Minna Canth – Finland’s First Feminist

Because it’s my Mum’s birthday, I want to honor another badass mother today. After her husband died, she raised their seven(!) kids by herself and even found time to not only manage the family store, but also fight for gender equality, writing text that were way ahead of her time. Let me introduce you to Minna Canth.

We’re in Tampere, Finland in Spring 1844 and a after their first son had died in infancy, textile worker Gustav Johnsson and his wife Ulrika were overjoyed when their daughter Ulrika Wilhelmina, or Minna for short, was born. In 1850 another boy would follow and two years later another girl. One year after her little sister was born, her father was promoted to managing a yarn store and the whole family moved to Kuopio. Even before that she had attended the school at the factory her father worked for and continued her education in her new home. The shop was so successful under her father’s management that Minna was even admitted to an upper class school! 

That meant she was able to get a much better education than most working-class women at the time, not only learning the basics of reading and writing, but also history and geography and mathematics! Besides the main language, Swedish, she also learned to speak German, French and Russian, while at home she spoke Finnish. (Back then Swedish was the official language of Finland and it wasn’t until 1923 that Finnish was recognized in the same way.) Half the day was put aside for crafts – of course, it was a women’s school – but Minna really didn’t have the patience for that, she’d much rather devour every book she could find. 

When a school to train female teachers was established in a city near her home, 19 year old Minna was among the first to apply. The Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary was the first school in Finland to make higher education accessible for women and of course Minna wanted in. And she got in. 

In 1963 she began her education as a primary school teacher and she absolutely loved it! Not only was she elated to keep learning, but she also loved the philosophy of teaching and unexpectedly enjoyed the hour of gymnastics everyday and regular outdoor activity. In her journals she wrote: “Here, even the careless, like me, are forced to take better care of their health” and the habit of daily exercise and long walks would accompany her throughout her life. Minna also found love somewhere unexpected: in her natural science teacher Johan Ferdinand Canth. And in 1965 the two of them married. Unfortunately that also meant that she wasn’t allowed to continue her education at the Teacher Seminary, as married women weren’t allowed to study at the time. 

Even though her formal years of education were over, Minna had learned a lot and began to see society – and especially the role of women within it – in a whole new light. But for now she fully immersed herself in married life, taking care of the household while her husband worked at the school and as a newspaper editor. Her joy and pride was tending to the garden where she grew vegetables that not only fed her family but also produced a bit of income at the side. Apparently Minna had inherited her father’s talent as a salesperson. But not only her garden grew, her family did too. Between 1866 and 1890 the Canths had seven children!

Somehow in 1974 Minna found the time to start writing for the newspaper her husband worked at, focussing on women’s issues. She was incredibly happy to finally have intellectual stimulation in her life again, or as she called it “spiritual nourishment.” Her articles didn’t go over with the editors however and both her and her husband had to leave the paper only two years later. They were both immediately hired by the competition though and Minna began publishing her first fiction stories. They were even collected in a book in 1878!

But the happy family life came to a screeching halt when Johan Canth died unexpectedly in July 1879, leaving Minna alone with six children and a seventh on the way. Not only was she now a widow at 35, she was also really really broke.

She knew that continuing to write only newspaper articles would not sustain a large family like hers for long, so she thought bigger and sent a play to the Finnish National Theater in Helsinki where it was enthusiastically accepted. This would lead to a lifelong partnership with the director of the institution who taught her much. Still Minna knew it would be hard staying in the big city and after her youngest daughter Lyyli was born, she sold the family home in Jyväskylä and took her children on a three-day journey back to her hometown, Kuopio.

Returning home after 17 years of absence, Minna lost no time. Her parents had opened their own draper’s shop, but her father had died shortly after and now it wasn’t doing too well. So Minna took charge. Soon she had turned business around and was earning enough to not only take care of her seven kids and the family cat, but her mother and ailing brother as well. After her brother’s death in 1884, she took over his general store as well and she seems to have had a real talent for business: in 1895 she was elected as the first woman to be a voting representative in the General Merchant Meeting. There wouldn’t be another woman of a similar rank for the next 100 years. She also greatly enjoyed the freedom her existence as a businesswoman granted her. She made enough to hire people and finally, finally she had the time to write again!

Her home in Kuopio quickly became a meeting point for intellectuals and creative to discuss new ideas and Minna established a women’s circle to discuss social issues and needed reforms. But she didn’t just keep her ideas in her home, she wrote articles focussing on social and gender inequality for different newspapers and even planned a women’s magazine for which she ended up being too busy. Even if Swedish was the official language and she did speak it well, Minna made the choice to write in Finnish. Not only the language was unusual, but her opinions were often controversial and way ahead of her time as well – her topics included the wealth divide, public education, sexual repression and morality, as well as the stigma against sick and disabled people.

