Men and Feminism: Gender Equality in the Nordic Countries, 1960s to Present

DR HANNAH YOKEN

I’m a Finnish historian who lived in the UK for nearly a decade. When I tell my British friends and colleagues where I’m from, they often respond with an air of admiration, complimenting the relatively egalitarian principles upon which Nordic social democracy has been built. 

Certainly, this notion that the Nordic countries are forerunners in equality – particularly gender equality and women’s rights – is not without historical merit. For example, in 1906 Finland was the first country in the world to give women full suffrage, and the right for women to run for political office followed the year after. When the first Finnish parliament was assembled in 1907, 19 of the 200 members elected were women – the first female parliamentarians in the world. Leaping ahead in time, in the 21st century Sweden has become the epitome of state feminism, where most political parties support feminist principles

What gets discussed less often are the ways in which men have factored into Nordic endeavours for gender equality – both supporting and hindering feminist aspirations, depending on context. This blog post is a whirlwind introduction covering a few snapshots from 20th century Nordic history – more precisely Finnish and to a lesser extent Swedish history – when men have allied themselves with women and sought to promote a more equal society.[1]

The Nordic Sex Role Debate

In 1974 Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce parental leave. This gave fathers the right to a maximum of three months paid leave, though this right could be transferred to the mother. In the 1980s this parental leave was split into maternity and paternity leave, with a so-called ‘father quota’ being introduced in 1995. This meant that part of the parental leave was strictly reserved for fathers and could not be used by mothers. A so-called ‘use it or lose it’ policy, it was put in place to encourage fathers to actively take part in domestic care work and family life. While this legislative trajectory is not identical across the Nordic region, the Swedish narrative provides the overall pattern that other Nordic countries have followed.[2]

Figure 1. Photo of a father and son (1957-1961)

These legislative changes can be traced back to the Nordic sex role debates of the 1960s. The initial discussion surrounding sex roles – the roles men and women were expected to conform to within e.g. the workplace and at home – was initiated by Nordic sociologists, who argued that people needed to be viewed as individuals, instead of being categorised into ‘women’ and ‘men’.[3]

In 1961 the Swedish journalist Eva Moberg published her provocatively titled essay ‘Kvinnans villkorliga frigivning’ (‘The Conditional Liberation of Women’). In this essay Moberg argued that all individuals, both men and women, should have one primary role in society – that of a human being. Questions surrounding women and men’s sex roles soon spread from scholarly circles into the mainstream primarily thanks to Nordic media outlets covering the debate vigorously. By the mid-1960s the discussion became championed especially by liberal and left-wing intellectuals – both men and women. By the end of the decade, the sex role debate had traversed national borders and become a staple part of the region’s socio-political discussion. 

Inspired by Swedish media reportage, in 1966 a group of young Finnish men and women established Yhdistys 9 (Association 9), the purpose of which was to encourage the discussion of sex roles. The group able demanded concrete socio-political action, like the introduction of accessible and affordable childcare. Approximately 1/3 of the association’s members were men. 

Yhdistys 9 emphasised that men had the right to have loving and affectionate relationships with their children, as well as the responsibility to take part in domestic labour like cleaning and cooking. On 10th November 1968, which was also Finnish Father’s Day, the association published a proclamation titled ‘Mieskin on ihminen’ (‘A Man Is Also a Human’), which stated:

Men form a privileged group, they say. This claim is easy to prove as a partial truth, since men have created a dangerous world for themselves. The consequences of the masculine sex role can be seen already during boyhood in terrifying accident statistics. Boys are forced to demonstrate bravery and audacity, they are taught to idolise the ability to sustain injuries and to take risks. (…) The expectation is that he can provide for his family even when the opportunities to do so are scant. (…) Men, demand the right to be as close with your children as the mother.[4]

Later that day the proclamation was was discussed on Finnish public television. The newsreader began the programme by declaring:

Men, demand the right to a longer life expectancy. Demand the right to better health. Demand the opportunity to free yourself from the role of a standard of living providing robot. Demand the right to show your emotions even when you’re not at an ice hockey game or drunk. This and much more was contained in the proclamation delivered today, on Father’s Day, by Yhdistys 9.[5]

Though not all Finnish men were supportive of the association’s work, seeing it as overly liberal and reformist, more than half of the Finnish population followed the sex role debates as they played out in the country’s mainstream media.

The Nordic sex role debate ushered in a new model of masculinity, where men were encouraged to be active and caring fathers and husbands. Writing on the Swedish context, Roger Klinth has referred the debate’s political aspects as ‘papa politics’. Researchers Florin and Nilsson have correspondingly coined the term ‘velour daddy’, referring to how in Sweden a new ‘softer’ masculinity was visible even in how men dressed, with androgynous and unisex fashion gaining popularity from the late 1960s onward. 

The Men’s Liberation Movement

The Nordic sex role debate was a regionally distinctive chapter of post-war feminist history, during which both women and men sought to promote gender equality. From the early 1970s onward an explicitly feminist form of activism emerged, known as the women’s liberation movementInspired by women-led initiatives in North America and Europe, this social movement saw women mobilising around themes like abortion rights, bodily autonomy and equal pay. Inspired by feminist activism in other countries, Nordic women formed discussion groups, known as consciousness raising groups, where they could openly discuss their experiences, feelings and emotions. These groups tended to exclude men in favour of being women-only spaces. 

