Category Archives: Nordic Culture

A Woman’s Heaven or Hell? Gender Equality in the Nordic Countries

The Nordic countries frequently rank high in various indexes about gender equality. Sweden, Denmark and Finland are considered as the most gender equal countries in the European Union. They look back at a long history of female public participation. Finland was the first country in the world to grant the vote to women in 1906. In the Human Development Report of the United Nations 2015 Norway is ranked as most equal country in the world. In 2012 between 70 and 80% of women in Nordic countries were employed. The EU average lay by 62,4 %.[1] Looking at this general numbers the Nordic countries seemed to have succeeded in generating equality between the sexes.

Yet, when analysing these statistics more in depth, one can easily see that there is something wrong. Though many women work in the Nordic countries, the number of women’s part time work is three times as high as of men. Furthermore, women often work in low paid sectors, like service or care. The gender pay gap lays by approx. 16% in the Nordic countries, the EU average. No greater gender equality. Due to part time work and lower salaries, women in the Nordic countries have a higher risk than men to become poor. Women also do the majority of house- and care work in the family.[2]

Still, what is even more concerning than that the Nordic countries might indeed just be average in economic terms of gender equality, is the fact that they rank incredible high in violence against women. The chance to experience sexual violence by a partner or a non-partner is for women in Sweden double as high as in the EU average. Domestic violence against women is nearly one third higher in Finland than in the EU average. Finland was also among the last countries to criminalize rape in marriage (1994). Only Denmark ranks here within the EU average. However, it was criticised in 2008 by Amnesty International for its lack of legal protection for victims of sexual violence.[3]


These numbers are alarming in many ways and show the bias of Nordic gender equality. Yes, women participated on the labour market. But often not voluntarily but by force. High living costs and the double breadwinner model make two earners in a family necessary. Further, women are usually only additional earner and randomly in high earning or power positions. If the primary earner disappears, the risk of poverty for Nordic women is high. They become customer of welfare measures.

Even more worrying is the violence against women. The Nordic states seem to do a lot to integrate women into the labour force and make them taxpayer but they fail to protect them at home. If I would be cynical, I would argue that economic and public interests dominate the striving of the Nordic countries for gender equality but there is less interest to protect women in the private sphere. Productivity appears somehow to be the driving force in Nordic gender policies and not general gender equality in the society. The new Finnish government, elected in 2015, for example decided to cut back in support for measures for gender equality, since men and women in Finland are apparently equal.

Well, are the Nordic countries a woman’s heaven or hell? Probably neither of it. Gender equality in the Nordic countries appears very much on the surface but a deeper look discovers many problems. Surely, Nordic women live a better life than a lot of their sisters in the entire world. And yes, also men experience inequalities. Inequalities appear not only through gender but also through race, class, disability and numerous categories. However, the lesson learned from this brief and rather incomplete discussion of gender equality in the Nordic countries is that labour market participation does not create equality between the sexes. To provide equality women need equal opportunities and not any opportunities in the public sphere. Furthermore, the state must also protect women in the private sphere. The high number of cases of violence against women in the Nordic countries are disgraceful for countries which claim to be the most gender equal in the world. Gender equality is not a pick and choose but comes as a package of all women in all areas being equal to all men, and here the Nordic countries surely still have a lot of catching up to do.

[1] Eurostat
[2] Nordic Gender Equality in Figures 2015, Nordic Council of Ministers

MERLE WESSEL is a Doctoral student at the Centre for Nordic Studies (2014-) and she holds a doctoral position in the Doctoral Programme Political, Societal and Regional Change (2016-2019). Her doctoral project “Eugenic Feminism in the Nordic Countries” discusses how Nordic feminists used eugenic rhetoric to include or exclude women from civil and political rights, and to position the female body and sexuality in the societal discourse. Her main research interests are gender history, body and sexuality, and cultural history.

Narratives of transparency and self-censorship

In December 2016 Sweden and Finland celebrated the adoption of the world’s first Freedom of Print Act 250 years ago. This law was a perfect opportunity to brand these Nordic countries as leading nations in yet another field of politics and society. In Finland, the year ended with a scandal as two journalists from the public broadcasting company YLE ended up resigning as a protest to their lack of journalistic freedom. The YLE had run a story about the possible judicial disqualification of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä in investing government money in the state-owned mining company Terrafame. Sipilä reacted heavily by repeatedly putting pressure on the YLE journalists, and the YLE’s leadership ended up downplaying the story. (A BBC story about it can be found here and one the most in-depth text recap of the process along with an analysis and links can be found here in Finnish.)

