Women's Enews, July
Women Reflect at Superwoman in Mirror
By Diane Saarinen
Women in Finland
enjoy such a hardy political reputation that the country's famous
wife-carrying contests are treated as something of a national
joke. But some women have begun probing their uber image and finding
a few puncture points.
U.S. photojournalist Paola Gianturco was putting together a book
about the profiles of women in a variety of national cultures
several years ago Finland offered a number of remarkable political
statistics to ponder.
In 1906 Finland became
the first country where women could both vote and stand for election.
In 2000 the people elected a female president, Tarja Halonen,
whose current term extends until 2012.
Since the time of Gianturco's
research Finnish women's political standing has risen further.
In March the country elected enough women to make Parliament 42
percent female. Finland currently leads the world with 60 percent
female cabinet members.
In the newly elected
parliament, 32 members identify themselves as "feminists,"
according to a poll conducted by the Finnish daily Turun Sanomat.
Twenty-two are women, and 10 are men, which amounts to every sixth
Meanwhile, in 2004,
Finland had the most gender-balanced workforce in the European
Union, with employment rates for men and women ages 55 to 64 split
at just about 50 percent each. In some sectors, women have made
swift headway toward parity; in the Evangelical Lutheran Church
of Finland, for example, the first female pastors were ordained
in 1988 and now are roughly one-third of all clergy.
Women's political equivalence
is even abetted by the language, which makes no distinctions about
people based on gender. The personal pronoun "han" means
"he" or "she."
But in the end, Gianturco
chose to look away from Finnish women's serious attainments and
focus on their fun-loving side.
was that the Finnish women were resilient, emotionally resilient
and confident," Gianturco says. "I love the interview
I did with two sisters . . . One of the sisters said to me, 'you
know, you can't make too much fun of yourself.' And I thought,
what a remarkable statement, thinking about how much self-esteem
you have to have to even think of that!"
In her 2004 book, "Celebrating
Women," Gianturco shot Finland's championship wife-carrying
contest--"a silly sport," she calls it--where couples
run an obstacle course with the woman slung over the man's shoulder.
It is just one of the
country's quirky traditions. Finland also has contests for cell-phone
throwing, boot-tossing and playing the air guitar.
Even with all that
sunny statistics and playful festivities suggest, some caution
that the reality of life for Finnish women is more complex. A
2005 study revealed that alcohol is the leading cause of death
for men, and almost as many women have died from alcohol-related
causes as breast cancer.
face the challenge of being superwomen responsible for both private
and professional life," says Liesl Yamaguchi, a Fulbright
fellow currently studying women in Finnish politics at the Christina
Institute for Women's Studies at the University of Helsinki. "The
advances of Finnish women in the public sphere have not been matched
by advances by men into the private one."
The Finnish system
of parental leave to take care of children, for instance, consists
of maternal leave of 105 days, a paternal leave of 18 days and
parental leave of 158 days to be used by either sex. During this
leave, the parent receives approximately 66 percent of her or
his previous income. However, just 2 percent of fathers take an
extended parental leave beyond the first few weeks following a
child's birth, and the burden of child care still falls mostly
on the shoulders of women.
Women's earnings lag
behind men in the business world; in the private sector women
earn 80 percent of their male counterparts' salaries despite higher
levels of education.
In an essay she wrote
for the 2006 book "Politics of Gender," Elina Lahelma,
academy fellow at the Department of Education, University of Helsinki,
says the strength of Finnish women is a myth. "There are
achievers and under-achievers among Finnish girls and women: those
who can endure and those who cannot cope with situations where
life is too tough," she wrote.
Wishing to diversify
and deepen the understanding of Finnish women, singer-composers
Paula Jaakkola and Jaana Kantola created an ensemble performance,
"The Many Faces of a Finnish Woman," which they performed
at New York's Scandinavia House last month and hope to stage again
whenever they have enough funding.
"We were five
Finnish women on stage and it seemed appropriate to concentrate
on a theme that revolves around Finnish women who are often characterized
as being strong," says Kantola. "We wanted to reveal
that behind that stoic facade there is a lot of compassion, humor
In a production that
featured two singers, a multicultural group of musicians and three
dancers, the performers touched on themes of endurance and compassion,
such as finding the courage to love after battling depression.
(A study that looked at the 55-year-old population in Finland
found that women were twice as likely to be depressed as men,
and a 2004 paper on women and depression concluded the disorder
"is a consequence of invisible gendered tensions in a women-friendly
Irreverence was laced
throughout the performance with songs such as "Piks Paks,"
a musical version of a child's chant similar to "eeny meeny
For all its variety,
however, the show, held firm to the idea of women's equality,
with the signature song "Laulajan messu," or "Singers
Rant," asserting women's sense of their own worth. "I
could sing and would sing; but without coins I'll not flap my
Barriers Are Down
Dr. Jaana Rehnstrom,
a Finnish woman who lives and works in New York and whose sister
is a chemical engineer, is a living example of the Finnish superwoman.
She has a bustling
gynecology practice, an 11-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter,
and is president of the Finland Center Foundation, a nonprofit
cultural organization in New York whose board of directors consists
of five women and two men.
"I think that
when kids make choices in what they study, there really is no
gender bias in the sense that if you're interested in science,
you do science," she says.
Rehnstrom says that
Finnish women have been helped by the country's traditionally
"There is a long
tradition of women doing men's work. Also, there's probably a
Lutheran thing, where you have to do everything yourself. You
don't ask for help when you need it, which leads to ridiculous
situations sometimes. And there's a frugality. Why should you
pay someone to cut your hair when your husband can do it?"
Kirsti Siitonen, a
Finnish language professor at the University of Turku, notes that
Finnish women are better educated than their male counterparts
and now comprise over 50 percent of those receiving doctorates
at her university. In the 1980s her department consisted of four
professors: three men and one woman. Now, she says, it's three
women and one man.
But like Gianturco,
Siitonen thinks that Finnish women's notable strength is their
ability to make fun of things, including themselves.
themselves and can find a balance in their life," says Siitonen.
"For them, the titles are not so important, more interesting
is what they can do in their work. It is a question for us women,
if it really makes us happy, whether we have high positions or
Diane Saarinen is
a Finnish-American reporter based in New York City. She contributes
frequently to New World Finn journal, Raivaaja newspaper and Quiet
Mountain: New Feminist Essays.
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