Finland is a gender equality pioneer

Finland is one of the world’s leading countries in fostering gender equality. It was the first country to grant women full political rights. We want to nurture that legacy. Gender equality is a social innovation that has generated social renewal and prosperity, as the contribution of both women and men has been accessible. Finland propels a worldwide commitment to gender equality. It wants to define the notion in a new way and once again put gender equality in the spotlight.

Notion of gender equality had early beginnings

A move towards the equality of women and men was taken in Finland long before the country became independent. In the 1850s, Finnish women activists read John Stuart Mill and spoke about the importance of education for girls.

The first women’s organisations were established in the 1880s, and the voice for women’s rights grew in strength. Equal inheritance rights were provided for women and men in 1878. In 1886, the first coeducational school was opened. The first woman matriculated in 1873, but by 1888 this still required separate authorisation. Women won the right to study at university in 1901.

Full political rights – the first parliament in the world to have women MPs

However, it took much strenuous work before women in Finland became the first in the world to obtain full political rights, in 1906.

When the first 19 women members of parliament in the world started work the following year, the hopes of the women’s movement were high, and not without reason. The first parliament of the decade initiated many important legislative social policy reforms that benefitted women in their many roles.

Finland’s first woman minister was Miina Sillanpää, who became Second Minister of Social Affairs in 1926. The same year a law was passed on the eligibility of women to hold public office.

Women’s labour input still needed in post-war years

In 1930 a new Marriage Act was passed that released married women from the guardianship of their husbands. Already in 1919, married women had won the right to paid employment without needing the consent of their husbands.

During the war years, Finnish women kept the wheels turning while the men were fighting at the front. Women worked in factories, hospitals, and ran large farms. When the war ended they did not return to their homes but stayed in the workplace. It became more usual for women to go out to work.

Parliament began to function again at full pace and new political openings emerged. They included the decision in 1948 to provide free school meals for all school children.

Towards social equality

In the America of the 1960s, equality was the dream among blacks in the civil rights movement and youth movements. In Finland, the debate on equality broadened out, with men taking a more active part in it than they had previously. Yhdistys 9 (Group 9) was established, a joint equal rights association of women and men.

In the 1960s gender equality activists particularly spoke out about the sharing of care responsibilities. The following decade saw the creation of Finland’s first parental leave system. For the first time too daycare for small children was provided by law.

Sexual and reproductive rights were also a concern. In the 1970s abortion was permitted for social reasons, relationship and sex education was included in the primary school curriculum and legislation guaranteed birth control services. Seta (LGBTI Rights in Finland) was established and homosexual acts were no longer criminalised. The debate on violence against women grew in strength and the first shelters were established.

The 1970s also saw the beginnings of gender equality institutions, including in 1972 the creation of the Council for Gender Equality. The year before, the Employment Contracts Act had prohibited discrimination based on gender. In general, the construction of the Finnish welfare state, involving among other things the development of social security and the pension system, greatly benefitted women and strengthened society’s gender equality overall.

Gender equality policy concretized by legislation and conventions

In 1980, Finland attained the first government gender equality programme. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was just a year old when changes started to happen in UN member states. In Finland this meant the drawing up of the Act on Equality Between Men and Women, which entered into force in 1987. The act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender and supports equality between women and men in working life.

Other important steps were also taken. The Names Act allowed women to keep their own surnames when married, and for children to choose either of their parents’ surnames. Joint custody was made possible in 1983. The first women priests were ordained in the 1980s. In 1990, Elisabeth Rehn became the first Minister of Defence in Finland and the world.

Enough prosperity to go round

In the early 1980s, gender equality became a prominent matter of discussion in international cooperation. The UN was a pioneer in this. The status of women was included in structures in addition to debate, and Finland was an important actor in this development. It raised issues such as violence against women and sexual and reproductive rights.

Finland ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1986, and established the first office of Ombudsman for Equality in following year.

Finland has provided funding for Unifem, Unicef and other UN institutions. In the wake of the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the status of women in war and post-conflict situations became prominent. Finland also supported the UN resolution on Women, Peace and Security. Among the Nordic countries, Finland’s reputation as a model of gender equality was established.

Finland has also gained much from the international community. Many important legal reforms and programmes on gender equality originated in international arenas. The UN and the European Union have had a tremendous impact on Finland’s gender equality and non-discrimination policy. They have required that Finland take many crucial measures, such as to eradicate violence against women.

Gender equality debate diversifies

Finland has come a long way in a century. In the new millennium the country had its first woman president, with the election of Tarja Halonen in 2000. Three years later, Anneli Jäätteenmäki became the country’s first woman prime minister.

The general prohibition of discrimination was included in the Constitution in 2000, and registered partnerships became possible a year later. ‘Father’s month’ was added to parental leave in 2003. The same year the first woman was promoted to the rank of captain in the Defence Force. The Act on Equality Between Men and Women was renewed in 2005, and the next year a woman became president of the Supreme Court. In 2011, Jutta Urpilainen became the first woman to be appointed Finland’s Minister of Finance.

The debate has diversified. Dismantling gender stereotypes and analysing femininity and masculinity have become prominent topics. The models and roles of women and men have branched out. We have come from binary genders to gender variance. On 1 March 2017, the Gender Neutral Marriage Act took effect. Among other things, the new law makes it possible for same sex partners to adopt children. The gender equality debate now extends to early childhood education and the school arena.

Efforts continue internationally too

The world is not a near completion, however. There is also much that needs to be done in Finland. Such things as care duties are not sufficiently shared among men and women, and equality of pay has not yet been achieved. Violence against women remains a problem.

Finland wants to put the debate on gender equality once more in the spotlight. In the centenary of its independence, the country is establishing the first International Gender Equality Prize. The award will highlight the fact that the whole international community needs to work for gender equality more persistently than ever, and to set examples so that gender equality is realized.



Tanja Auvinen, johtaja 
sosiaali- ja terveysministeriö, Työ- ja tasa-arvo-osasto / TTO, Tasa-arvoyksikkö / TASY Puhelin:0295163715   Sähköpostiosoite: