Celebrating Finland’s prime minister tests gender parity and fitness

The young Finnish Prime Minister breathed deeply and looked straight at the cameras. She said she regretted that the loud pictures of a late-night party with her friends had made their way into the public eye.

But she has also made clear her belief that stopping unseen partisan movements does not conflict with her duties in the state.

Finland is known globally as a pioneer in the field of gender equality. But despite the country’s progressive traditions, many here believe the 36-year-old Sanna Marin, who has been in office for just over two years, is held to stricter standards than any male leader in similar circumstances.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who appears at the European Parliament building, speaks during a press conference on Tuesday.

(Getty Images)

“When you break glass ceilings, you will naturally get scratched,” said Tarja Halonen, the country’s oldest prime minister, 78, who was Finland’s first female president. “Women in general tend to be measured not by the substance of their politics, but by their appearance, clothing, or marital status.”

To outsiders, weeks-long summer squabbles over the prime minister’s after-hours activities may seem like a storm in a Nordic teapot. But the coming at a particularly dangerous moment in international affairs – most notably the war in Ukraine – has sparked debate about what constitutes appropriate propriety.

“It’s not about whether or not she can party,” Juna Razanin, the leader of the Marin party in the metropolitan area, told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. “Everyone has the right to a private life, but don’t publish it.”

Marin’s advocates argue that she has repeatedly demonstrated her serious commitment to the job, taking thoughtful positions on the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, as well as charting a path toward membership in NATO — a sharp break with longstanding state policy.

Despite these accomplishments, she is often haunted by the focus on the way she dresses and behaves. A writer for Vogue noted her accomplishments, but she also focused on her sense of fashion. In October 2020, when Marin was only in the position for a few months, a protest erupted over a cover photo of her in Finnish women’s magazine Trendi, in which she wore a shirtless jacket underneath.

“If you had to generalize, men would say it’s wrong, and women say it’s great,” Marie Palusalo Gucinmaki, a spokeswoman for one of the magazines, told CNN at the time. Marin said the designer made the wardrobe call.

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

Although there is an income lag—Finnish earns about 85 cents on the euro, compared to men—women hold 91 of the 200 parliamentary seats, and hold nearly 60% of advanced degrees awarded in the country.

Halonen, who was elected president in 2000 and served two six-year terms, was an outstanding example of Finland’s female-friendly political environment. She held large ministerial portfolios on her head. Forbes ranked her among the 100 most powerful women in the world – a distinction later awarded to Mariner – and her approval rating peaked at 88%.

However, even she saw herself held to “higher standards, and certainly different standards” during her public tenure. “Many issues that were normal for male chiefs had to be considered if they were also appropriate for a female chief,” she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

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

Marin’s clubbing habits ran into critics in December 2021, when she went out to town with her friends over the Finnish Independence Day weekend without her official phone. Government officials who found out that the prime minister had been exposed to COVID-19 were unable to access her until the next day. (She did not get sick.)

In August of this year, a leaked video of the prime minister dancing unfettered at a private residential party in Helsinki went viral, with critics noting that the early morning episode came shortly before the start of the working day. Marin voluntarily took and passed a drug test, although she said it was unfair that she had a responsibility to provide evidence that she was not using any illegal substance.

But her problems are not over yet. A few days later, a Tiktok picture of two topless women kissing at the prime minister’s state-owned residence surfaced, partially obscured by the country identification tag that the prime minister usually uses during international virtual events. Marin said the photo was inappropriate and apologized, but added, “Other than that, nothing unusual happened at the meeting.”

By then, the partisan narrative had captured the world’s attention. Hillary Clinton tweeted to the prime minister, who responded with a heart emoji: “Keep dancing.” Women all over the world have posted carefree dance clips of themselves. The late-night comedy was having a field day, with Trevor Noah joking that Marine had taken a video of herself having fun because she actually had “friends young enough to know how to use the phone.”

The Finns, though, found it all a little less fun. A poll conducted by Helsingin Sanomat showed that 42% of those surveyed believed that Marine’s image had been damaged by party flap. As the spring 2023 election approaches, Marin’s SPD has a slight majority, but the party’s demographics skew away from the elderly and the working class, leading to a potential slide in support.

“The world sees the Finnish prime minister enjoying life, but people see it here as clubs on the public dime,” said communications consultant Harry Sukuma.

Although Maren expressed her displeasure with the leak of photos that she considered private, she has a strong presence on social media, with half a million followers on Twitter and a million on Instagram. This allows her to personalize her own messages, bypassing traditional media, but with the double effect of putting her casual life on display in public.

Halonen, the former president, said the rise of social media has made it difficult for political figures, both men and women, to protect their private lives. As for whether Marin’s problems have damaged Finland’s reputation for pioneering gender equality, she said she had no hope.

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

Hunt is a special correspondent.

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