Tekla Hultin – always at the heart of the action

This time, we will present a beautiful object, which was added to our collections just a few weeks ago, and will also introduce its original owner. It is the laurel garland worn by Tekla Hultin when she was conferred a master’s degree on 31 May 1894. Although the tips of a few of the laurel leaves have broken and the green silk bow is slightly crumpled, the garland is in excellent condition. Looking at it lying on silk paper, you can almost smell the faint herbal aroma it emits.

Tekla Hultin’s laurel garland. Photo: Helsinki University Museum/Timo Huvilinna

Pursuit of learning

Tekla Hultin supported the Finnish nationalist Fennoman movement during her school years. After finishing her studies at the Hamina school for girls, she began her studies at the Finnish secondary school of Helsinki and the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. Having graduated as a teacher, she took the matriculation examination and enrolled in 1886 at the Imperial Alexander University, as the first Finnish-speaking woman to do so. To be sure, she, like most Fennomans, also spoke fluent Swedish and other languages, such as French. At the University, she studied history, literature, art history and psychology.

A close-up of a young woman looking slightly to one side. Her hair is in a bun and she is wearing a high-collar dress from which two large tassels are hanging.
Tekla Hultin’s visiting card from her student days. Photo: Helsinki University Museum, Daniel Nyblin.

Membership of one of the student associations known as student nations due to their ties to specific geographical areas of Finland was compulsory for male students, but women were barred from joining them. In spring 1889, female students, including Tekla Hultin, petitioned the chancellor for the right to join the student nations. Although most of the student nations supported the acceptance of female members, the University Senate opposed the petition and the chancellor rejected it. However, female students had their own association, De kvinnliga (‘The Women’) which, though not an official student nation, was called Naisten osakunta (‘Women’s Nation’) in Finnish and its activities were similar to those of the official nations. The De kvinnliga association organised evening get-togethers and meetings on societal and ideological issues, but also convened for more light-hearted events. The language used was usually Swedish, but Finnish was also allowed, and the language issue was not a priority. De kvinnliga edited a handwritten magazine called Lyran (‘Lyre’), with Tekla Hultin serving as the editor-in-chief.

Seven young women, of whom four are standing at the back and the two in the middle are wearing a student cap. Of the three women sitting at the front, the one on the left has turned sideways and is wearing a student cap, while the other two are holding the cap in their laps.
Members of the De kvinnliga association in a photo from the late 1880s. Tekla Hultin at the front on the left. Photo: Helsinki University Museum, Charles Riis & Co.

Although women were not accepted as official members of student nations, they were able to participate in some of the activities. Tekla Hultin was born and raised in Jaakkima, formerly in eastern Finland and now part of Russia, so the Savo-Karjalainen osakunta student nation would have been a natural environment for her. This student nation had invited women to its celebrations since 1870, and in 1890 women were also granted the right to speak at the nation’s meetings. Even after graduating, Tekla Hultin continued to participate in the student nation’s activities, for example, its anniversary celebrations, where she was even known to give speeches.

Solemn conferment ceremony

Tekla Hultin’s final thesis focused on English colonial policy in the 18th century. She completed her bachelor’s degree in 1891, but had to wait three years for the next Faculty of Philosophy ceremony for the conferment of degrees. A total of 139 master’s graduands, including six women, participated in the conferment ceremony of spring 1894.

The Main Building of the University of Helsinki at bottom centre, from which close-up images of individual graduands radiate. On the left is the official garland weaver surrounded by a drawing of a laurel garland, and on the right are drawings of a lyre and a laurel branch.
Conferment painting of 1894. Photo: Helsinki University Museum, Anni Tuominen.

Only one woman, Emma Irene Åström, had previously been conferred an academic degree in Finland. Since Tekla Hultin’s conferment, there have always been female participants in master’s conferment ceremonies. In accordance with the tradition started by Emma Irene Åström, the female graduands of 1894 wore a black dress during the official conferment ceremony. Both the ceremony and the printed programme were bilingual (i.e., both Finnish and Swedish were used).

After the ceremony, the participants walked in procession to St Nicholas Church (now known as Helsinki Cathedral) for a church service, from which they proceeded to a restaurant for dinner. The following night, a ball was organised at the Student House. Previously, the conferment ball had been a festive occasion, with all of Helsinki’s high society in attendance. However, during the period of Finland’s Russification, the ball became a more muted affair, primarily attended by members of the University community. Nevertheless, this did not put a definitive end to the festivities. Rumour even had it that Tekla Hultin delighted her male companions at the conferment ball of 1894 by giving a speech while standing on a table and holding a glass in her hand.

