Dora Montefiore

Women in Finland

Source: New Age, June 6, 1907, pp. 86-87 (1,656 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

ON May 29 last year the Finnish nation astonished itself and the civilised world by wresting from his Imperial Majesty the Czar of Russia a new Constitution of a more radical and democratic nature than is enjoyed by any other European country. In March this year the first elections under this new Constitution took place, and we are now able to record the result of the first election in a European country in which all adults over twenty-three voted, and were eligible for election to the Diet, or Parliament. The names of the first women members of Parliament elected in Europe are Minna Sillampaa, Marie Laine, Muna Kanervo, Ida Aalle, Hilja Amanda Parssinen, Jenny Maria Kilpainen, Anna Huotari, Maria Rannio, H. Kalikoski, Ida Wimmelpuu, Alexandra Grippenberg, Hedwig Gebhardt, Lusi Kivioja, Evelina Ala-Kulju, Dagmar Neovins, and Hilda Rasanen. The first nine belong to the Socialist Party; the next six to the Old Finnish Party; and the two last to the Swedish National Party and the Agrarian Party respectively. The total number of Deputies is 200, so that nearly a tenth part of the Finnish Parliament is composed of women. To us women who are fighting in this country the cause of equal political rights for women, it is of interest to know that our sisters in Finland have acquitted themselves so well at the ballot-box, and have been so ready to take advantage at once of the privilege to elect their fellow-women, whom they felt would help in wise legislative reforms. As, therefore, I was in Finland last year with the express purpose of studying this infant prodigy so lately born into the prosaic constitutional family of Europe, a few lines on the more recent causes that have led up to this reawakening of a nation may not be out of place at the present moment.

The inhabitants of the country are either pure Finns, pure Swedes, or, in a few cases, a mixture of the two races; for the Finns (a branch of the Mongolian race), having been conquered in the twelfth century by the Swedes, received from their conquerors the Christian religion, with what culture and civilisation the Western world then possessed; and had, as a result, like the Celts, to suffer the rigid suppression of their own religion, tradition, language, and nationality. All through the middle ages any Finn who aspired to learning or to follow a profession had to pursue his purpose through the medium of the Swedish language and culture; the peasantry had to serve as soldiers in the quarrels of their conquerors; and the land of Finland itself became the battlefield during countless generations of the two opposing forces of Sweden and of Russia. When, in 1809, the arms of Russia finally prevailed, and Alexander I annexed the Grand Duchy, he swore to uphold its ancient constitution, under which Sweden had governed and administered; and he and his immediate successors, who, at their coronation took a similar oath, kept faithfully their word. One of the provisions in this oath was that Finnish men should not be called upon to serve in the Imperial Army; and it remained for the Shuffler with Fate, who occupies at the present moment the throne of his ancestors, to be the first to break that oath and to attempt to force the free and educated men of Finland into the ranks of his loathed legionaries. Why he failed in this attempt on the liberties of the Grand Duchy is a good deal due to the action of Alexander I, who, by guaranteeing peace to Finland after centuries of struggle and combat, gave the Finns a chance to recover and develop their national ideal. Modern Finnish culture is of a century’s growth only, and dates from the time when Alexander I removed the University from Abö, the ancient capital, and gave it a splendid home in his new capital of Helsingfors. Co-education of the sexes is the rule through primary, secondary, and university courses, and is practically free to all those who are able to take advantage of it. The girl university students in their white peaked caps are a feature at Helsingfors; and there is little doubt but that the higher standard of education among all classes and both sexes has helped considerably in the political results of the recent elections.

