Women Run Finland. Israel Has a Lot to Learn

This Nordic country has a history of trafficking in women and is in second place in the EU in the level of violence against women. But Finland also has a progressive welfare policy and approach to education – and its government features a group of ambitious young women. The story of a revolution

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Education Minister Li Andersson, Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo, Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni, after the first meeting of the new government in Helsinki, Dec. 2019.
Finland's Education Minister Li Andersson, Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo, Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni, after the first meeting of the new government, Dec. 2019.Credit: Antti Yrjonen / NurPhoto / AFP
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

“It’s pointless to be scratched to the bleeding point by the breaking of the glass ceiling, if no one follows in your footsteps.”

– Tarja Halonen, president of Finland 2000-2012

HELSINKI – Precision, elegance, simplicity – the interior design of the palace housing the offices of Finland’s government is breathtaking. The minister for European affairs, Tytti Tuppurainen, who is affiliated with the Social Democratic Party, shares space in this building with the party’s leader, Sanna Marin, who also happens to be the prime minister. But Marin isn’t here when we visit: She’s at the economic forum in Davos, playing the role of life of the party, besieged by inquisitive journalists eager to interview the world’s second-youngest state leader (after Austria’s Sebastian Kurz).

The 44-year-old Tuppurainen and her aide, both wearing colorful floral dresses of the well-known Finnish label Marimekko, open the door to their bureau with cordial smiles. Before anything else, Tuppurainen shows me a framed letter she keeps on a shelf behind her desk from Israel’s ambassador in Helsinki, in which he thanks her for organizing an anti-racism conference. Israel, she emphasizes, is very close to her heart. Indeed, she adds, the two countries share a common destiny: “Both are small countries that were founded in a hostile milieu. We had the Soviet Union, and Israel is in the Middle East.”

Tuppurainen has visited Israel once and says she’s impressed by the fact that women do compulsory military service, but admits that she isn’t well informed about the situation of women’s equality in the Jewish state. In any event, we’re meeting to talk about a happier topic: the situation of women in Finland.

The world was agog last December when Sanna Marin, 34, became the country’s prime minister. The Social Democratic Party had selected her as its new leader after the previous leader and prime minister, Antti Rinne, stepped down after just seven months in office. In the last election to the Eduskunta, the Finnish parliament, in April 2019, a record 93 women were elected – 47 percent of the 200-seat legislature. The Social Democrats, led by Rinne, won the most seats and formed the coalition.

This is a left-center and feminist government, in this country of 5.5 million people, with women heading all five of the parties that constitute it. Women head 12 of the 19 government ministries, and if that isn’t revolutionary enough, consider the fact that four of the five leaders of the coalition parties are women under the age of 35. Besides Prime Minister Marin, the education minister and leader of the Left Alliance, Li Andersson, is 32; Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni, who is also the deputy prime minister and the leader of the Center Party, is 32; and Maria Ohisalo, the interior minister and head of the Green League, is 34. The fifth woman, Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson, leader of the minority Swedish People’s Party of Finland, is 55.

Education Minister Li Andersson.Credit: PMO/ Finland

I stare at a photograph of Li Andersson, taken as she ascended the steps of the building housing the Education Ministry, which she’s headed since last June. She’s led the Left Alliance for four years and shows up at work in jeans pants and jacket, headphones dangling around her neck. As there’s no official vehicle in sight, she must have used public transportation or walked. Young, liberal and feminist, she advocates social-democratic principles. By contrast, her counterpart in Israel’s Education Ministry is a man who flaunts his military past, belongs to a (religious) community that regularly excludes women and just as regularly comes out with LGBT-phobic remarks. Where did we go wrong?

The other three young female leaders in the Finnish cabinet also have political expertise and a record of getting things done. Their biographies are equally compelling. Prime Minister Marin, who is from a family of lower socioeconomic status headed by two women, was elected at age 27 to the city council in Tampere, a large city in southern Finland, and afterward served as its mayor for four years. Kulmuni, who was born in the town of Tornio, in Lapland, has been a member of parliament since 2015 and last September was elected head of the formerly ruling Center Party. For her part, Interior Minister Ohisalo, spent part of her childhood in a shelter for at-risk children, because her parents were unable to raise her. She has a doctorate in sociology, and has been active in the Green League since age 23, serving on its behalf on the Helsinki city council starting in 2017. She was first elected to parliament last April 2019 and two months later was selected to head the League.

