For over a century, Finland has pioneered women’s representation in politics. The world’s first nation to grant women both voting and parliamentary rights is today governed by a young, female-led coalition that has drafted an ambitious equality programme whilst fighting the pandemic. But discrimination still casts a long shadow over Europe’s alleged feminist haven. Against a global resurgence of authoritarianism and right-wing populism, it is more vital than ever to understand the critical link between democracy and gender equality.

Finland made global headlines in December 2019 when the then 34-year-old Sanna Marin was sworn in as the world’s youngest prime minister and the youngest premier in Finnish history. She heads a centre-left-green coalition government of five parties that are all led by women. Leader of the Social Democratic Party, Marin shares power with Maria Ohisalo of the Greens, Li Andersson of the Left Alliance, Annika Saarikko of the Centre Party, and Anna-Maja Henriksson of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland. Like Marin, Ohisalo, Andersson, and Saarikko are all under 40. Women won a record-breaking 93 seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections, representing 47 per cent of the 200-seat parliament.

Eye-catching photographs of the smiling premier and her female- led cabinet quickly went viral, and Finland basked in its glowing reputation as a gender equality trailblazer. The global attention was not undeserved, for the cabinet members are indeed compelling ambassadors for female leadership – particularly Marin, who for many women symbolises feminism’s coming of age. Raised by same-sex parents, she is the working mother of a toddler and an experienced politician who is widely respected for her unflappable decisiveness. Noted for her progressive ideas on climate, healthcare, and the normalisation of rainbow families, she recently made the cover of the American TIME magazine and ranked on its annual list of leaders who are shaping the future.

When the coalition entered government, few could have predicted the tumultuous times ahead. Less than three months after the inauguration, the outbreak of the pandemic was announced. The government rose to the challenge promptly, imposing a two-month lockdown that slowed the virus’s spread to one fifth of the European Union average.

The Finnish premier has been praised for her firm action, as have other female leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, prompting some commentators to ask whether female leaders are instinctively better at handling crises than men. True to her plain-speaking style, Marin has dismissed such essentialising plaudits: “There are countries led by men that have also done well. I don’t think it’s a gender-based issue,” she told the BBC.1

However, the issue may not be entirely gender neutral. Praising women leaders for the successes of their “naturally empathetic” leadership style can be seen as a backhanded form of stereotyping, argues journalist Helen Lewis.2 It might be more relevant to ponder how the macho bravado of male leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro contributed to their poor handling of the crisis.

Policies of substance

Johanna Kantola, gender studies professor at Tampere University, finds that Marin’s cabinet is overturning stereotypes rather than perpetuating essentialising ideas of women as “born carers”. “Marin enjoys wide support because she is a competent politician and an efficient communicator. She has listened to the experts and based her decisions on science,” states Kantola.

While the pandemic has inevitably monopolised the government’s attention, the female-led cabinet has also found time to take significant steps toward implementing progressive gender policies. As its first order of business, the government reinstated the statutory right of all parents to receive public care for children under seven. This right was discontinued in 2016 by the previous right-wing populist cabinet. “It was a massive shock when the previous male-dominated government took away this basic pillar of the women-friendly welfare state,” notes Kantola.

In addition to championing family-oriented policies such as new legislation granting mothers and fathers equal parental leave, the government is also moving forward with longstanding issues such as the redefinition of rape in terms of consent rather than the threat of violence. The scope of what legally constitutes sexual harassment is also being broadened to include verbal abuse and offensive images.

Green feminism

The Finnish Greens have been instrumental in recent work to implement feminist policies such as full observance of the recommendations of the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women. The Greens are also vocal on the topic of intersectional feminism.

“Green feminism is intersectional by definition. Our agenda strives to address how economic and racial inequalities affect different women differently. Green feminism offers a way of repairing the structures of society to make them fairer and free of discrimination. This intersects with the goal of a clean environment for future generations,” states Green MP Emma Kari, who chairs the Green Women’s Association, the official women’s wing of the Green League of Finland.

“Although intersectionality is not mainstreamed throughout the government programme, it is an issue that we Greens are striving to give more visibility,” she says.

In the substance of its policy, the actions of the current government affirm that increased female political representation does indeed translate into women-friendly social change. But there is one area in which progress is too slow, in Kantola’s opinion: Finland’s backward transgender legislation. Under current law, Finland requires enforced sterilisation of transgender people after they change gender, a practice denounced as torture by the UN.

A high existing level of gender equality ironically fosters the illusion that specific anti-violence policies are superfluous.

While the government has announced its intent to reform this law, the issue has stalled. “It’s not clear to me why. Maybe because of the pandemic. There has been a lot of talk but no progress,” Kantola laments. Overall, however, she commends the current cabinet for its progress on advancing gender equality, which is an overarching theme woven through the “Inclusive and Competent Finland” government programme. “And, importantly,” adds Kantola, “we have a PM who is willing to talk about feminism. Marin is showing real commitment to putting gender equality on the national agenda.”

Men’s club mentality

The strong role of Finnish female leaders stems from a historical legacy of gender diversity. Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women suffrage, a full decade before most other Western nations. That same year, 1906, Finland also became the world’s first nation to allow women to run for office. In the interim, there have been three female prime ministers and a highly popular female president who served for 12 years.

At face value, Finland looks like a haven of female empowerment. But scratch the surface and a darker reality emerges, argues Kantola: “Having women in positions of power is of course an achievement to be celebrated, but the deeper structures of society are slow to change.”

For starters, political culture retains vestiges of “men’s club” exclusivity, as evidenced by what Kantola terms a “gendered division of labour” in politics. “Hard” issues such as foreign policy and economic policy are stereotypically looked upon as “male” fields of expertise, while women are relegated to healthcare, culture, and other “softer” spheres of policy.

“The division is evident in the way politicians are treated by the media, such as which politicians are chosen to be interviewed as experts,” Kantola illustrates. An analysis of the gender gap in Finnish news journalism revealed that public expertise continues to be male-dominated, with women representing less than 30 per cent of the experts interviewed.3

Second shift

The welfare state’s most glaring structural inequality, however, is Finland’s “deeply gendered” labour market, as Kantola puts it. Although Finland has a long tradition of advocating subsidised childcare and flexible working hours, many Finnish women struggle to balance the demands of work and family, and they continue to lag far behind men in pay, economic status, and corporate ownership.

Finnish fathers take more parental leave than elsewhere in the world, but they still account for only about 11 per cent of the total.4 Women are thus left caring for young children, with lifelong impacts on their career advancement, income, and pensions. Women also do most of the housework in Finnish families. According to a recent report by business think tank EVA, Finnish women do at least an hour’s more housework than men daily across incomes and education levels.5

Finland has a 16 per cent gender pay gap, compared to the EU average of around 14 per cent. Furthermore, its labour market is among the most gender-segregated in Europe, with men and women clustered into specific professions. Women typically work in service and care sectors. In particular, migrant women in Finland work in low-paid, precarious jobs or are not in paid work at all because staying at home is as financially advantageous as employment, according to an OECD report.6

Kantola believes the segregation of the labour market stems from social conditioning: “Only about 10 per cent of the Finnish working-age population are employed in occupations where men and women are equally represented. The remaining 90 per cent work in male or female-dominated jobs. This pattern starts in kindergarten and is reproduced through to working life.”

Violence and vitriol

Another dark shadow in feminist utopia is the high rate of domestic violence in Finland. Rates of physical abuse and intimate partner killings rank among the highest in Europe, and the problem of domestic violence has been exacerbated by the pandemic, reports the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.

According to a survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Finland is the EU’s second most violent country for women.7

“This has definitely been a major blind spot in our women-friendly welfare state. We’ve lagged far behind other European countries in terms of legislation and the resourcing of shelters,” states Kantola. She theorises that the women-friendly welfare state may paradoxically work against women who suffer physical abuse. A high existing level of gender equality ironically fosters the illusion that specific anti-violence policies are superfluous.

“We have a long history of framing domestic violence in a gender-neutral way, often as being alcohol-related. In our gender discourse, women are perceived as workers alongside men, as strong, equal, and able to fend for themselves, so there has been a historical lack of understanding of this topic,” she posits.

Another alarmingly prevalent form of misogyny is verbal abuse directed at women, especially female politicians, who are subjected to everything from sexist memes to anonymous hate speech. A 2021 NATO report investigating Twitter attacks directed at Finnish female ministers claims that coordinated online harassment poses an outright threat to democracy in Finland.8

“This trend is not unique to Finland. It’s part of the transnational rhetoric of the far right,” argues Tuija Saresma, a senior researcher in contemporary culture at the University of Jyväskylä. In her recent study of hate speech in social media, she found that Green and leftist women are the target of the most malicious vilification.9 “Female politicians receive a barrage of anonymous comments about their age, their appearance, and their alleged incompetence. They are also abused with violent, sexualised rhetoric. This might be part of an organised campaign, or a simple case of dogpiling. One whistles and others join the lynch mob,” she explains.

The perpetrators of this hate speech are mostly white, middle-aged or older men whose motivation is fear of losing their white male privilege, theorises Saresma: “The women they are attacking represent progressive values. It’s about power, control, and who has visibility in public discourse. The abusers are trying to silence liberal women that threaten to destabilise the patriarchy.”

The only way to deal with the problem is to bring legislation in line with the evolution of technology, Saresma argues. “Some people claim that legislation against hate speech poses a threat to free speech, but that’s not true. Hate speech is political violence and it must be condemned by the top echelons of society.”

No matter how progressive the current government’s policies are, there is an imminent risk of backlash in the next elections.

While recent polls reveal that most of the Finnish population are satisfied with Marin’s female-led government, the fact remains that Finland is a deeply polarised country. No matter how progressive the current government’s policies are, there is an imminent risk of backlash in the next elections.

The far-right Finns Party has continued to rise and dominate media attention since the 2019 elections, topping the polls with over 20 per cent support in spring 2021. Analysis of voter profiles in the 2019 elections reveals that the populist Finns are a “male” party, receiving 27 per cent of men’s votes, while the Greens enjoy widespread female support, with 19 per cent of Finnish women voting for the pro-environment party.10

Professor Kantola sees the popularity of the Finns Party mirroring a wider global trend of intensifying political polarisation, with populist, right-wing leaders touting misogynistic values and demonising or stereotyping their opponents. She sees feminists as an “easy target” for the oppositional logic of populism. “Ridiculing feminism – rather than talking about the content of gender equality policy – is part of the Finns Party’s rhetoric, and it’s worrying to think that they might return to power. Last time they were, feminist issues were immediately dropped from the agenda,” cautions Kantola.

The rise of anti-feminist populism is among the troubling reasons why even the world’s “most equal” nation still needs a party dedicated specifically to advancing feminism, contends Katju Aro, leader of the Finnish Feminist Party. “For now, we have a female PM and a record number of young, female MPs, but this is new to us. It’s not the norm, but hopefully we can make it the new normal. There’s still a lot of work to be done to challenge the status quo and bring forth new, radical ideas for the future,” she states.

Aro commends the current government for bringing feminist issues into the national spotlight. “This is the first time that intersectionality has been mentioned on the government’s gender equality programme, which is of course a big change. Yet the programme still lacks many important perspectives. For example, there is no mention of racism in connection with feminism. You shouldn’t separate these perspectives from gender equality work, as different women face different issues,” notes Aro.

Why democracy needs feminism

The battle for gender equality continues to rage on. Finland has inarguably come a long way, and it may be light-years ahead of many other countries in terms of female political empowerment, but is it a feminist utopia? Not yet.

If democracy signifies equality between all members of society, then advocating feminism is nothing more than a basic act of defending fundamental democratic values.

The policies pursued by the female-led government – from new rape and harassment laws to gender-equal parental leave – suggest that the increased representation of women in politics does indeed push social change in a feminist direction. However, discrimination persists. The road ahead is long, the pace of societal change is slow, and there is a perpetual risk of back-pedalling. With the global anti-feminist movement gaining traction in the Finnish far right, the pendulum could swing back, and the progress of recent years could stall after the next parliamentary elections in 2023.

Amid the current resurgence of authoritarianism and the proliferation of right-wing populist movements across the globe, it is perhaps more vital than ever to understand the critical link between democracy and gender equality. If democracy signifies equality between all members of society, then advocating feminism is nothing more than a basic act of defending fundamental democratic values.

Today, more than a century after Finnish women gained parliamentary rights, full gender equality remains a surprisingly elusive goal in the progressive Nordic welfare state. As the case of Finland shows, feminism still has work to do – and far further to go – for every voice to be heard, even in the most inclusive of democracies.

1 Megha Mohan and Yousef Eldin (2020). “Sanna Marin: The Feminist PM Leading a Coalition of Women”. BBC. 24 November 2020.

2 Helen Lewis (2020). “The Pandemic Has Revealed the Weakness of Strongmen”. The Atlantic. 6 May 2020.

3 Mari Niemi and Ville Pitkänen (2017). “Gendered use of experts in the media: Analysis of the gender gap in Finnish news journalism”. Public Understanding of Science, 26(3), pp. 355-368.

4 Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) (2019). The Nordic Gender Effect at Work. Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers.

5 Sanna Kurronen (2020). “Kotityön Kahleet”. EVA Arvio (No. 24, 28 August 2020). Helsinki: EVA Finnish Business and Policy Forum.

6 OECD (2018). Working Together: Skills and Labour Market Integration of Immigrants and their Children in Finland. Paris: OECD Publishing.

7 European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) (2015). Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

8 Kristina Van Sant, Rolf Fredheim & Gundars Bergmanis-Korats (2021). Abuse of power: coordinated online harassment of Finnish government ministers. Riga: NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.

9 Tuija Saresma, Sanna Karkulehto & Piia Varis (2020). “Gendered Violence Online: Hate Speech as an Intersection of Misogyny and Racism”, in M. Husso et al. (eds). Violence, Gender and Affect. Palgrave Studies in Victims and Victimology. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

10 Aleksi Suuronen, Kimmo Grönlund & Rasmus Siré (2019). “Puolueiden äänestäjät”. Eduskuntavaalitutkimus 2019. Helsinki: FNES. Available at <bit.ly/3ny2LsQ>.

Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation
Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation

Between the progressive movements fighting for rights and freedoms and the exclusionary politics of the far right, this edition examines the struggle over democracy and representation in Europe today.

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