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Nationalism and Commitment

Written by: Karmela Bélinki |

The Finnish debate about women’s status in society and the family ebbed and flowed throughout the nineteenth century. As was the case in the other Nordic countries, Finnish- and Swedish-language magazines of the 1880s discussed women’s legal and educational rights both in and outside of marriage. With the notable exception of Canth, virtually all of Finland’s female authors during the early modern period were Swedish-speaking.

Contact between the Finland of the 1880s and European currents flowed through Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, particularly in the world of theatre. August Strindberg’s view of female sexuality aroused violent emotions among representatives of the women’s movement, and Henrik Ibsen’s philosophy of emancipation sparked an equally turbulent debate. Minna Canth translated the first volume of Georg Brandes’s Hovedstrømninger (1887; Eng. tr. Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature) into Finnish.

Eeto Iston: Hyökkäys. Oil painting, 1899. The National Museum of Finland, Helsinki

However, being a native Swedish speaker was no obstacle to actively supporting the campaign to raise the status of Finnish. The complexities of the situation can be more readily understood if one keeps in mind that Russia ruled Finland after defeating Sweden in 1809. Swedish had been the country’s official language, and mastering it had been a requirement for holding public office. Thus, the educated classes spoke Swedish, even though many families were of Finnish origin. Swedish families had emigrated to Finland during the six centuries that their country ruled Finland, but many of their descendants saw themselves primarily as Finnish. The nationalist movement that emerged in the nineteenth century regarded the distinction between Finns and Swedes exclusively as a social problem. According to the nationalists, native Finnish speakers constituted a poor and uneducated class (the peasantry), whereas native Swedish speakers were the upper class who held all the real power. Considering the Swedish-speaking peasants who lived on the western and southern coasts, that was far from the whole truth.

A central tenet of the nationalist movement was that educated Swedish speakers would adopt Finnish as their language. The most radical members formed the Young Finns group in the 1880s and advocated total abolition of Swedish. After establishing a political party, they toned down their demands and focused on far-reaching social reform instead. The Old Finns started a party of their own around the turn of the century in response to the Pan-Slavic Russification policy that threatened Finland’s autonomy and the future of its people. The differences between Old Finns and Young Finns at that point were of a political nature. In view of their relationship with the tsar, the Old Finns would consider making certain concessions, whereas the Young Finns set their sights on a complete break with the Russians.

Although women were involved in the causes of both nationalism and Finnish from the very beginning, Finnish speakers of both sexes tended to prioritise the language issue over other social problems. They regarded women’s emancipation as a middle-class movement largely irrelevant to the population as a whole. In other words, the discussion of nationalism and social reform contained a number of nuances. Thanks to their involvement in the nationalist movement, however, women saw their social status improve. The movement provided an opportunity to articulate and discuss the status of women in society and the family, to verbalise their positive experiences, and to let the female perspective play a leading role in the debate.

Nineteenth century literature by Finnish women was torn by a conflict between nationalism and their own radical goals. As of 1863, unmarried women were considered legally competent once they turned twenty-five, but married women could make their own decisions only after their husbands had died. The public school act of 1866 gave girls the same right to schooling as boys, but did not include higher education. Supporters of emancipation were deeply divided about women’s proper place in society, and even the majority in the nationalist factions considered motherhood to be their primary role.

Adelaide Ehrnrooth

Adelaide Ehrnrooth (1826-1905) embarked on her literary career at the age of thirty-seven. Under the pseudonym of A-ï-a, and clearly encouraged by Zacharias Topelius, she published a book of poetry entitled Sagor och minnen (1863; Fairy-Tales and Memories). Her Familjen Wärnsköld (1863; The Wärnsköld Family) was serialised the same year in the newspaper Finlands Allmänna Tidning. It was eventually published as a novel, as were all of her subsequent serials. While romantic and entertaining in the spirit of the times, they also exhibited feminist tendencies. Ehrnrooth promoted women’s right to higher education in the 1860s, and later published Många döttrar (1872; Many Daughters), a serial on the theme of combining marriage and career.

In addition to her literary production, which also includes travelogues, Ehrnrooth is known as one of the leading pioneers of women’s emancipation in Finland. She was a founder of Suomen Naisyhdistys (Finnish Women’s Association), the country’s first suffrage association, in 1884. But even earlier, she had been active in a Helsinki group that was a forerunner of late nineteenth and early twentieth century women’s organisations. After a schism emerged in the association over ideology and language issues, the bilingual Unionen Kvinnosaksförening (Union Women’s Question Association) was established in 1892. Ehrnrooth remained an active member of the new organisation until her death in 1905.

The Gripenberg Sisters

Cartoon of Alexandra Gripenberg. Undated. The National Museum of Finland, Helsinki

Baron Sebastian Gripenberg’s three daughters all distinguished themselves as both authors and champions of social reform. Elisabeth Stenius (1847-1924), the middle sister, was a translator and member of the Finnish nationalist movement. Maria Furuhjelm (1846-1916), the oldest, was a journalist, while Alexandra Gripenberg (1857-1913) started off as a writer of fiction. She was one of the first Finnish women to gain an international reputation. She successfully ran for the new unicameral Parliament on the Old Finnish Party ticket in the country’s first general election in 1906.

Berättelser (1877; Tales), Alexandra Gripenberg’s first book of short stories, was published under the pseudonym of Ringa. She made a name for herself with political pamphlets and with Strån (1884; Straws), a short story collection that she published under the nom de plume of Aarne. Her next book was I tätnande led (1886; In Closing Ranks), a novel. However, her most important contribution is the three-volume work on the history of the early Women’s movement Reformarbetet till förbättrande af kvinnans ställning (1892; Reforms for the Improvement of Woman’s Position).

