Minna Canth’s Day, gender equality, and the Coronavirus

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March 19 in Minna Canth’s Day in Finland. On Minna Canth’s Day, we celebrate Minna Canth and gender equality. In a normal week, we’d tell you about Minna Canth and tell you why she is significant in Finland and for Finns. We were also planning on writing about the status of gender equality in Finland. 

Currently, we are however living under extraordinary circumstances due to the Coronavirus. So, we decided to change our original plan a bit. We’ll still talk about Minna Canth since one still should know who she was and why she is significant. But because the day is about gender equality, we thought we’d take a brief look at how the current extraordinary circumstances may affect the genders differently. 

Minna Canth

Minna Canth was a writer and a societal activist who lived during the latter half of the 19th century.

Her earliest experiences with schooling were frustrating. In those days, women didn’t have their own careers. They were expected to get married and have kids. Women stayed home and didn’t usually have careers outside the home. The only career choice outside the home in those days was that of a midwife. When Minna was around 20 years old a new career option as a public school teacher opened up.

Minna started her studies to become a teacher but she married one of the teachers and dropped out. When she was pregnant with her seventh child, her husband passed away. She turned to Kuopio to take over her family’s business. As the business grew bigger, the financial security it provided allowed her to pursue her writing career and her role as a public intellectual.  

She was the first woman in Finland to receive a date in the calendar when the Finnish flag is raised. March 19 was her birthday. 

Minna Canth in 1894 (Photo: V. Barsokevitsch/National Board of Antiquities image HK10000:2939)

Minna Canth as a writer

Early on in her career she like many during her day was a romanticist, but quite soon she adopted a realistic style of writing. Her novels, plays, and short stories focused on societal problems of different types. Contrary to the dominant writing style of the time, she described the lives of the poor, particularly of poor women as they were. 

In her journalistic writing, she wrote about such issues as women’s education, religious freedom, and labor and temperance movements. She followed international discussions on these issues and translated articles about them into Finnish. The main focus in her public writing throughout the years was women’s issues. 

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Her role in society at the time

During her lifetime, she often faced harsh criticism. 

At the time that she was writing the Finnish nation-building was in full swing. We have discussed this before in our blog posts about J.L. Runeberg and Kalevala. Minna Canth’s realistic portraits of poor women didn’t fit into the idealized images of the poor so prominent in romantic writing. Her focus on societal problems didn’t contribute to the idea of a single, unified nation. Her descriptions of the nation were clearly different from those of prominent men at the time. 

The ideas she promoted – women’s issues, pacifism, workers’ issues – were also quite radical at the time. They were made even more radical because she was a woman advocating for them. It was very uncommon for a woman to be as successful in business as she was and to have such a prominent voice in society. 

Her home in Kuopio was a popular meeting place for artists and intellectuals both women and men alike. She had around her a core group of women who were active in discussions and activities focused on language, education, temperance, and women’s issues. 

Minna Canth’s house Kanttila in modern-day Kuopio (photo: Reijo K Hukkanen/Flickr)

Minna Canth’s Day, gender equality, labor market, and the Coronavirus

Minna Canth’s Day in Finland is the day we celebrate gender equality. It is natural to combine the celebration of the two in Finland because of her focus on women’s issues and gender equality.

Although Finland often ranks high on global measures of gender equality, the Finnish labor market is still surprisingly segregated by gender. It is even more so in Finland than in many other European countries. 

In Finland, women dominate particularly in social work, and health and education sectors. Males dominate in particular technical fields and those based on the natural sciences. 

The government of Finland instituted harsh measures on Monday to counter the effects of the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. On Tuesday the government published a list of critical sectors for the functioning of the society. 

Because the labor market in Finland is so strongly segregated by gender, these various measures can impact the two genders differently.

And note, in this blog post on Minna Canth’s Day we’ll talk in terms of two binary genders. We recognize that this is an unsatisfactory way of talking out genders. However, we are examining this issue through statistics provided by Statistics Finland. In the statistics we use, only two genders are recorded.*1 

Knowledge workers

Even before the latest actions by the Finnish government, many knowledge workers started working from home either by the orders or by the blessing of their employers. Those most often able to do that are white-collar workers, those working in specialist or expert positions.

Whether such experts are men or women depends a lot on the field. In 2016, the majority of experts or specialists in administration and business were women (ca. 58 %). The same was in law, and social and cultural fields (ca. 64%) whereas in the natural sciences and technology they were men (ca. 78%). Ca. 91 % of office workers are women.*2 

In 2016, 323 000 women worked in these white-collar professions. The same figure for men was 288 000. These figures roughly correspond with the numbers given for upper-level office workers (ylempi toimihenkilö in Finnish) in another table of the same publication.

Out of all the people whose occupation was classified this way 22 % of men were in professions we considered as white-collar positions. The same percentage for women was ca. 20 %. So, the majority of both women and men are in professions where working from home is not an option.

Frontline professions

Those professions that are in the front lines during this Corona outbreak are healthcare workers and first responders. They are the ones that treat the rest of us and they are most in danger of coming into contact with the virus. 

In 2017, ca. 93 % of nurses and about 63 % of doctors were women, while ca. 62 % of EMT workers were men. So, should you need an ambulance you will most likely be first helped by a male EMT worker and then be treated at the hospital by female nurses and doctors.

So that these healthcare workers, as well as the workers in the other critical sectors, can go to work, they can take their children to daycare. If they have children in grades 1 through 3 of primary school, their children can also attend school. The personnel who will take care of children at daycare centers and teach them at school are primarily female. About 97% of kindergarten teachers and childcare providers at daycare centers, and about 78 % of primary school teachers in Finland are women. Thus women in Finland are taking on the brunt of the virus. 

Other professions keeping the society going

The list of sectors crucial for the functioning of the society is long. Let’s just take a look at a couple of more occupations that are perhaps the most obvious to us all. 

We all still need to get groceries. Those who sell groceries to us are primarily female (ca 66 %), but those who transport all of the items to the stores for us to buy are primarily male (93 %). So are warehouse workers (ca 81 %) and farmers (ca 57 %) growing our food.

We need running water, electricity, heating, and someone needs to take our trash away. We also need our wifi and digital capabilities. These are very clearly male-dominated sectors. 

Buildings and other places still need to be cleaned. Cleaning jobs are mostly occupied by women (ca 82 %).

The Finnish government’s list compiled is a list of sectors that still operate during this crisis. We have here very briefly looked at some of those sectors and looked at the people who are performing some of those functions. 

In contrast, there are sectors that will be and already are severely hit by the social distancing expectations. Because the Finnish labor market is very segregated, that may affect one gender or another disproportionally. But we’ll leave that for someone else to examine. We have gone on long enough as it is. 

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  • *1 http://pxnet2.stat.fi/PXWeb/pxweb/fi/StatFin/StatFin__vrm__tyokay/statfin_tyokay_pxt_115q.px/
  • *2 Tilastokeskus (2018): Sukupuolten tasa-arvo Suomessa 2018, grahps 3.15 (p. 48) Työllisten naisten yleisimmät ammatit 2016 and 3.16 (p. 49) Työllisten miesten yleisimmät ammatit 2016. We considered the following to be white-collar workers: liike-elämän ja hallinnon asiantuntijat; liike-elämän ja hallinnon erityisasiantuntijat; lainopilliset avustajat sekä sosiaali- ja kulttuurialan asiantuntijat; lainopilliset, sosiaalialan ja kulttuurialan erityisasiantuntijat; toimistotyöntekijät; luonnontieteiden ja tekniikan erityisasiantuntijat. 

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