As always, there are many sides to this story, but here I would like to point at two very persistent narratives about Finnish public debate that resurfaced in the debate about YLE and Sipilä: the transparency narrative and the self-censorship narrative.

The first story has to do with the Freedom of Print Act from 1766. In this case, the high level of press freedom, ample access to public documents and general transparency in society in both Sweden and Finland is traced back to 1766. There are national differences here, in Sweden the celebration of the act last year has tended to focus on the parliament (Riksdag) and political culture, whereas in Finland the celebrations have given Anders Chydenius, the author of the first memorandum proposing such an act, much greater space. Chydenius was a Swedish subject, but born and active in the Finnish part of the Swedish realm. This nationalization of the heritage of openness is hardly surprising nor has it gone unnoticed in Finnish public debate. (One part of the celebration is the publication of Chydenius’s collected works, an impressive publication project that was concluded in 2016.)

The continuity from 1766 to the present is historically difficult to defend. The 1766 Act was in force only for eight years, and significantly changed after Gustavus III became king. After that, issues of printing privileges have been a recurring topic for political contestation. In the Finnish case, the continuity is even weaker, since Finland’s nineteenth-century experience as a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire entailed rather illiberal printing policies. If there is a continuity in the tradition of freedom of print and openness, it is not due to a continuity in legislation, but because there have been people who have referred to 1766 and the last years of the Age of Liberty as a model and kept that tradition alive in political debates. This is particularly clear in the case of Chydenius and the representations of him in historiography. It was not until the late nineteenth century (as Matti Klinge has shown) that Chydenius was made into a national hero, and it was not until the emerging European integration that Finland started boasting its long tradition of Nordic openness (as Tero Erkkilä has shown).

It is the age of the Grand Duchy that is the source for the second narrative of Finnish public debate, namely a story of a Finnish tradition of self-censorship. Here, the narrative suggests that Finnish intellectuals and politicians developed a way of not pushing the limits of public debate during the autocracy in order to keep their autonomy in developing the country without interference form the Emperor. Again a continuity in political culture is suggested by pointing to the period of Finlandisierung during the Cold War and Finland’s “best pupil in the class” relationship to the big EU countries today. More broadly, a continuity is seen instances in which any type of organization avoids “rocking the boat” or simply “being difficult” in order not to upset the powers that be. The national broadcasting company avoiding to give too much publicity to news that deal with the Prime Minister’s possible judicial disqualification, is a paradigm example of this.

This narrative is present also in the related discourse of Finland as a country with only one truth. In Sweden and Norway a related phenomenon is conceptualized through the metaphor “opinion corridor” (Sw. åsiktskorridor, No. meningskorridor) launched by the political scientist Henrik Oscarsson. In this metaphor debating culture is seeing as open to a certain point, but when opinions that deviate from those that are accepted they are immediately rejected without proper engagement. While the Finnish one-truth syndrome has to do with not wanting to rock the boat and derived from the so-called Russian age in the nineteenth century, the Scandinavian opinion corridor seems to be associated with the correct opinions and derived from the hegemony of social democracy in the twentieth century. Both labels are obvious simplifications, but that these themes recur in debates is fascinating and certainly worth noting as ingredients in political culture.

The criticism of Finnish political culture as seeking for consensus through self-censorship rather than promoting debate through presenting different ideas are widespread. (A recent example by Sanna Ukkola is here, and a more in depth discussion is to be found in Lotta Lounasmeri’s dissertation on Helsingin Sanomat and the globalization debate here). A more positive evaluation is also possible. Then different terms are used. Matti Klinge famously writes about the idea of Finnish loyalism in the nineteenth century that allowed for Finnish nation building to take place without upsetting the Russian authorities and thus avoiding the Polish catastrophe. In a similar spirit Finlandisierung becomes Realpolitik in the spirit of Kekkonen and Paasikivi and modern journalism that avoids aggressive confrontation becomes solution-centered.