The Finns see nothing unusual about the women leaders’ young age. On the contrary: The people I speak with are pleased that the young generation is taking responsibility and think that this is how things should be. “They aren’t fashion models who suddenly jumped into politics,” one of my interviewees, a woman, reprimands me gently in response to a question. Meanwhile, I am reminded – when I see an Instagram selfie of former MK Stav Shaffir at Davos with Sanna Marin, which is probably the closest Shaffir will come to a prime minister anywhere in the foreseeable future – that in Israel the number of female lawmakers is only dropping, and the younger ones are sometimes booted out of power prematurely.

Tytti Tuppurainen: ‘This is actually quite normal. Our first female minister [of social affairs] was Miina Sillanpää, who was appointed in 1926. That’s almost 100 years ago.’

What is it that makes Finland one of the most egalitarian countries in the world when it comes to gender? And how sustainable is this impressive equality, when the far-right Finns Party (formerly known as the True Finns) is breathing down the neck of the ruling party, just one seat behind the Social Democrats?

European Affairs Minister Tuppurainen dates the story of gender equality in Finland to the agrarian period, and notes that the transition to industrialism, even if it occurred at a relatively late stage, in the 20th century, left women alongside men on the same assembly lines. “When we urbanized, basically after World War II, the process was very rapid. So first, we were a very poor, rural country, and then, very quickly, an urbanized, industrial nation. The urbanization took place together with the building of the welfare state. So we had never a culture of housewives in Finland. First we worked side by side in agriculture in the countryside, and then in industrial jobs in the cities, with the welfare state taking care of the elderly and the children. We have a day-care system, and in the 1990s all childrenwere given the right to have full-time day care limitless, so that was also a factor in hastening women’s participation in working life.”

Indeed, the data show that it worked: The employment rate of women in the 15-64 age group in Finland is 70.6 percent today, compared to 72.7 percent for men.

Do you think that the present moment, of the Marin government with a women’s majority, is a great and dramatic time, or a necessary development in a process that has been underway for many years?

Tuppurainen: “Both. This is actually quite normal. Our first female minister was Miina Sillanpää, who was the leader of the Social Democratic women, who was appointed minister of social affairs in 1926. That’s almost 100 years ago. Twice previously, we had women prime ministers, though not for a long time, so Sanna Marin is our third female premier. It’s nothing miraculous, it’s quite normal. But then, when you look at the government, of course it is exceptional that all the leaders of the coalition parties are women.”

Finland's minister for European affairs, Tytti Tuppurainen.Credit: © Kosti Keistinen / valtioneuvo

Still, there were those who spoke derisively of a “lipstick government,” or called you the “Spice Girls.”

“Of course, there were. We have to understand what kind of world we are living in now. The multilateral rules-based system is being challenged, democracy has been challenged, equality has been challenged, authoritarianism is on the rise, and the rule of law has been questioned, and many times the right-wing politics of populists is combined with chauvinism and anti-feminism. And there are these kind of politicians in Finland as well. So, there are some vocal politicians questioning whether this kind of ‘girls’ government can really rule our country. But the majority of Finns, a majority of the public, supports the idea that it’s perfectly normal that we have a female-led government.”

What about the fact that they are so young?

“It is actually a coincidence that we have Sanna Marin is the prime ministers representing the Social Democrats, and Katri Kulmuni as leader of the Center Party, the second-largest party in the coalition. They won the top position in their parties only very narrowly. We could have had a male prime minister and a man leading the Center Party. So it was not some kind of feministic junta taking over Finland.”

Tuppurainen says she did not personally encounter any obstacles on her path to her current senior political position.

“When I went to school, in high school and so forth, I actually never gave it a thought, it was so equal. Girls and boys go to the same schools and the quality of schools are equal everywhere, no matter where you go.”

What does still stand in the way of Finland’s achieving full gender equality are wage disparities between men and women – there’s a 17-percent advantage for the former – and also the very distinctive gender distribution in the labor market, where women tend more to helping professions such as teaching and social work. Which explains part of the wage gaps.

““We need to make sure that this is not the case for our daughters in the future,” Tuppurainen asserts.