Stenius was probably the most Finnish-minded of the three Gripenberg sisters. She translated Henrik Ibsen into Finnish while active in Kuopio in the circle surrounding Canth. Her Fennophile play Täta nykyä (1883; At the Moment) was staged by the Finnish Theatre in Helsinki.

Maria Furuhjelm wrote children’s books in the spirit of the times. Her tales tend to be didactic with a strong emancipatory slant. They were first published in Pennibibliotek för barn (Penny Library for Children) 1-12 in 1864-65. Skilda vägar (1879; Separate Paths), her most ambitious novel, was intended primarily for young female readers.

Marie Linder (1840-1870), alias Stella, did not learn Swedish until the age of nineteen, but subsequently wrote in it. En quinna af vår tid (1867; A Woman of our Time) was an early swallow for Modern Breakthrough literature in Finland. According to her preface, the novel was intended to be the first in a series of studies about women’s social status.

Hanna Ongelin, the Radical

As was the case elsewhere, morality represented one of the most important topics in the early Finnish debate about women’s emancipation. For the moralists, the career of Hanna Ongelin (1848-1893) was a lesson in what happens if a women practised what she preached, refusing to accept the humdrum existence of her class and sex. The orphaned daughter of a pastor, she refused to support herself as a copyist. Instead, she became an independent author and a bohemian, which was viewed as a sign of moral degeneracy.

Ongelin wrote historical novels for publication in Sweden. But she led a chaotic life, both socially and financially, while her boozy, short-haired, and cigar-smoking apparition personified the negative stereotype of women who championed emancipation. Her lifestyle and public persona may be one reason that she was totally forgotten, even by the women’s movement. Not even Alexandra Gripenberg included Ongelin in her 1905 overview of female Finnish authors. She simply was not salonfähig.

Photograph of L. Hagman with her students, 1895. The National Museum of Finland, Helsinki

Her 1700-page Ödets dom (1882-1883; The Judgement of Fate) has been aptly referred to as a feminist version of Fältskärns berättelser (1854; Eng. tr. The Surgeons Stories), a well-known work by Zacharias Topelius. Most of Ongelin’s heroines are women who struggle for their freedom. She opposed the prudish and abstinence-obsessed public debate that condemned defenceless women of lesser means. Tankar i några samhällsfrågor (1881; Thoughts about a Few Social Issues) and other pamphlets contain unadorned presentations of her ideas.

Daniel Sten

Ina Lange (1846-1930), the most radical of nineteenth century female authors in Finland, had a highly successful career under the pseudonym of Daniel Sten. She walked onto the literary stage as a full-fledged artist after having made a name for herself as a pianist and educator. Her literary works, written mostly in the 1880s, were inspired by contemporary female authors in Sweden, as well as by her student years in Moscow and Berlin.

Because she wrote while in Stockholm and Copenhagen, she offered a unique outsider’s perspective on her native country. “Frost” in the short story collection Bland ödebygder och skär: Berättelser från Finland (1880-1884; Among Wilderness Lands and Skerries: Tales from Finland) is a female version of Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s celebrated “Bonden Paavo” (The Peasant Paavo). In Lange’s version, Paavo is the embodiment of a male chauvinist, leaving his wife Annika and later coming back with his tail between his legs after having squandered all the money saved up for emigrating to America on drink. It turns out that his wife, Annika, is dead, but neither the tragedy nor his social descent can dislodge his firm conviction that women are an inferior species.

Ina Lange’s novel Sämre folk (1885; The Worst Sort of People) also has a progressive, controversial flavour. Both the tone and content of the book link it to the Nordic debate about prostitution. The book represents an unmistakable protest against extremist demands for purity.

Ina Lange’s last work under the pseudonym “Daniel Sten” was brought out in 1890, but she subsequently published a number of musical studies, including one in 1930, the year of her death.

Naturalist Drama and Stories of the Common People

Many nineteenth century women writers had multicultural backgrounds. Finland Swedes Helena Westermarck (1857-1938) and Hanna Rönnberg (1862-1946) were artists who had been educated in Central Europe. They wrote mostly about the lives of common people on the Åland Islands. The best-known work is Westermarck’s trilogy Teckningar och minnesskrift från adertonhundratalet (1900-1910; Notes and Recollections from the Nineteenth Century), a family chronicle that focuses on women’s transition from subservient wives of landowners to active members of the resistance to Russification in 1899. Westermarck was also a groundbreaking literary critic.

Like most female authors in Finland during the early modern period, Westermarck and Rönnberg were Swedish-speaking. Minna Canth, who wrote in Finnish, was the leading realist of the time. Her career stretched from 1879, after her husband had died, until 1897. While unanimous about her importance, literary historians still argue about whether she was ‘only’ Finland’s greatest female realist of the nineteenth century, or simply of all time.

Of particular relevance is her pioneering advocacy of political naturalism. She shared many themes with Ehrnrooth, Gripenberg, Lange, and other Swedish-speaking authors. But Canth’s plays featured archetypes and characters that were unprecedented in Finnish literature. She still stands out as the writer who shaped and lent form to Finnish drama.

Theodolinda Hahnsson (Yrjö-Koskinen 1838-1919) was the first Finnish-speaking author. Fennophile ideas profoundly informed her books. She regarded the common people as a reservoir of talent whose foundation was the family, in which women played a central role. Although her individual characters make their way in the world on the basis of their abilities (with the assistance of the educated class), the books are hopelessly tendentious in their nationalistic pathos. Her novels repeat the same basic ideas for decades on end.

Translated by Ken Schubert