Washington state, Finland: Together on cutting edge for women's rights

Both led on votes for women, and a new exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle opens discussion of modern struggles as well as history.

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Tarja Filatov, deputy speaker of the Finnish Parliament, at the Nordic Heritage Museum.

Both led on votes for women, and a new exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle opens discussion of modern struggles as well as history.

As Washington celebrates the 100th anniversary of women voting in the state, the Nordic Heritage Museum exhibits a similar story from

A new exhibit, “100 years of Women’s Voices and Action in Finland,” is currently on display in the Ballard museum paying tribute to Ballard’s Nordic ties and the women that fought for equality.

At the opening on Friday (Sept. 10), Tarja Filatov, deputy speaker in the Finnish Parliament, spoke about the Finnish women’s movement and the history reflected in the exhibition, previously displayed in New York and Washington D.C.

In 1906 Finland became the second country in the world to grant suffrage to women (following New Zealand) and the first to allow women to be elected.

“This was an international breakthrough for women and we are still proud of this decision,” Filatov said. “I believe that Finnish society’s pioneering example has also encouraged other countries.”

In the U.S., it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. But women have held voting rights in this state continuously since the passage of a state constitutional amendment in 1910. During the 1880s, two laws granting women the right to vote were passed in the then-territory of Washington's legislature but both were overturned in court.

Following Filatov’s keynote address, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles spoke about the women’s movement in the U.S.

“It’s a timely coincidence to celebrate 100 years of women voices in Finland when 100 years ago, in 1910, women gained the right to vote in Washington,” she said. “The fifth state to do so after ‘only’ 72 years of struggle,” she added.

“I’d like to congratulate the women and men of Finland here and abroad for leading in gender equality,” Kohl-Welles said. “We have a long way
to go and we can only aspire to be like Finland.”

Finland was recently named “the best country in the world” by Newsweek based on its education, politics, economy, health, and quality of life for its citizens.

“From women’s viewpoint the goals of gender equality could be summarized as economic independence, physical integrity, and the right to self-determination,” Filatov said.

Finland ensures women’s participation in the workforce and interdependence through extensive welfare services. Every child has the right to high-standard public day care, school meals and free education. This makes the classic decision of a career or a family obsolete.

“Education does not depend on the size of the parents’ wallet,” Filatov said. “But is open to everyone. I believe that the opportunity to study and a culture that encourages women to participate in the workforce are strong factors promoting equality.” In fact, Finland has one of the highest rates of women employment in the world.

Women have done well in Finnish politics as well. A woman has been president since 2000, over half the government ministers are women, and there are currently 79 women member of parliament.

“In schools little boys ask if a boy can become president,” Filatov said.

Utilizing a timeline, posters, and pictures the exhibition tells the story of how Finland came to be this leader of equality and the battles Finnish women fought and won.

“Along the way there have been obstacles to equality as well as successes,” Filatov said. “This exhibition tells how obstacles have been overcome in Finland,” Filatov said. “A model that has been successful in one society can never be copied directly in another country, but I believe that it can provide encouragement and ideas to help resolve problems.”

Kohl-Welles agreed. “It’s important to notice what happens in other countries,” she said. “I think girls and women can learn a lot from this exhibit but then so can boys and men.”

The exhibition in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood complements the current Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes” exhibition at the Museum of History and Industry, according to Janet Rauscher, Chief Curator at the Nordic Heritage Museum. “It’s part of the statewide focus on women’s history,” Rausche said. “And Finland’s story is a story with a lot of similarities to ours.”

Members of the Finnish Consulate and the Finnish Council of Women as well as members of the Center for Women in Seattle were present at the ceremony and had toured MOHAI prior to the opening ceremony.

Kohl-Welles also talked about the history of women in public office. “What we have in our country and in our state is a growing movement to have women elected,” she said. She referred to Washington's unique status in having two women as its U.S. senators and a woman governor.

Leena Ruusuvuori, Director of the National Council of Women in Finland, said she was impressed by the museums and hopes it will inspire thought regarding women’s issues in the U.S. Ruusuvuori said the U.S. has still a long way to go and thinks the solutions lie in education and welfare. “The U.S. has yet to ratify CEDAW (the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and things like that," she said. "You started so well with the women’s movement, what happened?”

The politicians said that in both the U.S. and Finland, there are still many obstacles on the road to equality. “Equality is not complete,” Filatov said. “The labor market is divided according to sex, women’s average earnings are still smaller than men’s and violence against women is all too common."

“But men’s life is not rosy either,” Filatov added. “Men die younger and become marginalized more easily and their quality of life is poorer than women’s on many counts.” This is why Filatov and her peers call for gender-based politics.

“It is not aimed at giving women the upper hand. Its aim is not to level down or make everyone conform. In a spirit of tolerance it respects differences among people and values diversity, but not inequality.”

The "100 Years of Women’s Voices and Action in Finland" exhibition will be on display in the Nordic Heritage museum until Nov. 14 The Museum of History and Industry will feature its exhibition until Oct. 3.


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