So, one may ask how a narrative of Nordic openness stressing how well Finland (1st, 2016), Norway (3rd, Iceland (19th in 2016, but usually much higher), Denmark (4th) and Sweden (8th) do in World Press Freedom Index goes together with narratives of self-censorship or the opinion corridor? Well, there is no necessary contradiction. The two narratives about Finnish public debate are obviously very simplified, the first one almost obnoxiously positive and the second one highly critical, but keeping them both in mind paints a more nuanced picture of how debate works. Both aspects are present in every news item, every interaction between the media watchdogs and the elite, and every decision to publish or not. If there is a continuity from 1766 to present day Sweden and Finland, then it is because that continuity is being reinvented over and over again through conscious choices. The choices by Juha Sipilä and the public broadcasting company YLE are not game-changing in that sense, but they are one instance in which traditions of public debate is shaped. What is almost sure, is that Finland ranking as the top country in the World Press Freedom Index for seven consecutive years will not be followed by an eight year. What will happen in 2018 is an open question.

JANI MARJANEN is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Nordic Studies (University of Helsinki) and participates in the project “The Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression in the Nordic Countries, 1815-1900” funded by Oslo University.

Homo Nordicus — happy alone?*

“Happiness for the Nordics is when nobody knocks on your door and demand something from you. Here it is a democratic human right to be let undisturbed.”

The Norden TV documentary (YLE 2014)

The last few months Finnish media has given special attention to the issue of loneliness in Finnish society. The book Yksinäisten Suomi [Finland of the lonely], edited by Juho Saari, professor in social and health policy at the University of Tampere, brings up the fact that Finland, like the other Nordic countries, is becoming a society of one-person households.  He even goes on claiming that much of the national health diseases that have been combatted by the Nordic Welfare State regime in Finland for decades, like alcoholism and cardiovascular disease, is to be seen as results of a fundamental structural problem: loneliness in Finnish society.

Saari talks about a “root cause” (juurisyy), which quite resembles a cultural study approach seeking to define and analyze deep structural fundaments of different societies. Instead of a positivist hands on approach collecting statistics and then moving on to curing measures by social policy legislation, loneliness as an analytic concept is an interesting take on the matter. It is also a challenging and ambiguous theme, when trying to open up one fundamental issue in Nordic societies. And this is a larger Nordic issue, not just a Finnish phenomenon.

To start with, loneliness is not seen only in a negative light by the Nordics. Actually, there are many positive connotations associated with loneliness. There is the heroic loneliness cherished in many ways in the past. To be able to do great deeds alone, not seldom with nature as the opponent to beat, is a classic branch on Nordic heroism. Nansen, Amundsen, Nordenskiöld, André and other champions of polar exploration took on this challenge to prove their capability to conquer the most distant Arctic spaces. They were not completely alone, but still Arctic exploration in many ways highlight man’s solitude stand against the extreme powers of nature. And the legacy lives on. On the back cover of a book in my office shelf, I read:

He was the first person to plod solo and unassisted to both the North and South Poles; the first to ski alone and unassisted across Antarctica; the first to ski—and swim—alone across the Arctic Ocean.

No, it is not a Monthy Pythonesque satire, nor a novel by Erlend Loe, but the book In the Footsteps of Nansen (2009), depicting the deeds of contemporary Norwegian polar explorer Børge Ousland. In an interview in National Geographic, he shares his feelings about Arctic loneliness: “To be in the middle of the strong Arctic or Antarctic nature with just your sled and skies, to be self-supplied for up to three months at the time, is a lifelong and intense experience.”


Børge Ousland alone in the Arctic (but, who took the photo?). Illustration from National Geographic.

The cult of loneliness

To stand strong in solitude is not only an Arctic sport in Norwegian history, but also an intellectual. In many of Henrik Ibsen’s plays the hero is a person who takes on the rotten conventions of the bourgeoisie society alone. Standing alone is a sign of bravery, independence and intellectual nobility. On the contrary, not being able to stand alone is a sign of weakness. In An Enemy of the People (En folkefiende, 1882) Ibsen makes this crystal clear. In the fifth and last act, doctor Thomas Stockmann utters: “You see, the point is that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

So, is this cult of loneliness a mark of nobility, or just an atavistic “root cause” for a people inhabiting a sparsely populated remote region with a feeble urban tradition? In a Finnish Gentleman’s handbook from 1947, Jokaisen miehen kirja, there is one section dedicated to outdoor activities. It suggests that going solo on a Sunday hike might actually be the best way of relieving work related stress since, “soon you have no worries and you are your own master like the eagle in the sky. Nature is your most loyal friend […] even the manliest of men is sometimes in need of support.” Some years later, in 1968, Paul Britten Austin, a British specialist on Swedish literature, came to the same conclusion. In the book On Being Swedish. Reflections towards a better understanding of the Swedish character, he observed that Swedes take more interest in nature than in other people.