Often the deeper meaning of her work was overlooked in order to criticize the imperfect but very human characters and progressive ideas; some of her works were even banned! In 1889 she started a newspaper where she translated texts from all over Europe to debate international ideas with her readers, but that too was censored after just one year. She knew that she was ahead of her time – “a woman of a completely new age,” she called it – but she never gave up trying to usher in that new age for everyone else. 

And she had her personal reasons to keep standing up to against the system. As her daughters grew older she once again realized how difficult it was for a woman to get a good education. Without further ado she hired high school boys to teach her daughters what they learned, like mathematics and Latin, in addition to their regular lessons at the girls’ school. Of course Minna didn’t just stop at that. She and some members of her women’s group saw the need for women’s education and In 1886 the first Finnish-language co-educational school in the country was established – all paid for via fundraisers! One of her daughters, Elli, followed her mother as an intellectual, even going to Switzerland for a few years to study natural medicine. I imagine that must have made Minna very happy, as she firmly believed that to achieve true gender equality, we must empower our young women, not only by educating them but also by teaching them to navigate the world outside the home without relying on a husband.

And we know that at least with Elli she did a great job in doing so for her own daughters. When Minna died in 1897, at age 53, Elli and her brother Jussi continued their mother’s businesses and they kept operating (under various names) until 1974! But Minna’s story is not completely over yet. Ten years after her death, Finland became the first European country to give women the right to vote. It is not unlikely that her writings had at least a little influence on that progress. 

image credits:

1: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897) in her youth (age 13-16)” from her biography “Monisärmäinen Minna Canth : kirjoituksia hänestä ja hänen tuotannostaan” by Liisi Huhtala, 1998 – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
2: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897) and lecturer (teacher) Johan Ferdinand Canth (1835–1879) in Jyväskylä” from the biography by Liisi Huhtala, mentioned above – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
3: “One of the first uses of photographs in Finnish newspapers – Uusi Kuvalehti, June 1891, published in Kuopio – In picture: Kuopio-based authors Minna Canth and Juhani Aho” – from the biography by Liisi Huhtala, mentioned above – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
4: “Landscape from the cathedral tower” – Kuopio between 1889 and 1893, Minna Canth’s house is the light one at the corner. Photo: Aug. Schuffert [cropped] – Link
5: “Screw game in Kanttila [Minna Canth’s house in Kuopio]” – Pictured are Hanna Levander (left), Alma Tervo, Maiju Canth and Minna Canth, between 1890 and 1896. Photographer unknown – Digitized at the Kuopio Museum of Cultural History – Link
6: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897)” – date and photographer unknown – via Wikipedia Commons – Link

Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir – Iceland’s Pioneer of Women’s Rights

Today Iceland is known for its gender equality and it was this week’s heroine who paved the path for this reputation. Meet Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, a journalist, educator and politician and the driving force behind the campaign for women’s suffrage in Iceland.

Bríet was born in 1856 at Böðvarshólar, a small farm in North Iceland’s Vesturhóp, the first of four surviving children. They grew up to stories of heroes and monsters and were told the tales of the hidden people, the fairyfolk. Although there was no school for young children at the time, Bríet longed for knowledge and before she could even read she was recounting stories and the Sunday sermons to the younger children. It didn’t happen often that news found their way to the remote farm village, but whenever a newspaper did reach their household, it was a big event for everyone and the young girl loved the discussions that ensued. She also loved life on a farm, where the stories from her childhood seemed to come to life. Where the sky told of the coming days and where nothing ever stayed the same for long. And where riding a pony could be the greatest joy on earth.

Careless moments like this became scarce when her mother fell ill, being confined to her bed for four years. Bríet was only 13, yet she had to take care of the household in her mother’s stead. And for the first time she realized that she was treated differently than her brother. When he came home after a day’s work, he would be free to do as he pleased while her duty was to wait on him. Their father asked for his opinion while hers was not wanted, even though she was older. Soon she realized that her future would either be that of a wife or a servant. Higher education was out of reach entirely, not only because it was expensive but because no schools would accept her, a woman. She later said that she would have “given any other prospect of happiness offered in life for the possibility of satisfying [her] thirst for knowledge.”

Luckily this was the time of a great shift in Icelandic society and politics. The country advocated for its independence from Denmark, inspiring not only poets but the youth as well and a teenage Bríet wrote her first feminist article on women’s education – although she kept it a secret for now. Finally in 1874, a thousand years after the first acknowledged settlement, Iceland was granted home rule. Soon the first constitution and an established parliament, the Alþing, followed. Bríet, now 18, was moved and oh so thankful to be alive at a time like this. And when in that same year a school for girls was opened in Reykjavík there was no stopping her.

