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Gripenberg, Aleksandra (1857 - 1913)

member of Parliament, writer, feminist

Aleksandra Gripenberg
Literature Archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Baroness Aleksandra Gripenberg was the best-known Finnish feminist abroad at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. At home she was well known as the long-serving chairwoman of Suomen Naisyhdistys, the Women's Society of Finland, as the editor of its magazine and as a Finnish Party Member of Parliament.

Aleksandra Gripenberg was a member of the Swedish-speaking upper class in the traditional society of 'estates', and her attitude towards the Finnish-speaking ordinary citizen was often coloured by prejudices and a feeling of superiority; as the socialists put it in their election song in spring 1907, "She's grand and plump, Miss Kreepenpary, and her blood is blue; about the working woman's lot she hasn't got a clue." Perhaps this strong-willed hothead from a well-known military family should be "seen in a historical context", as she herself said that she did with the regard to the failings of the Finns.

Aleksandra Gripenberg's father, the senator and baron Johan Gripenberg, had a total of 17 children from two marriages; Aleksandra was the second-youngest and the only one to be educated entirely at home. For the daughter stuck at home, the last years of her father, sister, maternal grandmother and mother were like "a spiritual desert", and she described her development thus to a friend: "Oh, is it any wonder that my melancholic character, which was like that at the start in any case, has got the upper hand, when my entire youth has been spent among the old and the sick?" This black world of experience may also explain the uncompromising religiosity which became and remained her basic idea; it was only with the permission of this idea that others were allowed to emerge. She sought and found a way of venting her loneliness: writing. At the age of 14, she wrote a short story which prompted none other than Zachris Topelius to encourage her to continue, and six years later a modest collection entitled Berättelser ('Short Stories') appeared under a nom de plume. This was the real beginning of her many-sided literary oeuvre.

In the 1880s, Aleksandra Gripenberg broke free into an independent life, discovering her resources and strong points and also her mission in life. At the beginning of the decade she lived for two years at the home of Emilie and Zachris Topelius at Koivuniemi in the Sipoo district, working as Zachris Topelius' secretary. Under a nom de plume, she published Strån ('The Straws') in 1884 and I tätnande led ('In Great Numbers') in 1886. In these works, she used Topelian strains to promote the cause of women, the ideals of morality and abstention from alcohol, and 'Finnishness' as a vital issue for Finland. She planned a future as a literary writer, though she was forced to recognise her linguistic limitedness - the fact that as a Finland Swede she would never achieve in Finnish the natural ease typical of her Swedish writings.

In 1887 Aleksandra Gripenberg went to England with the idea of literary subject-matter in mind, but the trip completely changed her plans for the future; as a representative of the Women's Society of Finland (Suomen Naisyhdistys), she went on from England to the United States, where the International Council of Women (ICW) was being formed at the time. Becoming acquainted with leading figures in the American women's movement opened her eyes to the social significance of feminist activities, and she decided to abandon her literary daydreams and to devote herself to the awakening and enlightenment of Finnish women. Although the decision was painful - and continued to hurt even much later on - the fact is that not even by means of the best tendential novel would she have been able to reach such wide circles as she did through her activities with the Women's Society of Finland.

The central objective of the Women's Society of Finland was to open up all areas of training and work to women and in due course to gain for them the right to vote and stand as candidates in national, local and church elections. The oldest histories of the society make no mention at all of the schism as a result of which members who had resigned or been expelled founded a new association, Unioni Naisasialiitto Suomessa (current English name: Unioni the League of Finnish Feminists). But a history of the latter organisation accuses the leadership of the Women's Society of Finland and above all its chairwoman Aleksandra Gripenberg of narrow-mindedness, dictatorial actions and the arbitrary interpretation of rules and regulations. Aleksandra Gripenberg herself later remembered having sacrificed "almost everything" that she had on behalf of women's issues.

Aleksandra Gripenberg also played a prominent role in international feminist activities. She was a member of the leadership of the International Council of Women, organised its national bodies in eastern and southern Europe, read papers at congresses, wrote and gave interviews. The foreign 'demand' for her and other Finnish feminists simply grew after the parliamentary reform; and, like other women, she acted to make people aware not only of women's issues but also of Finland's political position. A long-cherished dream of hers became reality when the National Council of Women of Finland (former Finnish name: Suomen Naisten Kansallisliitto; current Finnish name: Suomen Naisjärjestöjen Keskusliitto) was founded in 1911.

In 1904, on the eve of universal voting and election rights, Aleksandra Gripenberg gave up the chair of the Women's Society of Finland in order to concentrate on politics. She reacted sceptically to the right of women to vote and did not regard their gaining of the right to stand for election as timely. "We're not ready", was her argument. This, however, did not prevent her from becoming - if reluctantly - a parliamentary candidate of the Finnish Party (Suomalainen puolue), a member of the party commission and the chairwoman of the women's committee. In her view, parliament needed competent members acting in a spirit of patriotism and not primarily men or women; and - as she wrote in her magazine - the way in which the women MPs acted would determine how soon women in Britain and the United States gained the right to vote.

Aleksandra Gripenberg was elected to Parliament as the member for the southern electorate of Turku Province, receiving the largest number of votes there; of the 19 female MPs, she had the greatest support after the socialist Hilja Pärssinen. Her adjustment to parliamentary work was made easier by the fact that she enjoyed the general respect of her party's parliamentary group and that among the party's six female MPs was Hilda Käkikoski, who had already been her supporter and colleague for decades. The party's women representatives worked as a closely-knit group, and the issues that they pushed - an improvement of the position of women and children in general, a prohibition law and questions of morality - were also felt to be important by women MPs of other parties. Parliamentary work often irritated Gripenberg: Finnish-speakers joked about Swedish-speakers' inadequate Finnish; the socialists could be "beyond words", as she sometimes snapped; men looked down on the women; cartoonists went into personal detail in their mockery; and the traditional ways of doing things were very patriarchal. In summary - to use her own words - she felt "as lonely as a pelican in the desert".

For health reasons, Aleksandra Gripenberg was no longer a candidate in the elections of spring 1909. But quitting everyday politics proved difficult for the 51-year-old social activist, especially because of the battle for women's rights. Thus as early as 1909 she was re-elected as chairwoman of the Women's Society of Finland. And she closely followed the activities of Parliament from her position as editor of the society's magazine Koti ja Yhteiskunta ('Home and Society'). She also continued to participate in international feminist work right up to the last - until Christmas Eve, 1913.

Venla Sainio

Translated by Roderick Fletcher

Appendix

Aleksandra Gripenberg, born 30.8.1857 Kurkijoki, died 24.12.1913 Helsinki. Parents: Baron Johan Ulrik Sebastian Gripenberg and Maria Lovisa Öhrnberg.

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