Avoiding contact with other people seems to be a state of comfort for Homo Nordicus. Imagine that you are doing what you like the most, but all the sudden you are interrupted. Formula one driver Kimi Räikkönen’s reaction to his team technicians over the radio is a modern classic: “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing!”


The Iceman, Kimi Räikkönen, immortalized in a manga style cartoon (art by ShinjiRHCP)

Judging from everything said above, one obviously thinks that this is an exclusively male issue. That women tend to be more social and to seek each others company and support. This might well be part of the truth, but I would not buy this explanation entirely. When one observes people having lunch alone in Helsinki lunch restaurants for example, there is no evident male dominance. And the proposed escape to loneliness from a too hectic civilization, also has its female examples. In the film Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo desperately repeats, “I just want to be alone”, predicting the final years of mystical solitude for the Swedish actress.

In the splendid TV series The Norden (2014), produced by Finnish YLE in Swedish language, the journalists Joakim Rundt and Lasse Grönroos take on the issue of Nordic loneliness, stating that: “Happiness for the Nordics is when nobody knocks on your door and demand something from you. Here it is a democratic human right to be let undisturbed.” In one of the episodes they have invited a young Italian male, Carlo from Sicily, to observe his contact with Nordic social life. He is sent out on the streets of Oslo, in order to ask people passing by what they know about their neighbours? The result is that no one seems to know anything about their neighbours, nor do they seem to care. There is only one exception, but it is soon revealed that he is British.


The Norden, episode 5 (The sequence between 16min 20secs – 19min 40secs)

The Welfare State and loneliness

This detachment from people in the close surrounding has awaken different theories. One of the most notable and provocative is that of Swedish historian and social scientist Lars Trägårdh, who introduced the notion of Statist individualism in the late 1990s. The point he makes is that the Nordic Welfare Model accentuates the straight contact between the state and the individual. In a quest for equal opportunities, tax financed universal benefits are targeted at the individual, sidestepping other societal arrangements, such as families, friends, neighbours, social networks, etc. Trägårdh’s critical stand suggests that the rooted longing for loneliness is re-formulated in the Nordic urban modernist project called the People’s Home – Folkhemmet, the Swedish national notion for the Nordic Welfare State. We do not need to know our neighbour, unless we voluntarily choose to do so. And seemingly Homo Nordicus often choses not to do so.

But, how far can and should we go in blaming the Welfare state for people being lonely? There are plenty of elements in Nordic societies suggesting an opposite development. Most children are socialized to group dynamics from a very young age. Already children in age of 1–3 years, are introduced to the comprehensive tax financed day care system. The Nordic countries have a splendid history of association life. Some years back people would still be members of at least one, often many, associations. Today this tradition is vanishing, but yet far from dead.

Another question we might pose is: where to draw the thin line between positive and cherished solitude and marginalized and sad loneliness? There are no easy and measurable answers, but it is interesting that the term “loneliness” now seems to enter policy-oriented social science. Juho Saari identifies discussion groups on internet as the new space for Finnish (and Nordic?) loneliness. Operating with qualitative cultural analysis tools is not always precise, but since science is about solving problems in the real world, we obviously need to look at the theme of Nordic loneliness from Ibsen to Räikkönen. The phenomenon clearly deserves more attention also from a humanities and cultural studies perspective.

* Over the years, I have had numerous inspiring dialogues with colleagues, who have greatly contributed to developing these ideas around Nordic loneliness. I am indebted to Henrik Stenius, Hadle Oftedahl Andersen, Mary Hilson, Anka Ryall, Johan Strang, Claus Elholm Andersen, and many, many others.

PETER STADIUS is professor in Nordic Studies and research director at CENS, University of Helsinki