Partners in poverty

Mid-January, but in Helsinki it’s not as cold as I’d been warned to expect: There’s barely any sign of snow. And the Finns are worried. From their point of view, this is a clear sign of the looming climatic catastrophe. This is the overriding issue occupying the public these days, and my interlocutors are amazed to hear that in Israel it’s far down on the national agenda. In the middle of the week the streets look deserted, other than long lines outside the Ateneum, the national gallery of art. The institution is holding a first comprehensive retrospective of the works of the painter Helene Schjerfbeck. Schjerfbeck, who died in 1946 at the age of 83, was active for more than 70 years, with her style undergoing a dramatic change over time – from meticulously realistic portraits and landscapes to expressive modernism. She never married and had no children, but the exhibition does not dwell on this detail. In the past decade she has acquired an iconic status in Finland, becoming something like the national painter.

Works by painter Helene Schjerfbeck.

Finland has a long cultural tradition that showcases strong women, both historical and literary. There’s an image of a strong Finnish woman who does everything, from domestic chores, providing a livelihood and looking after the family, to caring for the man who returns wounded and traumatized from the field of battle. To a certain extent, this is a myth, but historian Oula Silvennoinen, who was born in the Finnish Lakeland city of Jyvaskyla and teaches at the University of Helsinki, explains that there are historical factors that explain the origins of the myth: To some extent, he notes, the roots of gender equality in the country lie in the hard, poverty-stricken life people endured for centuries, and in the tradition of men and women sharing the burdens of life and a common fate.

“Finland was throughout its history an agrarian society where almost everyone was a peasant. A culture of equality stemmed from the fact that socially, people tended to be on the same level. And women also played a very independent role throughout the centuries... For example, property rights. Since the medieval period, women could own property, and thus could run the farms and businesses. Another factor is that the Swedish crown – Finland was part of the kingdom of Sweden – distributed much of the local administrative responsibilities to the peasantry. This created a centuries-old tradition and also gave the peasants as a class both knowledge of how administration works and the confidence that they were good enough to govern themselves. And this has had its effects on women, who had from a very early period on realized that they could wield political power and influence society.”

There’s an image of a strong Finnish woman who does everything, from providing a livelihood and looking after the family, to caring for the man who returns wounded and traumatized from war.

Dr. Silvennoinen notes that this was fertile ground for moves toward gender equality, such as the simultaneous enfranchisement of men and women, in 1906, when the Eduskunta was founded and Finland was still annexed to Russia (a situation that lasted from 1809 to 1917). Finland thus became the first country in the world to grant women both the right to vote and the right to be elected. (In New Zealand, women were allowed vote only, starting in 1893.) A year later, in 1907, in the first election to the parliament, women won 19 of the 200 seats and became the world’s first elected legislators.

Finland, of course, is in good company, and that too is part of the story. All the neighboring Nordic lands – Sweden, Denmark and Norway – display a similar tendency toward gender equality, and because these countries act in coordination and cooperation (by way of the Nordic Council) and see themselves as possessing closely related cultures – the mutual influence is very strong.

“You find all across the Nordic countries a rather strong egalitarian tendency,” says Silvennoinen. “You also find a rather strong leaning toward the rule of law in Finish society, it has been something of a staple for the political left and the political right.”

Another important factor, apart from the regional commonality, is the socialist tradition. The welfare society, which began to take root in Finland in the 1930s, had a direct influence on women’s ability to be full partners in the labor market, and accordingly in nationial decision-making realms, too.

Silvennoinen: “There are efforts to mitigate the effects of childbirth and childcare on the careers of women. The state offers certain benefits, and affordable day care is available to everyone. And there’s legislation that forbids employers from firing you because of pregnancy.”

Historian Oula Silvennoinen.Credit: Juho Heinola

In this vein, Marin’s government is currently promoting a reform that would grant six-month paternity leave, in addition to six months for the mother. In Finland, every family in which a baby is born gets a package of clothes for the newborn, a gift from the state.

Do Finnish men therefore participate more in child-rearing, and are they ready to slow down their careers, instead of the women, who return to work quickly?

“I’d say it’s increasingly normal, especially for younger, urban men, though I wouldn’t say they are the majority. But what I think is important is that you’re not making yourself subject to ridicule by making such a decision. It’s a societal atmosphere in which it’s easier for men to take a stronger role in the family. A father who’s caring and takes his share of the responsibility for the kids is someone most Finns would look up to.”

