Finland’s path to becoming a model country has been a challenging one: foreign politicians have used the country as an example for their own purposes, writes Academy Professor Pasi Ihalainen in his science blog entry.

The granting of the right to vote to women in 1906 has become part of our national narrative, and Finnish women’s trailblazing role as political actors also makes many men proud. The reform doubled the size of the nation, further distinguished Finland from Russia, polished Finland’s image in the West and put us in competition with Norway about which country was actually the first to give women the vote.

Finnish female MPs felt they were pioneers who should prove women’s political abilities to the world. At the same time, a group of Finnish male politicians reassured their foreign colleagues that women really were equally capable members of parliament and that their participation strengthened solidarity between genders and within the nation.

In other countries, envy and admiration

The hierarchies of nations and different political situations in foreign countries defined how Finland’s example was taken. Swedish activists were irritated that their country, which they considered the most forward-looking, had been left behind by Finland.

In the German labour press, the examples from Finland normalised women’s political agency. When the women’s right to vote was finally decided for, the constitutional committee noted that the inclusion of women in Finland had resulted in “the best possible experiences”. In the parliament of the Netherlands, a description was shared of how Finnish couples went peacefully to vote even though the spouses may vote for different parties.

Sour observations

In Sweden, the Right viewed Finland as a cultural hinterland that could not be compared to Sweden. Moreover, they felt that Finnish women in politics were only interested in their own matters, nor did the presence of women make political life any “gentler”: there was even a civil war in Finland!

A British representative was certain that Finland could not be compared to Britain, the leader of the civilized world, and that Finnish women voted as their men told them to. Furthermore, “spinster” MPs wanted to ban alcohol and tobacco from men. In Germany, it had been heard that politically active Finnish women neglected their families and the number of divorces had risen sharply in the country.

Despite dire predictions, the result was a country of happy people

In the eyes of the supporters of women’s right to vote, Finland exemplified the positive effects of the reform. Opponents, on the other hand, found evidence of the disastrous effects on families and the nation. The case of Finland, it seems, was interpreted in the way that best suited each speaker’s objectives.

This has also happened later¸ with politicians using international comparisons to achieve their own goals. Naturally, more than one hundred years of independence and continually ranking as one of the happiest countries in the world have made Finland a more credible point of comparison than the Grand Duchy before independence was at the time.

Read more about Academy Professor Pasi Ihalainen’s academy professor project.

A book on the history of women’s political rights with a chapter by Pasi Ihalainen and Tiina Kinnunen (University of Oulu) on this topic will be published in Germany in early 2022.


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