Finland’s prime minister tests gender parity and decorum

The young Finnish Prime Minister took a deep breath and looked directly at the cameras. She regretted, she said, that raucous images of late-night revelry with her friends made their way into the public eye.

But she also made clear her belief that walking out the dance moves as if no one was watching the party did not interfere with her state duties.

Finland is known worldwide as a pioneer in gender equality. But despite the country’s progressive traditions, many here believe Sanna Marin, 36, in office for just over two years, is held to a harsher standard than a male leader would be under similar circumstances.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, pictured in the European Parliament building, speaks at a press conference on Tuesday.

(Getty Images)

“When you break glass ceilings, you naturally scratch yourself,” said the country’s first stateswoman, Tarja Halonen, 78, who served as Finland’s first female president. “Women in general tend to be measured not by the substance of their politics, but by their looks, their clothes, or their marital status.”

To outsiders, summer’s setbacks to the Prime Minister’s nighttime pursuits may seem like a storm in a Nordic teapot. But coming at a particularly serious time in international affairs — most notably, the war in Ukraine — it has sparked a debate over what constitutes appropriate decorum.

“It’s not about whether she can party or not,” Joona Räsänen, leader of Marin’s party in the capital region, told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. “Everyone has a right to privacy, but don’t make it public.”

Marin’s defenders say she has repeatedly demonstrated the seriousness of her commitment to the work, articulating thoughtful and reasoned positions on the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, as well as charting a path forward. accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – a sharp break with the country’s longstanding policy.

Despite these accomplishments, she is often stubborn about the emphasis placed on the way she dresses and her demeanor. An article in Vogue magazine noted her accomplishments, but also dwelt on her fashion sense. In October 2020, when Marin had only been in the job for a few months, an outcry erupted over a cover photo of her in Finnish women’s magazine Trendi, in which she wore a blazer with no shirt underneath.

“If you had to generalize, it would be the men who would say it was wrong and the women who would say it was fabulous,” a spokeswoman for the magazine, Mari Paalosalo-Jussinmäki, told CNN at the time. Marin said a stylist made the wardrobe call.

On the feminist front, Finland has long outstripped the rest of the world. What was then the Grand Duchy of Finland gave women the right to vote in 1906, 14 years before women’s suffrage in the United States. Only Iceland tops Finland’s gender equality scores, according to the World Economic Forum 2022 ranking of 146 countries.

Although there is an income disparity – Finnish women earn around 85 cents on the euro, compared to men – women hold 91 of the 200 parliamentary seats and hold almost 60% of the higher degrees awarded in the country.

Halonen, who was elected president in 2000 and served two six-year terms, was a prime example of the women-friendly political environment in Finland. She held important ministerial portfolios assuming the presidency. Forbes magazine named her one of the 100 most powerful women in the world – an accolade it later bestowed on Marin – and her approval rating peaked at 88%.

Yet even she saw herself as being held to “higher standards, definitely different standards” during her public tenure. “Many issues that were normal for male presidents had to be considered if they were also suitable for a president,” she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Marin was also a trailblazer, becoming the world’s youngest prime minister when she took office at 34. Raised by lesbian parents in the traditionally working-class city of Tampere, she was the first person in her family to attend university. She had a child in 2018 with her longtime partner, Markus Räikkönen, and the couple married in 2020.

Marin’s clubbing habits came under fire in December 2021, when she went out on the town with friends over Finland’s Independence Day weekend without her official phone. Government officials who discovered the prime minister had been exposed to COVID-19 were unable to reach her until the following day. (She did not contract the disease.)

In August this year, a leaked video of the Prime Minister’s uninhibited dance at a private apartment party in Helsinki went viral, with critics pointing out that the early morning episode came shortly before the start of ‘A day of work. Marin voluntarily took and passed a drug test, although she said she considered it unfair that the onus was on her to provide proof that she did not use any illegal substances.

But his misfortunes were not over. Days later, a TikTok image emerged of two topless women kissing at the prime minister’s official residence, partially obscured by a sign identifying the country the prime minister usually wears at international virtual events. Marin said the photo was inappropriate and apologized, but added that “otherwise nothing out of the ordinary happened at the meeting.”

By then, the party’s narrative had captured the attention of the world. “Keep dancing,” Hillary Clinton tweeted at the prime minister, who responded with a heart emoji. Women around the world have been posting carefree dance clips of themselves. The late night comics had a field day, with Trevor Noah joking that Marin got caught on video having rambunctious fun because she actually had “friends young enough to know use a telephone”.

The Finns, however, found it all much less funny. A poll by Helsingin Sanomat indicated that 42% of respondents thought Marin’s image had been hurt by the party flap. Heading into the spring 2023 elections, Marin’s Social Democratic Party holds a slight majority, but the party’s demographics skew towards the working class and older, creating a potential drop in support.

“The world sees Finland’s prime minister enjoying life, but people see him here as a club at public expense,” said communications consultant Harri Saukkomaa.

Although Marin expressed dismay at the leaked images she considered private, she has a powerful social media presence, with half a million followers on Twitter and 1 million on Instagram. This allows him to tailor his own messaging, bypassing mainstream media, but with the double effect of bringing his unofficial life out into the open.

Halonen, the former president, said the rise of social media made it harder for political figures, both men and women, to protect their privacy. As to whether Marin’s troubles have undermined Finland’s leading reputation for gender equality, she said she hopes not.

“Finland is a good place for gender equality, but of course we are not perfect,” she said. “We must also remember that leadership is not just a battle between the sexes. It is about equal opportunity for every human being.

Hunt is a special envoy.

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