‘A dangerous word’

Marjut Jyrkinen is a lecturer and researcher in the University of Helsinki’s gender studies department, and specializes in workforce issues. She says she’s pleased with the uptick in the number of female cabinet ministers in Marin’s government. But no less important, she says, is whether women in leadership positions are also committed to a feminist approach. The experience in Israel shows that this cannot be taken for granted. Nor in Finland, Dr. Jyrkinen says.

“Feminism is still kind of a dangerous word in Finland, in academic research and in politics, and this compared to for instance Sweden, where there is an explicit feminist policy. You will often hear people in Finland say, ‘I’m not a feminist, but I am a strong believer in equality.”

Jyrkinen, too, views the current moment as the result of many years of developments related to Finland’s economic and social history, including the history of its labor market.

“After the war, Finland needed to pay a huge war debt to the Russians. That really pushed industrialization. In the United States following the war, women were sent back home from the factories, but we didn’t have that option, because women were needed. So, there was maybe some kind of odd blessing in that debt.”

To make it possible for women to work full time, free lunches for all children were introduced into the schools as early as 1948, thus relieving women of the need to return home to cook in the middle of the day. In 1973, day care became a basic right of every child in Finland from the age of 1. Finland also offers afternoon child-care facilities for workers’ children, subsidized by the state or by municipal authorities, on a scale adjusted to the parents’ economic needs. The government that was in power before Rinne’s, headed by Juha Sipila, limited the right of families with more than one child in preschool to be exempted from payment for day care. That was a “bad, irresponsible” decision, Jyrkinen says, noting that the Marin government has already done away with this directive.

The Helsinki Municipality went further, deciding that all the city’s children are entitled to one free, hot meal a day, even during summer vacation. So, at noon on every weekday during vacation periods, children with bowls and spoons show up in the city’s public parks, accompanied by their parents (or without them, if they’re of school age).

Helsinki.Credit: Juho Heinola

Another factor involved in the battle to achieve gender equality, Jyrkinen says, is the Finns’ perception of and commitment to their standing in the international arena.

“What is really relevant in Finland is pressure from the outside, particularly regarding the international conventions it has signed onto, like United Nations conventions regarding women’s rights, the rights of children, the Palermo protocol – which deals with the sex trade – and the Istanbul convention [against torture]. These have been a good springboard for civil servants, feminists and women’s organizations. They sort of lean on this and say: Listen, we have signed these agreements, we have ratified them, now how shall we implement them. This is a kind of pressure.”

Before focusing on the labor market, Jyrkinen spent years researching trafficking in women. Finland experienced a very dark period in this regard in the 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the opening of borders with the countries of the former communist bloc. At the time, Finland, which shares a land border of 1,300 kilometers (about 800 miles) with Russia, was in the grip of a severe economic and unemployment crisis, and became a hub for extensive sexual exploitation of women.

“There was the opening of borders with Russia, in particular, and all over Europe in general – big changes, taking place at the same time,” she says. “The use of a woman’s body was understood at the time as a type of liberty, freedom: that everyone should be able to sell their body or sell sex. It was a kind of misinterpretation of liberty or freedom. And odd business people, both Finnish and from abroad, started building up the business and new technologies enabled recruiting and organizing this kind of trafficking.”

Brothels are not legal in Finland, but the country’s sex industry flourished behind the scenes during the 1990s at clubs listed as striptease joints or places to watch porn films, Jyrkinen adds.

Sofi Oksanen: 'When Elisabeth Rehn was running, public discussion was about her shade of lipstick. Now we have so many women in the cabinet, this might be the moment when public discourse can focus on their work.'

“Since there was big unemployment at the time, even certain employment offices started to advertise these kind of jobs, in strip clubs. Sex tourism was openly advertised. In southeastern Finland there was a locale doctors nicknamed the ‘gonorrhea municipality,’ because there were so many cases of sexually transmitted diseases, which had practically been nonexistent in Finland before. There were places where you could cross the border, and there, in the middle of nowhere, were brothels that were not declared as such, but were camping areas and hotels where sex traders were routed, where they brought women back and forth from Russia.”

While Finnish law does not prohibit prostitution per se, it forbids pimping and trafficking in women. Industrious lobbyists are currently battling attempts to enact legislation that would incriminate clients and outlaw prostitution altogether.