The women’s liberation movement gave birth to the men’s liberation movement, which consisted of men who supported the feminist cause. The Finnish men’s liberation group Adam existed from the mid-1970s into the early 1980s and was comprised solely of men, primarily of the partners or ex-partners of women active in the Finnish feminist movement. The origins of the small advocacy group were described by one of the group’s founding members during an oral history interview as follows: 

In 1974, the feminist movement had begun in Finland. The movement had smart women in it and I of course had fallen in love with one of them, but it didn’t last very long. And then when it began to look like we were going to break up this smart woman said to me ‘by the way, there’s a men’s group where you can learn how to deal with these problems related to our separation’. So I obediently did just that, and it became important to me, very quickly.[6]

The Adam group sought to problematize and break down the traditional roles that Finnish men had been afforded within society and in their interpersonal relationships. Its members did so by striving to discuss their emotions more openly than they were used to during consciousness raising meetings. They also practised showing their emotions physically by hugging and engaging in other forms of platonic bodily male affection.[7]

While fatherhood was only one among many masculine roles that the Adam group sought to explore, it provided a central theme throughout the group’s activities. The group organised summer camps in the Finnish countryside, where fathers could spend quality time with their children.[8]

Figure 2. Photo of a father pulling a child on a sledge (1977)

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

International news regarding sexual harassment (the #MeToo movement in 2017) and women’s physical safety and bodily autonomy (the murder of Sarah Everard in the spring of 2021) has once again sparked wide scale social debate within Finland, with men both adamantly siding and vehemently disagreeing with these global feminist social media campaigns. Most recently sexism and sexual violence within the Finnish punk rock scene came under fire, with the launch of the viral hashtag #punkstoo followed by other similar hashtags like #hippiestoo and #metaltoo. 

Both the sex role debate of the 1960s and the men’s liberation movement of the 1970s-1980s sought to problematize how men were impeded by rigid social and cultural gender roles under patriarchy, while also acknowledging the inherent privilege that being a man oftentimes afforded. Though terminology has changed over the years, there has recently been a renaissance of pro-feminist men’s activism in Finland that can be understood as building on these existing foundations and belonging to the same historical continuum. Established on International Men’s Day in 2018, Miehet Ry (Men’s Association) is a new Finnish feminist group for men, women and non-binary people, which holds intersectionality and anti-racism as its core tenets. 

While the internet is undeniably rife with misogynistic voices staunchly opposing anything even remotely associated with feminism, I have sought to illuminate the ways in which men have supported feminist causes over the past half-decade. While these examples originate from Nordic history, I see them as being universally relevant. I hope that this blog post provides you with a better understanding of history, but also food for thought. What are the tangible steps we can take towards ensuring gender equality in the future?

Dr Hannah Yoken is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History and Ethnology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Prior to this she held a Learning, Teaching and Scholarship position in History at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD thesis (Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow, 2020) focused on transnational feminist activism in the Nordic countries during the 1960s-1990s and was funded by the AHRC in doctoral training partnership with SGSAH, and the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland.

Cover image and Figure 2. Erkki Salmela, ‘Photo of a father pulling a child on a sledge’ (1977). Available in the public domain and recommended by the author.

Figure 1. Teuvo Kanerva, ‘Photo of a father and son (1957-1961). Available in the public domain and recommended by the author.


[1] For a similar overview in the UK see e.g. Lucy Delap’s article ’Men and Feminism’ on the British Library website: https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/articles/male-allies

[2] Linda Haas and Tine Rostgaard, ‘Fathers’ rights to paid parental leave in the Nordic countries: consequences for the gendered division of leave’, Community, Work & Family, 14:2 (2011), pp. 177-195.

[3] Solveig Bergman, ‘Collective Organizing and Claim Making on Child Care in Norden: Blurring the Boundaries between the Inside and the Outside’, Social Politics, vol.11 no.2 (2004), p. 222.

[4] This extract has been translated by Dr Hannah Yoken. The original Finnish-language proclamation appears in the personal essay collection Roolien murtajat: Tasa-arvokeskutelua 1960-luvulta 2000-luvulle (Helsinki: Gaudeamus, 2008), p.35.

[5] Extract translated by Dr Hannah Yoken from the original Finnish-language broadcast, available online at: https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2006/09/08/naisasiajarjesto-yhdistys-9     

[6] Oral history interview with former Adam group member. Interview conducted in Helsinki, Finland on 19th August 2014. 

[7] Pia Ingström, Lentävä feministi ja muita muistoja 70-luvulta (Keuruu: Schlidts Kustannus Oy, 2007), pp. 228-234.; Arja Turunen, ‘Synnytysloma isille?: vanhempainvapaat ja sukupuolten tasa-arvo’, What the Hela?, published on 19thFebruary 2020. 

[8] Ingström, Lentävä feministi.

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One Comment on “Men and Feminism: Gender Equality in the Nordic Countries, 1960s to Present

  1. Pingback: Men and Feminism: Gender Equality in the Nordic Countries, 1960s to Present — History Journal – Historytalker

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