Determined to finally get the education she so longed for, she left her now widowed mother and moved in with a cousin in the city. This cousin also happened to be a prolific politician of the time and the owner of a vast collection of books, which proved a well of knowledge for the young woman. She stayed for two years. You might wonder what happened to the goal of attending school. Well, I mentioned before that it was quite an expensive endeavor and Bríet’s family was not exactly rich. But eventually she secured a loan that would allow her to attend school for one winter. Although the other girls in her class had been spending the previous year in school already, she surpassed them all and came out on top of her class. She had passed the exam for 2nd class now, but that was all that was open to her. The only thing she could do was resort to teaching and that is what she did. But again she found herself unsatisfied in her quest for knowledge.

Once more it was the zeitgeist that came to her rescue. In 1882, two years after her graduation, women gained partial suffrage – at least widows and “independent unmarried women” were allowed to vote now. In 1885 Bríet found an interesting article in the local newspaper ‘Fjallkonan.’ It was written by the editor himself, Valdimar Ásmundsson, and it centered on women’s suffrage. And Bríet decided to send in a polished version of her own article; after all she had written about the topic years ago! And in that same year her article was published as the first newspaper article ever written by an Icelandic woman. Two years later she was asked to give a lecture on the position and rights of women, the first woman to do so, and her performance was well received by audience and press alike.

You might think this is where her career took off, but you’d be mistaken. In 1887 she married Valdimar, the editor who published her article, and dedicated herself entirely to the role of wife and soon mother of two. Her husband tried to convince her to start a career in the newspaper business, editing a women’s paper but she wouldn’t be persuaded. Only in 1894 would she return to the political landscape, founding a women’s society in Reykjavík that propagated gender equality. And a year later she would go into journalism after all, founding Iceland’s first women’s magazine, Kvennablaðið (which literally means “women’s magazine). The paper focused on home and educational reform and quickly became popular with the country’s population and was widely circulated.

In 1902 Bríet’s husband suddenly died. Not only did she find herself a single mother now but she was also left alone with not only her magazine but his publications as well. For a while she took the workload, editing his paper as well as a small journal for children and of course her own magazine. After two years she decided it was time that she got a break and booked a trip to Scandinavia. Travelling Denmark, Norway and Sweden she met many interesting women and saw much and so the trip became a study trip as well as a well-earned holiday. For the first time Bríet realized there was an international women’s movement and in 1906 she was invited to the congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in Copenhagen.

Inspired she returned home and promptly opened the conversation about women’s suffrage. While she had been abroad however the feminist groups had dispersed; her original women’s society had ceased to be political after its president died and there were no feminist publications left. But that only motivated Bríet even more and in 1907 the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association was founded in Reykjavík. She began travelling around the country, organizing public meetings and founding branches of her association. In that same year women were allowed to be elected to city council – an early success! It was however difficult to find women willing to even stand for election, but Bríet stepped forward and soon three others followed. All of them were elected to Reykjavík city council in 1908. Bríet got to work immediately and introduced many educational reforms, like school physicians and nurses, swimming lessons for girls, playgrounds and many more. Bríet’s work now truly bore fruit. In 1911 women were given the same rights in education, scholarships and all schools were opened to women as well as men. In 1913 she was elected for a second term in the city council.

Along the way Bríet also took care of her children’s education and in 1910 her eldest, Laufey Valdimarsdóttir was the first woman to graduate from Reykjavik High School with the highest grade possible! Both, Laufey and her younger brother Héðinn Valdimarsson became politicians themselves. But that came much later.

In 1920 Bríet’s quest was won: women received equal suffrage rights. Coincidentally it was also the 25th anniversary of her magazine, the Kvennablaðið. It had propagated all of the rights for women that had slowly been implemented since and although it had lost a lot of its following one its focus shifted to more political topics, the paper prevailed. Now that  the vote was granted, all women who had previously been indifferent to the suffragists’ work streamed to the polls, eager to make their voices heard. And Bríet saw her chance. After she had unsuccessfully tried to run for parliament in 1916, she tried again ten years later. Unfortunately she was not elected once again or she would have been the first woman in a country’s parliament, but as it is she was the first woman to run for a seat.

Then it became quiet around our brave suffragette. Her Women’s Association became less of a partisan group and instead focused to support women in their daily lives. The struggle was over and Bríet returned to her life as an editor. For over ten years she was able to enjoy the world she helped to create until she passed away in 1940. She lived to see the fruit of her labour and made the world a better place for her children and theirs – and she did it on her terms.

image credits:

1: “Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, Icelandic leader of women’s suffrage” by Magnús Ólafsson (ca. 1886 – 1890) – Link
2: Picture of the young Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, ca. 1880 – Link
3: Valdímar Ásmundsson, his wife Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir and their children Laufey and Héðinn around 1900. – Link
4: undated photograph of Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, probably around 1880 – Link
5: image obtained from Óðinn, May 1908, page 12