Targets of hate speech

My interlocutors are also disturbed by hate speech in Finland. Women are not the only victims of such talk, of course, but they are major targets. Such rhetoric emanates from the anonymous, dark regions of supporters of the extreme right, whose main representative is the Finns Party. Polls conducted after the formation of Marin’s government showed that if a new election were held, that party would win a majority.

Jyrkinen and Silvennoinen emphasize that the Finns Party officially avoids making misogynist statements, but steadfastly supports traditional gender roles and family values, while opposing same-sex marriage, which has been legal in the country since 2017. The party thus finds support among devout Christians, who also typically espouse traditional conceptions of sexuality and gender-based division of roles. In Finland, by the way, there is no absolute separation between religion and state, although the majority of the population is secular.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin, Education Minister Li Andersson, Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni and Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo after the first meeting of the new government, Dec. 10, 2020.Credit: LEHTIKUVA/Reuters

The Finns Party has naturally attacked the Marin government on many issues but not directly on gender equality, Silvennoinen says: Its primary position is that “it’s an awful government because there are awful parties in it.... “[The Finns Party] probably knows it wouldn’t resonate very well with the general public to simply start to berate the government for having so many female ministers and for having so many young women in influential positions. They know better than that. They can only talk that kind of talk if they know they’re among their supporters.”

Do you think men feel threatened because there is a government whose majority is women?

Silvennoinen: “This is not a recent revolution in Finnish society. This is something we have gotten accustomed to. The majority of Finnish men certainly aren’t threatened, but you will find some who feel very threatened not just by the fact that we happen to have a government led by a young woman but, in general, about their position as men in society... There is a considerable segment of men who feel very insecure about their role, their position, their futures, and they react by trying to push women down.”

According to him, these are mostly uneducated, unskilled, working-class men, who realize “that with their set of skills and education, they don’t have much to offer society and could easily be superseded by some female who may be brighter or more active. And they get angry about that… Back in the old days, decent jobs were reserved for men. There was less competition.”

Another issue clouding gender utopia in Finland is the phenomenon of violence against women. Finland is in second place in the European Union in terms of the level of violence against women, according to a 2016 survey. Every year, between 14 and 20 women are murdered in the country by their partner, a disproportionately high number relative to Europe.There aren’t enough shelters for battered wives, and the National Council of Women in Finland has established a working group to help deal with the situation.

The Israeli model

One female Finnish politician who made history on a global scale is Märta Elisabeth Rehn – the first woman in the world to serve as a defense minister (not including prime ministers such as India’s Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, who held the defense portfolio within the framework of their position). Rehn served in that capacity from 1990 until 1995 on behalf of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland (which represents Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority), and for most of that period also served as the minister of equality. She ran for president in 1994 but lost by a small margin to Martti Ahtisaari. (The president is the country’s popularly elected head of state, and formally appoints the prime minister.) From 1995 to 1999, Rehn was undersecretary general of the United Nations. She’s now 85, the mother of four children, and has 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Veronica Rehn-Kivi, is a member of parliament on behalf of her mother’s former party.

Former Defense Minister Märta Elisabeth Rehn.Credit: Juho Heinola

Rehn and I meet in a small café, too modern for her taste, close to the University of Helsinki. She doesn’t live in the capital, but in a remote village, “in the middle of a forest with elks and deer,” but came into town for the interview and also to attend a talk by the present defense minister, Antti Kaikkonen. She wants to talk about a plan she conceived long ago: to integrate women into the Finnish army. (Finnish men must do a year’s compulsory military service.) She says that during a visit to Israel as defense minister, when Moshe Arens was her counterpart, she got the idea of women doing military service. “I want to make sure he doesn’t take the credit,” she says with a shrewd smile, about Kaikkonen.

In the first stage, Rehn succeeded in arranging for women to take part in Finnish peacekeeping forces, but notes that “during the Winter War [against the Soviet Union in 1939-40] and our part of World War II, women played a fantastic role, not only keeping up all the machinery for the country, during the time men were on the front lines, but also serving themselves in organizations on the front lines – washing bodies of casualties before they were sent back to the families and so on. So women were always very strongly involved in defending our country, which is as it should be.

“When I started my work as defense minister, I realized that in so many war zones, women are the victims, so that means women should also be in all levels of the peacekeeping forces. The spirit of carrying out a mission is more natural when there are both men and women. It is more human.”

