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Finns Wary of Women at the Helm

Finland has become the first European country to have women as both prime minister and president, something that despite the traditionally strong women’s role in Finnish politics, is still raising eyebrows.


Women power - Finnish President Tarja Halonen, left, and Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki

When 48-year-old Anneli Jäätteenmäki was elected Finland’s first woman prime minister last week, the small Nordic country earned the distinction of becoming the only European country with women occupying its two top political offices.

Jäätteenmäki, a lawyer from rural Finland and head of the Center party, joined President Tarja Halonen, elected as head of state in 2000, to make Finland the only country in the world after Sri Lanka to have a woman duo at its helm.

But even in a country where women have long had a powerful voice in politics and where the women’s movement has a strong tradition, the latest developments have caused quite a stir. Scientist Tuja Pulkinnen at the Women’s Studies Institute in Helsinki says that the Finnish people, usually known for their progressive attitudes, first have to get used to the new situation.

"There are different reactions. There seems to be a kind of gender panic within the public discourse. It can be analyzed how the femaleness of a prime minister is used to cast doubt on her abilities," Pulkinnen told DW-RADIO.

"On the other hand there is discussion on the fact that this kind of analysis is taking place at all. It certainly creates a lot of discussion about the qualifications of women and men for political posts and how they are differently charged in a way," she said.

Women at the top a controversial topic in Finland

Finland has seen controversial debates being played out in the media about the role of women in politics ever since national elections were held four weeks ago.

Several newspapers are reported to have received indignant letters to the editor from male readers, expressing astonishment at how a woman could fill such a politically important position as the prime minister.

Another sore point with Finnish males seems to be a seat-sharing compromise reached by the rural-liberal Center Party and the Social Democrats shortly after the elections: The two parties agreed to divide up 18 ministerial posts equally between men and women, a process that was concluded end of last week.

"You hear or read very odd discussions in the evening papers regretting that so many qualified men were left out of ministers’ posts because of women, implying that the women were less-qualified. But this is a country where women are very highly qualified. So it’s interesting that there still is a lot of that kind of assumption that women are less capable than men," Pulkinnen said.

Strong support for women's rights

For all the furore that Jäätteenmäki's appointment has caused, Finland has long had a reputation for strongly supporting the women’s rights movement.

In 1906, Finland was the first in Europe to give women the right to vote. Other European countries took a decade to catch on: Germany and England recognized women’s right to vote in 1918, while France only followed suit in 1944. Accordingly women have also played a prominent role in Finnish politics.

In 1990, Elisabeth Rehn was appointed defense minister – the first in the West, and four years later, Riitta Uosukainen was elected as the first woman speaker of parliament. Today 75 lawmakers in the new Finnish parliament are women, or 37.5 percent of the total lawmakers.

Going still tough

Despite the prominent presence of women on the political scene, Pulkinnen says that female politicians are still constantly compared to their male counterparts and judged on the basis of their appearance. She hopes that the appointment of a female prime minister will change that.

"It’s difficult to say if Tarja Halonen being a president has had much effect on practical issues concerning women at the moment in this country because the president’s position is not so active, it’s more ceremonial. And that’s exactly why it is very important at the moment that the prime minister is a woman. This is much more a test case of whether women having politically high positions actually affect the position of women in society in general."

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