Editor’s Note: Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle are co-authors of “The Sisterhood of the Enchanted Forest: Sustenance, Wisdom, and Awakening in Finland’s Karelia.” Moriyama is the co-author of three books on traditional Japanese cooking, and Doyle is co-author of “Let The Children Play” and author of the forthcoming “Titan of the Senate.” The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
Finland’s 36-year-old female Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, heads a governing coalition of five political parties – all led by women and almost all aged in their 30s. It is a nation largely run by women.
This is the culmination of a national push for gender equity that started even before Finland’s independence in 1917.
In 1906, Finland, then a duchy of Russia, was the first country to give women full political rights to both vote and run for office. A year later, the 19 women elected to the Finnish parliament were the first female parliamentarians in the world.
Indeed, Finland has much to be proud of this International Women’s Day, ranking second in last year’s World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, just behind fellow Nordic country Iceland.
In the same report meanwhile, our own birth nations of the United States and Japan held the positions of No. 30 and No. 120 respectively, out of 156 countries.
In 2015 we got a first-hand look at Finland’s gender progress, moving there with our then-eight-year-old son from New York City to the rural North Karelia district. William to teach graduate school and study the world-renowned Finnish childhood education system as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Eastern Finland, and Naomi to explore the local foods, culture and nature of Europe’s most forested nation.
We wound up admiring the people and society of Finland so much that we’ve been returning to North Karelia and to the capital city of Helsinki for extended visits ever since.
Contrary to the stereotypical image of Finnish people as being reserved, Naomi was instantly “adopted” as a long-lost sister by the exuberant, highly accomplished women of the Martha organization – a volunteer community service group – and by a wide range of local mothers, professional women and university professors.
In Finland, we found a fiercely egalitarian and modest society that is much the opposite of what we were used to in the US. Schoolchildren learn through play and joyful discovery, enjoy multiple outdoor daily recess periods and have highly respected teachers and fairly-funded public schools. Parental leave is generous, public hospitals are first-rate, and the full participation of women in political leadership and many professions is accepted as routine.
We’ve found Finland’s gender progress to be one of the most inspiring features of this forest nation at the top of the world, and we wanted to find out how it happened. So we asked the leader who was ranked as the nation’s most inspiring woman in a 2021 poll by public broadcaster YLE: a basketball-playing, cat-loving, 77-year-old grandmother named Tarja Halonen, who served as the nation’s first female president, from 2000 to 2012.
“Finland is a small nation,” former President Halonen explained to us last year from her home in the working-class Helsinki district where she grew up.
“For 700 years we were a part of our western neighbor (Sweden). Then the king of Sweden started a war against Russia and he lost it. Then we were 100 years a part of Russia – luckily as an autonomous part. Now our independence has lasted a little more than 100 years.” In that time, she said, “we have had one civil war and two wars and many difficulties.”
“We have learned to be very independent and stubborn and hardworking. Perhaps somehow it has been easier for us to realize that you need both men and women for a society to function at 100%. Here in the North (of the globe) we have a long tradition of strong women in society. The women have to be strong in order to survive and in order to help their families and their fellow citizens,” said Halonen.
Gender progress in Finland was forged by womens’ and labor organizations and by many enlightened women and men. One such pioneer was Miina Sillanpää, a former child laborer and maid who was elected to parliament in 1907 and served there for 38 years.
She became the nation’s first cabinet member in 1926, and led the national association of servants and household workers for 50 years. Sillanpää helped start an organization of shelters for single women and their children and fought to improve the lives of the elderly and disadvantaged.
A Finnish business executive recently told us of an “ethos of equality” that is “culturally embedded” into the nation. She explained that “this happens in fundamental social services like health care and high-quality education, which are offered to all citizens as an essential, non-negotiable foundation for gender equity in a society.”
That’s not to say Finland doesn’t have its share of social problems, including alcoholism and sexual harassment. There is domestic violence in Finland, with 23% of 15 to 49-year-old women experiencing intimate partner violence in their lifetimes according to United Nations data. That’s compared for example with 26% in the US, 24% in the United Kingdom, 22% in France, 21% in Sweden, 16% in Italy and 15% in Spain.
Racism is a problem, too. A 2020 report by Finland’s own government Equality Ombudsman found that four out of five people of African heritage have experienced discrimination based on the color of their skin. “Racism runs deep” in Finland, the report declared. “Our ways of thinking and our modes of action are to a large extent racist even if we do not notice it or are unwilling to admit it.”
This brutally honest admission is especially relevant in light of the fact that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “BreakTheBias”.
The strong participation of women in decision-making has helped build a nation that ranks first among the world’s 193 nations in sustainable development, according to a 2021 United Nations report which found that Finland has achieved or nearly achieved the UN’s goals for improving health, education, water, energy, and peace, alleviating poverty and reducing inequality.
And far from being a centrally-planned socialist economy, Finland is, in fact, the opposite: a thriving, free-market economy that boasts both the world’s best business environment and the strongest rule of law, according to the 2021 Global Innovation Index.
“Women’s full and equal participation in society has made Finland’s development possible,” Prime Minister Marin said in a speech at last year’s Generation Equality Forum. “One hundred years ago, Finland was a poor and conflict-torn society. It was not possible for us to ignore the potential of half of our population.”
Now, as Finland’s neighbor Russia wages war on Ukraine, Marin and her government are navigating their country’s place in a rapidly-changing modern Europe, including the possibility of joining NATO.
The more we speak with Finnish people, the more we are struck by how often they emphasize the idea of partnership between women and men, rather than a competition of “women versus men.” We often hear of the collective Finnish desire to care for each and every member of society.
Finland is not necessarily “better than,” or even directly comparable to, many other nations. But it can serve as an inspiring source of reflection on what may be shining truths in human affairs – when a society strives to truly and humbly make each gender full partners in power and in leadership, and makes a national mission out of striving to care for all its citizens with fairness and compassion, the whole of society thrives.
The people of Finland are the first to acknowledge that this is still a work in progress – but they are showing the world why it is worth striving for.