During her tenure, Rehn set up a committee with representatives from across the entire political spectrum in the country, which ultimately decided to permit women to serve in the Finnish army on a voluntary basis. The top brass have not been enthusiastic, she says.

“They didn’t like the women coming in, and are not treating them the same way [as men]. They put women in their own rooms, in a different area, and they get all the orders a little bit later. So they are outside the discussion. Now they will at least start an experiment: putting women and men in the same accommodation area. So we will see. Because women can only volunteer, the army gets to choose whom they want to accept, so they are taking the best women, not everybody. This means that there are many women there who are much smarter than the men.”

Ultimately, universal conscription is a necessary condition for ensuring equality of opportunity between the sexes, Rehn adds: “Men are getting, free of charge, a very good lesson in leadership during their time in the army. That leadership lesson is something women should also have the right to get free of charge. And it allows for so many connections in life afterward, leaving women outside. In terms of equality, it is also not fair toward the men that they have to do something women don’t have to do.”

'Now that we have five women in charge, we can all go to the sauna together and make the decisions there,' Marin told Time magazine.

Did you encounter misogynist attitudes while you were defense minister?

“Oh yes, of course. The old veterans were saying, ‘Are we so short on men in this country that we have to take a woman as a defense minister?’ But they have changed. The really far left, the communists and so on – they hated me. They said that it was a matter of one woman in the middle of a trap that was built by men. They said I would let men militarize Finland more, and so on.”

For her part, Rehn is very pleased with Marin and her government so far. “I think Sanna Marin is very strong about saying that this is not a question of women – this is a government that happens have five party leaders who are women. She tries to give the right impression. It is fantastic that they are so young; they are good people, all of them. I hope that they can cooperate and will not get into any kind of public fights. Otherwise immediately people will say: ‘Oh, of course, they can’t agree, women can never agree’ – and that’s not true.”

A sauna in Helsinki's Kallio district. Credit: Juho Heinola

Sauna politics

I met Kreeta and Kaisu Karvala by chance in a karaoke bar in the Kallio neighborhood, which in the 1990s had the reputation of being Helsinki’s red-light district. In recent years, Kallio has turned into a hipster hangout, and the cost of housing has risen accordingly. The populists term it scornfully Helsinki’s “green-red bubble,” because the current population there are considered supporters of left-wing parties and of environmental causes.

Dr. Kreeta Karvala is an editor and columnist who writes a political column for the Iltalehti tabloid, and her wife, Kaisu, is a musician, lawyer and owner of an international firm that advises startups. They were married five years ago (on the steps of Helsinki’s great cathedral – same-sex marriages cannot be performed inside), and are raising Kreeta’s daughter from a previous relationship, and Kaisu’s daughter. At 2 A.M., Kreeta and Kaisu invite us to their home for a nocturnal session in the sauna. This turns out to be a quite acceptable way to round out an evening in Finland. Almost every institution, workplace, private home or tenement apartment in Finland has a sauna; for Finns, sprawling in the hot steam is a meaningful part of everyday life.

The couple lives in a fine neighborhood in the heart of Helsinki, in a 19th-century wooden house. It’s minus-2 degrees Celsius (28 Fahrenheit) outside, but there’s no snow to roll around in – the usual post-sauna treat – so we sit in the cold a little, in bathrobes. Kreeta explains that the purpose of being together in the sauna is to establish blind trust. Indeed, the sauna is even considered to be a sacred place in the Finnish tradition – women once entered it to give birth. In a serious tone, Kreeta says that the löyly – the spirit that personifies the hot steam that rises from the blazing-hot stones – does not tolerate abuse. Accordingly, in public saunas, making sexual advances, not to mention harassment, is out of bounds. The sauna must be completely free of tension. Would you enter a sauna with colleagues, I ask Kreeta. “Yes, if there are good relations with them.” And with your editor at the newspaper? “That depends on how annoying he is.”

Kreeta and Kaisu Karvala.Credit: Juho Heinola

In a television interview that same morning, Kreeta commented on something Prime Minister Marin told Time magazine at Davos. Marin said, ironically, that the fact that all the party leaders in Finland’s government are women is an advantage, because “we Finns have our sauna. And traditionally, it’s where we make decisions. So now that we have five women in charge, we can all go to the sauna together and make the decisions there.”

