06 Apr 2018

Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland -- At the beginning, they all called me ‘girl’

Tarja Halonen was called godless, a lesbian and a "girl", but she became president of Finland anyway. Or perhaps being a radical was exactly what helped her succeed? The former Lady President explains. 

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Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland -- At the beginning, they all called me ‘girl’ - NewsMavens
Tarja Halonen (Fot. Lehtikuva/East News)

The following are fragments from Marta Bałaga's interview with the former President of Finland, Tarja Halonen. The original appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.

Former Finnish President Tarja Halonen looks like Conan O’Brien. No, wait – it’s Conan O’Brien that looks like Tarja Halonen. When she ran for reelection in 2006, the American comedian acknowledged this as sufficient reason to support her candidacy, though he has no affiliation with Finland. The elections ads he produced leave no doubt as to why.

“Is it me, or have the fish gotten bigger since Tarja Halonen became president?” a Finn asks in one of them. “It’s not you,” her companion replies. “Thanks to Tarja, both man and fish have prospered [....] Tarja Halonen is the clear choice.”

Though her presidency has already come to an end, many seem to agree with this statement. In a small café in Kallio, the working-class neighborhood of Helsinki where Halonen was born, she still has her own table. A discreet brass plaque marks the spot and The President still comes here at least once a month. One day, we asked her, “would you like your own corner?” recounts Netta Englblom, as she served sandwiches to a couple of tourists. “No one bothers her. She sits by herself with a cup of coffee, as we work over here behind the counter. And it’s well... I don’t know... just normal.”

Marta Bałaga: Labor unions, where you started out, played an enormous role in establishing democracy, but they aren't famous for their equal treatment of women.

Tarja Halonen: SAK (The Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions) was completely dominated by men. My colleagues showed me respect, but deep down they regarded me as a strange phenomenon. I still remember my first day at work. That morning the phone rang, and a man’s voice asked to speak with an attorney. “Speaking,” I answered. A long pause followed, and then, “And how long have women been employed in this position?” I answered, “Since today.”

When people realized that I was in fact the lawyer they were supposed to speak to, they usually needed a little time to think about it. The gentleman in question also had to digest, but eventually he presented his problem. That's the way it usually went. After a few months, they started inviting me to meetings, and I began to specialize in wildcat strikes. But at the beginning, they all called me “girl.”


MB: Your election didn’t come easily. Critics said you didn’t observe conservative values: you lived in an informal partnership [Halonen married her long-time partner only after her inauguration—MB], and you were a single parent.

TH: I think that for some the fact that I belonged to the Social Democratic Party and was a woman was enough. Beyond that I presented myself as a radical.

For years I fought for minority rights, including sexual minorities.

That was also what I’d done during my student years. As secretary of the National Union of Students I knew that the lack of access to contraceptives was an important problem for female students. From that time into the ‘70s in Finland we had harsh anti-abortion laws, and contraceptives were still new and far from common. We’d just started talking about sex.

When I attempted to obtain funding for these purposes one parliament member said, “Students should be studying and not having sex.” I told him, “Yes, but sometimes it happens, and then they can no longer continue their studies.” Fortunately they didn’t all think that way and I was able to get the funding I needed. The advancement of rights for sexual minorities, however, has been much slower. 

MB: Abortion and contraception are rights that women are still fighting for. Is that frustrating for you?

TH: That is exactly why I’m still active in EWEC [Every Woman, Every Child], an organization established by UN Secretary Ban Ki-moonwhere we focus on the rights of women and children. It’s an ongoing struggle.

MB:  You officially left the Church in the 1960s. Why?

TH: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland was opposed to the ordination of women - that was one of the reasons. Beyond that, I didn’t like the way that homosexuals were treated in the Church. […]

MB: But now you belong to the Church again. Politicians in many countries start attending religious services when they run for office. You returned to the Church at the end of your second term.

TH: During the campaign, my opponents called me an atheist and a lesbian, completely ignoring the fact that I had a daughter, and I’d been with my present husband, then partner, for twenty years.

Women in high positions are always suspect.

Our Church has changed over the years -- we now have a woman bishop [Pastor Irja Askola]. I did not, however, want my return to the Church to be seen as a calculated move to please conservative voters.

I’ve worked with many Christian organizations, and when accusations of godlessness were thrown my way, many priests stood in my defense. They said that though I do not belong to their community, I have proven many times that I am a good Christian. All the same, I still believe that religion should be for the people, and not for politicians.

MB: Is faith important to you?

TH: I am guided mainly by the message of the New Testament which is very practical and Finnish-like: you can’t just think about yourself in life.

A few years ago, I spent some time at Harvard, and students remarked that I often spoke in the plural. And maybe I do that because of my opinions about the environment or the idea of sustainable development. It’s not about us, but about others, about the next generation.

It always amuses me that so many politicians who belong to the Church don’t seem particularly interested in ethics.

MB: People like Donald Trump, often wielding enormous power, don’t think in terms of “we” either.  It’s always “I” with them.

TH: And this is where you see the double standard -- a woman could never get away with such behavior. I was in the United States when they started talking about the [2016] elections. I know Hillary Clinton, and when I heard the remarks aimed at her, I understood that it would be difficult for her to win. In Finland there’s also dirty tricks in politics, but never on such a scale.

My first campaign was all about my sex, of course, but also about being something new on our political stage. I’m not saying that I’m like Trump, but I was also regarded as a radical. Not even members of my own party believed in my victory. Today, it’s not enough to be a woman, because women’s votes alone don’t guarantee victory. Not everyone will support you just because you’re one of them -- that’s what happened to Hillary.


MB: The report from your first visit to Sweden was dominated by deliberations about your purse, which earned you the nickname, “Moominmama,” for the Finnish cartoon character. Were you hurt by this?

TH: The journalist who coined the term didn’t mean any harm. The Swedes love the Moomins and since that happened I’ve been very popular over there [laughs]. Unfortunately, one of the Finnish women’s magazines took the matter very seriously. The editors suggested that I should at least be informed that elegant bags need to be significantly smaller. That irritated me.

Should a head of state really ask foreigners whether her bag is the right size when planning an official visit?


MB: Women are always being asked things that men are not. Like how to balance professional obligations with family, for example.

TH: True, but we often do look at these things differently. I’ll give you an example. The recent leader of the Social Democratic Party of Finland was Jutta Urpilainen, former Minister of Finance. When potential candidates for President were considered, she was the natural choice. She had both the experience and the popularity. Beyond that, we thought that the Party should support another woman. She, however, declined. When we spoke, she explained that after years of unsuccessful attempts to have a baby, she decided to adopt a little boy from Latin America. She wanted to focus on her family and think about politics again in a few years. Voters respected her decision, and finally I did as well, though major chaos broke out in our party in the meantime.

I think that this is the biggest difference between women and men. If she were a man, his wife would most likely take care of the child, while he went out to conquer the world.


Tarja Halonen (b. 1943) – attorney, member of parliament and social activist in Finland. She was named Minister of Justice in 1990; Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1995. In 1971 become a member of the Social Democratic Party of Finland. In 1980-81 she directed the organization SETA (“Sexual Equality”), acting on behalf minorities’ sexual rights. In the years 2000-12 she was President of Finland for two terms as the first, and so far the only, woman to ever hold the position.

--Trans. by David Goldfarb

--Original on Wysokie Obcasy


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