The masculinity behind social reforms

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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The masculinity behind social reforms

By Helene Holmström 


Åbo Akademi University is at the forefront of men’s studies in the field of history in Finland. The history department has recently launched the research project “Male citizenship and social reforms in Finland 1918–1960”, with financial support from the Academy of Finland.


“Men’s studies is a relatively new research field, with roots in the 1970s feminist theories and women’s movements. It arrived in Sweden in the 1990s, and was introduced as a research area within the field of history at Åbo Akademi University at the turn of the millennium,” explains acting Professor of Nordic History Pirjo Markkola.


The researchers within men’s studies share feminist theoreticians’ view of gender and power, but they have a partially different perspective. In gender studies, the analysis of patriarchal power structures and gender equality work are central, while men’s studies also focus on male ideals and constructions of masculinity.

“Men have not been subordinate in history in the same way as women have, but they have functioned as the social norm for what is human, and therefore men’s history does not deal with making men visible, but with problematising masculinity.”

Generally, men’s studies also aim at providing a more varied image of masculinity, and at pointing out that there are an immense number of masculinities that fall outside of the traditional archetypes such as the caveman and the warrior.

“Many men today feel powerless even if they, per definition, practice power,” says doctoral student Anders Ahlbäck.

“From a historical perspective, the genders are changeable. It is not true that women are from Venus and men from Mars,” says Markkola.


New masculinity

A total of four doctoral students and one researcher are engaged in the gender historical research project on Finnish masculinity, which is headed by Pirjo Markkola.

Chronologically, the study begins at the time after the Finnish Civil War in 1918. That was a turbulent period characterised by internal tension, social misery and political conflicts, but also by a will for renewal.

“We will focus on military reform and land reforms,” says Markkola.

With Russia as its neighbour in the east, Finland had to create a total military defence from nothing. The crofters’ law introduced a land reform, which meant that about 900,000 hectares of land was bought off in the countryside. One additional object of renewal was the Finnish citizen who now became a combative and landowning man.

“The ideal image of the Finnish man who tilled the soil, built his home and defended his fatherland was used for propaganda purposes, for example to recruit young men into the army. It was also one of the driving forces behind the land reforms in Finland,” says researcher, Dr. Ann-Catrin Östman.

In hindsight, the relationship of the Finnish man to the Finnish soil has been ascribed enormous significance for how well Finland fought against the Soviet Union in the Winter and Continuation Wars in 1939–1945.

“As land owners the men had something to defend,” Östman points out.


However, the bloody experiences from the battlefields and Finland’s geographical losses made the bellicose male ideal obsolete after the Second World War. The study aims at exploring how Finnish masculinity was constructed and how it changed during the inter- and post-war periods in relation to social reforms.

“Many veterans were traumatised, weak and fragile,” says Ahlbäck.

The research project comprises several sub-projects. The objective of the work of doctoral student Matias Kaihovirta is to make Finland-Swedish workingclass masculinities visible.

“For a long time, masculinity in the working-class was looked down upon. It was associated with corruption, drinking and moral decline. But another image emerged with the trade unions: the good worker who is prepared to carry his social responsibilities.”

Different types of male ideals in texts by the first Professor of Social Politics at the University of Helsinki, Heikki Waris, are the objects of analysis in Hanna Lindberg’s thesis.

“Many perceive Waris as one of the creators of the Finnish welfare state. His texts are seemingly gender-neutral, but when looking at them in more detail, you realise that he operates with various types of masculinities. Of these, the family man is the norm,” says Lindberg.


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