Finland is a land of forests, waterfalls, lakes, and moors, where agriculture, its principal industry, is carried on under conditions that imply a strenuous, and often heartbreaking, struggle with northern nature forces. This struggle has made the race hardy, tenacious, determined, and thoughtful. Their national hero, Wainamainen (in the epic of Kalevala) was no conquering Viking, but a seer, a poet, renowned for foresight and wisdom. The summer is short and ardent in this land of the north; while winter nights are long, and lend themselves to study and reflection; judging from what I saw of Finland, I should say the Finns were essentially a reading and reflective race, and their eclectic choice in literature is very remarkable. Far and away the best shops in Helsingfors are book shops, and their number, in proportion to the size of the town (of about 140,000 inhabitants), is to us Britons surprising. Though there is no shop in the capital of Finland where diamonds can be bought, there are dozens where one can find translations of the best past and Present classics of France, Germany, and England; and as the Swedish language is spoken equally with that of the Finns, the whole of Scandinavian literature, including, of course, the writings of the Masters, Ibsen and Björnsen, is part of their birthright. They are ardent, but often critical, admirers of our modern school of writers; and Professor Wilson, of Cambridge, who holds the appointment at the Helsingfors University of Lecturer on the English language and literature, gave last spring a series of lectures to a public outside university circles on the writings of Mr. George Bernard Shaw, and has promised another on the works of Mr. George Meredith.

Finland not being a rich country, there are no great cleavages between classes, and no great contrasts between the rich and the poor. It is the custom also for women of all classes to work, and they are frankly accepted by men as comrades and fellow workers in most branches of activity. I never once in Finland heard the complaint that one so often hears in England of women “competing” with men or “ousting men from employment.” The daughters of landowners and of ministers act as cashiers in banks or as book-keepers and clerks in offices; and when their day’s work is over are charming and cultured hostesses in their own homes. Among other employments taken up by the women of the people is that of builder’s labourer; they are organised with the rest of the workers in the building trade, and earn better wages than in most other unskilled occupations. During a recent strike in the building trade, based on a demand for a nine hours instead of a ten hours day, the women came out on strike with the rest of the builders and won with them the shorter hours victory. On all the Finnish steamers on which I travelled the cooks and stewards were young girls, who performed, under the orders of an elder woman, their duties both quietly and efficiently.

It was difficult to realise, as I watched the present organised and orderly life of the people, that they had, during the last few years, gone through such political troubles and vicissitudes; yet one had only to talk with some ardent politician (and they were nearly all ardent politicians), or watch the way in which the natives shunned the hated wearers of the Russian uniform, to understand why the names of Bobrikoff, Von Plehve, and the Procurator Johnson were byewords; and why the men who were instrumental in removing them were looked upon as heroes and martyrs in their country’s cause. One of my most interesting experiences and memories will always be the witnessing of some of the last sittings of the hereditary Chamber of Nobles, who were voluntarily laying down their privileges and tacitly admitting they were an anachronism, a blot on the democratic scutcheon. With all the old ceremonial observances the stately President Van Born entered the Hall of Assembly, where the members rose and remained standing till he was seated. Around on the walls hung the coats of arms of the three hundred or more noble families sending representatives to the Upper Chamber; below, in a semi-circle, sat these representatives, gravely debating, recording their votes, and taking part in divisions. But the ceremonial I watched was indeed, in every sense of the word, a “passing show,” for all around in the galleries was the tense electric atmosphere of radical change. The old order was passing away under my eyes, and the members of that ancient assembly were assisting at their own political funeral. Here was, indeed, modern history in the making, and I held my breath as I glanced round at the galleries, packed to overflowing with the youth of renascent, triumphant Finland, who were there, like myself, to witness the last throes of legislative privilege. Girl and young men students leant forward, thoughtful and entranced; others exulted and chatted in whispers during the progress of the prolonged and cumbrous divisions. Lusty young Democracy was visibly knocking at the door, and worn out custom was taking a lingering and shivering farewell .

“And just as I am witnessing this last sitting of this hereditary chamber in Finland,” was my thought, as I turned from the gallery, leaving the young politicians in possession of the field, “so some day, someone will be watching the last sitting at Westminster of an ancient and hereditary .” But that, like the immediate development of brave little Finland, will be another story!