(WOMENSENEWS)--When U.S. photojournalist Paola Gianturco was putting together a book about the profiles of women in a variety of national cultures several years ago Finland offered a number of remarkable political statistics to ponder.
In 1906 Finland became the first country where women could both vote and stand for election. In 2000 the people elected a female president, Tarja Halonen, whose current term extends until 2012.
Since the time of Gianturco's research Finnish women's political standing has risen further. In March the country elected enough women to make Parliament 42 percent female. Finland currently leads the world with 60 percent female cabinet members.
In the newly elected parliament, 32 members identify themselves as "feminists," according to a poll conducted by the Finnish daily Turun Sanomat. Twenty-two are women, and 10 are men, which amounts to every sixth member.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Finland had the most gender-balanced workforce in the European Union, with employment rates for men and women ages 55 to 64 split at just about 50 percent each. In some sectors, women have made swift headway toward parity; in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, for example, the first female pastors were ordained in 1988 and now are roughly one-third of all clergy.
Women's political equivalence is even abetted by the language, which makes no distinctions about people based on gender. The personal pronoun "han" means "he" or "she."
But in the end, Gianturco chose to look away from Finnish women's serious attainments and focus on their fun-loving side.
"My experience was that the Finnish women were resilient, emotionally resilient and confident," Gianturco says. "I love the interview I did with two sisters . . . One of the sisters said to me, 'you know, you can't make too much fun of yourself.' And I thought, what a remarkable statement, thinking about how much self-esteem you have to have to even think of that!"
In her 2004 book, "Celebrating Women," Gianturco shot Finland's championship wife-carrying contest--"a silly sport," she calls it--where couples run an obstacle course with the woman slung over the man's shoulder.
It is just one of the country's quirky traditions. Finland also has contests for cell-phone throwing, boot-tossing and playing the air guitar.
Even with all that sunny statistics and playful festivities suggest, some caution that the reality of life for Finnish women is more complex. A 2005 study revealed that alcohol is the leading cause of death for men, and almost as many women have died from alcohol-related causes as breast cancer.
"Finnish women face the challenge of being superwomen responsible for both private and professional life," says Liesl Yamaguchi, a Fulbright fellow currently studying women in Finnish politics at the Christina Institute for Women's Studies at the University of Helsinki. "The advances of Finnish women in the public sphere have not been matched by advances by men into the private one."
The Finnish system of parental leave to take care of children, for instance, consists of maternal leave of 105 days, a paternal leave of 18 days and parental leave of 158 days to be used by either sex. During this leave, the parent receives approximately 66 percent of her or his previous income. However, just 2 percent of fathers take an extended parental leave beyond the first few weeks following a child's birth, and the burden of child care still falls mostly on the shoulders of women.
Women's earnings lag behind men in the business world; in the private sector women earn 80 percent of their male counterparts' salaries despite higher levels of education.
In an essay she wrote for the 2006 book "Politics of Gender," Elina Lahelma, academy fellow at the Department of Education, University of Helsinki, says the strength of Finnish women is a myth. "There are achievers and under-achievers among Finnish girls and women: those who can endure and those who cannot cope with situations where life is too tough," she wrote.
Diversifying the Image
Wishing to diversify and deepen the understanding of Finnish women, singer-composers Paula Jaakkola and Jaana Kantola created an ensemble performance, "The Many Faces of a Finnish Woman," which they performed at New York's Scandinavia House last month and hope to stage again whenever they have enough funding.
"We were five Finnish women on stage and it seemed appropriate to concentrate on a theme that revolves around Finnish women who are often characterized as being strong," says Kantola. "We wanted to reveal that behind that stoic facade there is a lot of compassion, humor and emotion."
In a production that featured two singers, a multicultural group of musicians and three dancers, the performers touched on themes of endurance and compassion, such as finding the courage to love after battling depression. (A study that looked at the 55-year-old population in Finland found that women were twice as likely to be depressed as men, and a 2004 paper on women and depression concluded the disorder "is a consequence of invisible gendered tensions in a women-friendly welfare state.")
Irreverence was laced throughout the performance with songs such as "Piks Paks," a musical version of a child's chant similar to "eeny meeny miney mo."
For all its variety, however, the show, held firm to the idea of women's equality, with the signature song "Laulajan messu," or "Singers Rant," asserting women's sense of their own worth. "I could sing and would sing; but without coins I'll not flap my tongue."
Barriers Are Down
Dr. Jaana Rehnstrom, a Finnish woman who lives and works in New York and whose sister is a chemical engineer, is a living example of the Finnish superwoman.
She has a bustling gynecology practice, an 11-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter, and is president of the Finland Center Foundation, a nonprofit cultural organization in New York whose board of directors consists of five women and two men.
"I think that when kids make choices in what they study, there really is no gender bias in the sense that if you're interested in science, you do science," she says.
Rehnstrom says that Finnish women have been helped by the country's traditionally agrarian economy.
"There is a long tradition of women doing men's work. Also, there's probably a Lutheran thing, where you have to do everything yourself. You don't ask for help when you need it, which leads to ridiculous situations sometimes. And there's a frugality. Why should you pay someone to cut your hair when your husband can do it?"
Kirsti Siitonen, a Finnish language professor at the University of Turku, notes that Finnish women are better educated than their male counterparts and now comprise over 50 percent of those receiving doctorates at her university. In the 1980s her department consisted of four professors: three men and one woman. Now, she says, it's three women and one man.
But like Gianturco, Siitonen thinks that Finnish women's notable strength is their ability to make fun of things, including themselves.
"Women understand themselves and can find a balance in their life," says Siitonen. "For them, the titles are not so important, more interesting is what they can do in their work. It is a question for us women, if it really makes us happy, whether we have high positions or not."
Diane Saarinen is a Finnish-American reporter based in New York City. She contributes frequently to New World Finn journal, Raivaaja newspaper and Quiet Mountain: New Feminist Essays.
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Milestons for Women in Finland:
Paola Gianturco, "Celebrating Women":
Christina Institute, University of Helsinki:
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