It’s not certain that the Time reporter grasped the full import of Marin’s historical-cultural reference, but the Finns received it loud and clear. Urho Keonnen, who served as president from 1965 until 1982, a lengthy tenure that cast his rule in totalitarian hues, was known for holding cabinet sessions and meetings with important guests in a sauna. Because men and women enter saunas – the ones outside the home – separately, women remained outside the decision-making club. In the television interview, Kreeta had said that this was exactly the mentality that had made it difficult for female journalists to rise in their profession, because they didn’t have access to all the scoops the men got in the steamy rooms.

Novelist and playwright Sofi Oksanen has yet another angle on the advantages of a heavily female government. “There is power in numbers. It is very difficult to be the only woman in politics. I remember when Elisabeth Rehn was running for office, the public discussion was all about the shade of her lipstick. Now we have so many women in the cabinet, so this might be the moment when the public discourse can also focus not only on their hairdos or whatever, but on their work.”

Novelist and playwright Sofi Oksanen.Credit: Juho Heinola

“When I grew up,” continues, Oksanen, who is probably best known for her 2012 novel “Purge,” “our president was always Kekonnen. He was president for 25 years in a row. And then Tarja Halonen was elected as the first woman president in 2000, so that was important also on the symbolic level. The symbolic level of this government is that every little girl in Finland can see that there are no limits, your gender doesn’t have to limit any of your options. It became normal for children to grow up with the idea that they are not defined by their gender or sexuality or ethnic background. Our prime minister, Marin, has also openly talked about her background – that she is not from any kind of elite family, that she is from a lower middle-class family, which is also an LGBT family of two mothers.

Still, Oksanen says, Finland is far from being a feminist utopia. “I think the publishing industry is equal, but I was also very surprised that even though there is female-male parity in books published – I saw a research study that counted the number of reviews received, and actually, female authors get many fewer reviews. The books written by men are also statistically more expensive, which means that women again get less money. And also there’s something in the latest research that shows that there is more of a male voice in the newspapers, because of all the people interviewed [for stories], only 30 percent are women. That also goes for the number of male journalists versus women journalists. And when you look at the list of the wealthiest people here, only a very few of them are women. We talk about a glass ceiling, but I think it’s a money ceiling.”

In recent years there have been efforts among media outlets and others to counteract male dominance in current affairs discourse, in part thanks to the humorous guerrilla tactics of media artist Saara Sarma. In 2015, Sarma, who has a doctorate in international relation, began collecting photographs of panel discussions at academic conferences, political events and television programs in which only men took part. She uploaded them to Tumblr and on each picture pasted a photograph of hunky American actor David Hasselhoff from “Baywatch” giving the thumbs up with the heading, “Congrats, you have an all male panel!”

When the Marin government came to power, Sarma says, she had an odd feeling. After a few days she grasped that now she is personally acquainted with quite a few people in the new administration – some of the ministers, government personnel, political appointees – and the feeling of being closer to the establishment is alien to her.

Media artist Saara Sarma.Credit: Mirkka Pihlajamaa

Sarma: “I started thinking, this is how white middle-aged men have always felt, that’s how it has been for them, but they probably didn’t even think about it: They had always been well connected and know whom to lobby if they wanted to get something to happen. Am I the establishment now? Just to know that certain things are possible – it’s sort of a big change.”

After a few days in Helsinki, I found it hard to believe that I hadn’t managed to find anyone who would have some juicy misogynist things to say about Sanna Marin’s government. Are the Finns saints? In a faux-speakeasy bar that I entered through a black door with a bell, I tried to see whether the bartender had anything to contribute. The women I had met warned me that Finnish men tend to be taciturn, and sure enough, the he wasn’t very forthcoming. Fortunately, another client, who was in a chatty mood, took a seat at the bar.

“As it happens, I don’t support the new government,” he declared. “Because they’re women?” I asked, hopefully. He looked at me as though I’d landed from Mars. “What’s that got to do with it? Because they’re leftists.” “Are you against the immigration policy?” I asked. “I couldn’t care in the least, I just don’t want them to raise taxes.” “But the fact that they’re a group of young women – that doesn’t bother you?” I pressed him, playing devil’s advocate. “Why should that bother me?” he replied. “Who doesn’t like young women?”



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism