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The Finnish woman's success story - an idyll of equality?

Satu Apo et al: Women in Finland. Edited by Päivi Lipponen and Päivi Setälä. Otava 1999

Review by Vellamo Vehkakoski

Finnish women are well-educated, they give birth at well above the average rate for Europe, they look after the home, they are health conscious, they actively contribute to decision-making within society, go to the theatre and concerts, study throughout their lives - all while holding down a full-time job. That is how the life of Finnish women is summed up in a new collection of writings entitled Women in Finland, edited by Päivi Lipponen and Päivi Setälä. In the book, eight Finnish female researchers and one man (the Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the only man in the world to hold such a position), examine the idyll of Finnish equality. They also throw light on some of its shortcomings.

The book endeavours to be all-embracing beginning with an image of the mythical woman and ending with a Finnish research project on women. The Finnish woman is presented as someone who toils ceaselessly but who also copes ably.

The illustrations in the book range from a woman ploughing the fields in her apron to a woman casting her vote in the 1907 parliamentary elections through to the only woman on the Board of Directors of the European Central Bank, Sirkka Hämäläinen, who just happens to be Finnish. The book highlights the nature of Finnish society with its work-focused, double-income culture. Women regard having a job and their own money as self-evident. But then again women could not be in work if their children were not provided with school meals or if there was no day-care for small children. Day-care in Finland is either arranged by the local municipality or government-funded.

However, as Dr. Raija Julkunen points out, having a job and financial independence has not placed woman on an equal footing with men. Finnish women were among the last in the West to be granted the right to retain their own surname and the right to enter the priesthood. Rape within marriage was not criminalised until 1994.

The book also shows that the hierarchy between the sexes is more important than the differences between the sexes. It is men that have the power at the top both in business and in politics. And women don't even challenge this openly. Most women tend to believe that it is down to the individual themselves rather than their gender.

Why and how has the myth of the strong Finnish woman come about - the woman who, it is assumed, does not need any special rights or other kind of protection? The reasons are rooted both in the agrarian culture as well as in poverty: men and women were working side by side at a time when everyone had to go to work in order to survive. The age of prosperity and social security did not dawn until the 1960s.

Traditionally, Finnish women have been educated to the same standard as men - or as is the case nowadays to a still higher standard.

Originally meant as a gift for EU visitors during Finland's presidency of the EU, the book has been translated into English. However, in its current form, it is unsuited to this purpose: the text, which is in places bureaucratic-sounding and excessively academic in style needs shortening and editing to make it more intelligible to the lay person, who may actually know very little about Finland.

The book shows that sexual equality in Finland, which has been admired and wondered at throughout the world, is the culmination of a hard struggle. And the battle is not over yet. This is borne out by the multiple responsibilities that Finnish women have to juggle with, the high unemployment in the female-dominated professions, the lower salaries for women and even the statistics for violence against women. All of which not only tells us about Finnish women but speaks volumes on the subject of Finnish men.

Vellamo Vehkakoski is a political correspondent working fot he Finnish national daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

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