Kiwi Abroad

Matt Kennedy-Good extends his OE and follows his heart to Finland

Fairer sex?


It was a perilous assignment. Even I knew that. On the bright side, I thought, I may not live to regret it.

It begins over a hundred years ago. The year was 1893. In New Zealand, the Liberal Party had just been elected to power.

From pictures, one can see that the Liberals were men's men: They liked their hair short, their suits black and their moustaches bushy.

My guess is that few Finns know anything about these burly reformers. But, I have discovered, a surprising number do know something of their legacy.

Tell a Finn that you are from New Zealand and, right up there with the usual references to the Tolkien Trilogy and kiwi-fruit, you might hear that NZ was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote.

This is not due to a peculiar appreciation of NZ history, but rather because in 1906 Finland became the second country to grant universal suffrage for both sexes. Finland even went a step further and allowed women to stand for Parliament.

Now, over a century later, Finland is rated second in the world on overall equality between the sexes, taking into account economic participation and opportunity, education, political empowerment and health.

According to the World Economic Forum, NZ sits in a very respectable 5th place of the 128 countries studied.

Sunday March 8 was the International Day for Women. As I had not been invited to any parties to celebrate, I decided to mark the occasion with an investigation into Finnish culture.

What I was hoping to uncover was something the properly qualified analysts at the World Economic Forum did not address with their carefully compiled research and fancy logical analysis.

What I was after was a cultural trait common to both NZ and Finland that was responsible for the two countries' relatively remarkable record on gender equality. To discover this trait, instead of using statistics or logic, I would rely on one man's personal experience and any hearsay he could remember.

The task was fraught with danger. Not only would I have to pay special attention to the women of Finland, I would have to compare them to the women of New Zealand.

Any mistakes and I could find myself sleeping on the couch or in deep trouble with my mother and three sisters.

With this danger in mind, I would now like to point out that everything said below is at best a generalisation, and at worst no more than a figment of my imagination. So no one can get angry with me and comment that I'm making generalisations again. It's too late, I've already admitted to it. So there.

First off, I think I get along well with Finnish women. (If they say otherwise they do so in Finnish, so I don't understand.) It never bothers me that most of the socialising I do is with Sanna's group of female friends. They have an easy going confidence and good sense of humour that I find easy to relate to.

In this regard, they remind me of many New Zealand women that I spend time with. This similarity probably explains my level of comfort around Sanna's friends - I have grown up around such women.

Of course, as we are usually consuming alcohol when socialising, this might just as easily reflect a similar culture of drinking. You may not understand what the other person is saying, but it sure is funny after a while.

Even so, I think this attitude is evident in other circumstances.

Living in London, I could not believe how long English women spent getting ready to go out at night. Female flatmates and friends of mine demanded an hour as the absolute minimum, and even this amount of time would be an angry rush.

Thankfully, the Finnish and New Zealand women that I know seem to be able to put on clothes and makeup in less than the time it takes me to watch a game of rugby on TV. (This is not to say that the end result is any different I would like to add very hastily.)

If there is a similarly relaxed attitude when socialising, in my experience this does not exist professionally. Finnish and NZ women take work very seriously.

One need only look at Finland's President and Head of State, Tarja Halonen.

The obvious equivalent would not be New Zealand's corgi-loving and crown-bearing Head of State - Queen Elizabeth II - but former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Both leaders do (or did) enjoy consistent popularity with intelligent and down to earth policy. Both were strong enough to rise above occasional criticisms that their positions implied a lack of femininity.

But more important than personal comparisons, for my purposes, is how their popularity reflects upon their electorates.

Voters were interested in the personality and the policy, rather than issues of gender.

Given how often I put up with Australians making sexist jokes about Helen Clark, perhaps it is no coincidence that Australia is ranked only 21st in gender equality by the World Economic Forum.

But this doesn't really prove anything much.

Even if NZ and Finnish women are confident and relaxed socially, determined and appreciated professionally, does this translate to greater gender equality in society? Or are these characteristics instead a consequence of early enfranchisement?

Perhaps one case study to consider is Switzerland.

Swiss women first began campaigning for universal suffrage way back in 1868. But despite their efforts, they did not win the right to vote until 1971.

Until this point the conservative Swiss men were firm in their oppositions to universal suffrage, voting against it in referenda with large majorities.

I know a few Swiss women, and they don't seem all that different to New Zealand or Finnish girls.

It raises the question - was the key factor in delaying universal suffrage not Swiss women but firm resolve on the part of Swiss men?

Is the difference between early reformers like Finland and New Zealand and countries like Switzerland not women at all, but men?

While I would love to leave this paragraph as a controversial conclusion and sleep on the couch for the next few months, the Swiss example is not so simple.

Switzerland's direct democracy was a major factor in stifling change and I can't imagine New Zealand or Finnish women organising a Federation of Women against Women's Right to Vote, as conservative Swiss women did in 1959.

My guess is that the truth is less controversial.

Although women such as Kate Sheppard and Minna Canth obviously led reform in New Zealand and Finland, those burly men of a hundred years ago played a role too - after all, they passed the legislation.

But whether they were motivated by the wisdom to see the benefits of the suffragettes' demands, or the good sense to avoid getting into trouble, who can say?

Not me. I know I should have shut up a long time ago.

- Matt Kennedy-Good

Pictured above: Me, with a bevy of Finnish women. Photo / Matt Kennedy-Good

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