A young woman standing, resting her right elbow lightly on a piece of furniture. Her hair is in a bun, she has a laurel garland on her head and she is wearing a light-coloured, high-necked dress.
Tekla Hultin after her conferment wearing a laurel garland. Photo: Finnish Heritage Agency, Charles Riis & Co. CC BY 4.0

Tekla Hultin continued her studies and, in 1896, she became the first woman in Finland to be granted the title of Doctor of Philosophy. This time, she did not attend a conferment ceremony. She also conducted archival research in St Petersburg and Stockholm and studied economics in 1898 at the Sorbonne.

A diverse career

During her postgraduate studies, Tekla Hultin was appointed to a permanent position as journalist in the international news section of the Päivälehti daily. In 1899 she took up the post of editor-in-chief of the Isänmaan ystävä newspaper, which was, however, soon closed down by Nikolay Bobrikov, the governor-general of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

In 1901 Tekla Hultin was appointed to the position of second actuary at the Statistical Office of Finland (now Statistics Finland) after she had been granted an exemption required due to her gender. She later applied for an exemption to pursue appointment as first actuary; she had already deputised the previous holder of this position, but her application for an exemption was rejected.

After women were granted the right to vote and stand for election, Hultin ran in the parliamentary elections as a candidate for the Young Finnish Party. Her first bid was unsuccessful, but she eventually served as a member of parliament from 1908 to 1924, when she decided to stand down. Apart from her first term, she was among the 20–30 of the most active MPs throughout her career.

Activism

Tekla Hultin was always to be found at the heart of the action. She reacted with passive resistance to the February Manifesto of 1899 (a Russian imperial proclamation that repealed Finland’s autonomy within the Russian Empire). This was by no means a no-risk strategy, but in fact required courage and nerves of steel. Hultin also made copies of the Great Petition (a petition to Tsar Nicholas II against the February Manifesto), collected signatures and organised signature sheets in the darkness of the night, with the windows covered. In her memoir, Hultin describes how, while this was going on, the courtyard was suddenly illuminated by a flash of “bright light, followed by a loud boom.” Later, it turned out that the largest meteorite ever to fall in Finland had just landed in Bjurböle, near the town of Porvoo. The next day, Hultin participated in a floral tribute to the statue of Alexander II at Senate Square, organised as a form of protest. The Women’s Kagal, the female section of a secret society opposing Russia’s oppressive policies, was established at Tekla Hultin’s home.

When Governor-General Bobrikov was shot by Eugen Schauman in the Senate building, Tekla Hultin arrived in the building just “a split second after the shot had been fired.” Before and during the general strike of 1905, Hultin was involved in civic activity and attended meetings of the Student Union and other organisations, occasionally also taking the floor. The demands outlined at a meeting of the ‘Constitutionals’, a political faction defending constitutional legalism, were presented to the new governor-general by a delegation including Tekla Hultin.

Hultin was also active at large meetings addressing the issue of women’s suffrage. When the matter was discussed by the parliament, she followed the proceedings closely from the gallery.

Tekla Hultin was a passionate activist and proponent of the Jaeger movement. The Finnish Civil War of 1918 was a shock that struck a blow to her progressive worldview. In the end, Finland’s long-sought independence did not solve all the problems.

Tekla Hultin was in many ways a pioneer. She continuously longed for challenges and work that would “push her to her limits.” Perhaps as a sort of counterweight, she was an avid amateur cook, painter and craftswoman. In parliament, Hultin was a coolly detached speaker, but with her friends she was often emotional, for which she was occasionally teased. Tekla Hultin was a sociable, courageous and tenacious person who stood by her views and defended them in the open.

Susanna Hakkarainen, project planning officer

Translation: University of Helsinki Language Services.

Sources:

Bagge, Taina 1974: Promootiot Helsingin yliopistossa 1832-1967. Helsinki.

Hultin, Tekla 1935: Päiväkirjani kertoo 1899–1914 I. Helsinki.

Klinge, Matti 1978: Ylioppilaskunnan historia osa 3. 1872–1917 K.P.T:stä jääkäreihin. Helsinki.

Naisten aika. Valkoinen varis ja muita oppineita naisia (toim. Riitta Mäkinen & Marja Engman). Tallinna 2015.

Tiirikari, Leeni – Savikko, Sari 2005: Suomen naisen vuosisadat osa 4. Tiennäyttäjät. Hämeenlinna.

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