violin melody would serve as an alarm to hide the meeting papers quickly.
  • The second venue was the kitchen of the political opponent, namely the Panslavist editor-in-chief whose Russian newspaper Finljandskaja Gazeta supported the hardline Russification policies.  The Finnish handmaid of this editor-in-chief had asked her boss for permission to invite her friends to celebrate her name day.  The boss even gave his handmaid money to buy pastries and biscuits for her name day party. During the meeting, someone was sitting and watching in the corridor to make sure that no unexpected interruptions would occur.
  • The third meeting was held on the premises of the Handmaids’ Union (= trade union of domestic help).  That same year, the Chief of Police demanded the abolition of the Handmaids’ Union because its members were suspected of agitating draft resistance which held true.  However, the Governor did not dissolve it as the authorities tended to underrate women’s activities as insignificant although the latter’s contribution in fact played a major role in resistance.

The SDWL’s general assembly in 1904 was by far not the only occasion when women’s coffee parties or sewing circles were used to veil political gatherings.  On the contrary! Another set of illustrative examples comes from Vyborg, Finland’s second largest city in those times. Mrs Hilja Pärssinen, one of the SDWL leaders and later MP* (1), was working actively in Vyborg.

Hilja Pärssinen (1876–1935)

The local SDWL branch founded learning circles of 5–10 women to discuss various topics, ranging from ways of improving homes, healthcare, children’s welfare and work conditions to women’s possibilities to influence decision-making.  After the first groups had been instructed, each member established a respective learning circle of her own in order to tutor new women and disseminate the message. In this fashion, knowledge spread like ripples on a pond’s surface.  More than 3,000 members participated in the learning circles in Vyborg. Moreover, Vyborg was divided into districts where the activists went from door to door to invite people to important events.

During the period of draft resistance, Hilja Pärssinen and her husband organized a number of coffee parties at their home to which they invited different people each time.  After deciding whom to invite, they burned their lists. The purpose of the coffee parties was to explain to citizens why young Finnish men should refuse to join the Russian army.  Everything went well for a few weeks until the police conducted a home inspection just prior to Easter but found no evidence.
Mrs. Ida Aalle-Teljo was not only a Social Democratic politician but also a successful business woman.  She established an inn first in Kotka and then in Helsinki for political reasons. The purpose of her guesthouses was to provide undercover meeting points for the dissidents.  In both cases, the secret activities were finally disclosed which led to home inspections by gendarmes.

Ida Aalle-Teljo (1875–1965)

Context in Finland for 110–120 years ago

To help the reader recognize the motive of disguising the forbidden political activities, let us place the women’s coffee circles in the historic context of the so called ‘oppression years’ in 1899–1905 and in 1908–1917.

The policy of Russification of Finland was a governmental policy of the autocratic Russian Empire aimed at limiting the special status of the Grand Duchy of Finland.  The last Tsar wanted to curtail the Grand Duchy’s extensive self-government, which contradicted the Panslavist ambition of a unified, indivisible Russian state. The ultimate objective of these measures was the termination of Finland’s political autonomy and cultural uniqueness but, in reverse, it paved the way for Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917.

The two Russification campaigns evoked widespread Finnish resistance, starting with petitions and escalating to strikes, passive resistance (including draft resistance in 1902–1904) and eventually active resistance.  This national opposition united all social classes and made varied civil society organizations cooperate in spite of their conflicting goals in further policy issues.

In parallel, the women’s suffrage movement, the temperance movement, and the socialist labor movement were gaining ground in European countries, including the Grand Duchy of Finland.  All the above goals were mixed together, for instance, in the working class women’s associations in those early years.

Finnish women were the first in Europe to win the right to vote and the first in the world to have their eligibility for office recognized, i.e., to be able to stand as candidates at elections.  Finland’s first unicameral Parliament based on universal suffrage and eligibility had 19 female representatives of 200 MPs in total, an unprecedented number at the time, which grew to 21 by 1913.  Yet, Europe’s most modern Parliament was the result of a long, bitter struggle which had also contained frustrating disappointments along the way.

Forgotten and deserted pacemakers

The first female MPs were not only bold frontrunners but also dedicated politicians, visionary reformers and well-known public figures.  Today, however, their names are totally unknown to most Finns! The only one who is somehow remembered among the better educated is Miss Miina Sillanpää(2) (SDP)* (3) because she was nominated Finland’s first female minister in 1926.  She was the fourth female minister in the world.

Miina Sillanpää (1866–1952)

According to my amateur assessment, there were at least a dozen, perhaps close to twenty women who had gained visibility through national politics or NGOs* (4) before the first parliamentary elections.  They represented diverse political affiliations from conservatives to liberals and from agrarians to socialists.

The earliest voices within the movement for women’s rights came from the established upper classes in the 1880s.  Miss Alexandra Gripenberg (Conservatives), for instance, was a Swedish-speaking baroness.  She was an internationally prominent speaker thanks to her frequent travel and congress attendance.

Mrs Hilja Pärssinen (SDP) was equally well networked with famous European socialists.  In addition to politics, teaching* (5) and journalism, poetry was her passion.  Hilja Pärssinen was also known as a poet who published seven anthologies between 1900 and 1926.  One of her poetry books was published in Hancock, Michigan in 1913. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula used to host a large immigrant community from Finland.


References: The anecdotes are excerpted from the biographies of some of the Social Democratic female MPs who were elected in 1907 to Finland’s first unicameral Parliament based on universal suffrage and eligibility.  The MPs under consideration also belonged to the leaders of the Social Democratic Women’s League (SDWL), established in 1900.  They participated in other NGOs and social/political/professional activities, as well. They were incredibly energetic, industrious, and productive.

Ahtisaari, Eeva (ed.) (1997).  Yksi kamari – kaksi sukupuolta: Suomen eduskunnan ensimmäiset naiset.  Helsinki: Eduskunnan kirjasto, BTJ Kirjastopalvelu.

* Footnotes:

  1. MP = Member of Parliament
  2. Miina Sillanpää was the founder and the President of the Handmaid’s Union mentioned above.
  3. SDP = Social Democratic Party
  4. NGO = non-governmental organization
  5. Hilja Pärssinen was a school teacher by profession.

Sources of the photos:
Ida Aalle-Teljo:
Hilja Pärssinen:
Miina Sillanpää: