From women’s rights to feminism

In November 2016, the General Assembly of National Union of University Students in Finland decided to declare SYL a feminist organization. In his open letter on the debate about the decision, the then President, Heikki Koponen, stated that “As a feminist organization, SYL will promote the equal treatment of people of all genders.”

Promoting gender equality is not new for SYL. Throughout its 100-year history, SYL’s attitudes towards gender equality, the women’s movement and feminism have kept pace with sea changes in student politics.

The 1970s and 1980s: Women enter leadership positions in SYL

The growing number of women in universities, the student world and politics was also reflected in SYL. SYL had been fairly male-dominated until the 1970s, when the first female member of the Board was elected. “I found it surprising that I was the first. After all, the student unions had women members. There were more of us in the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, but since SYL Board members were elected by several groups, only one member was a woman,” recalls Helena Raumolin-Brunberg.

“The first time that I recall the women’s issue making an appearance was the celebration of International Women’s Day in 1975,” writes long-serving office secretary, Seija Silventoinen, in her memoir ‘Näin sen näin’. At that time, SYL participated in the committee preparing the World Congress, held in Berlin, of the UN International Women’s Year.

The number of women on SYL’s Board grew during the decade, but women still encountered prejudices in student politics. For example, the composition of the SYL delegation sometimes led to awkward situations in international cooperation, when women arrived from Finland to negotiate on student matters.

The first female Chairperson of SYL was Marjo Timonen, who has recently retired from the position of Director of Information and Communications of Parliament,. “– media, such as the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, ran a lead story that a woman had been elected Chairperson of SYL. This brought us quite a lot of publicity. Then, during my second year on the Board, 1981, we even had a female majority on SYL’s Board for a while,” recalls Timonen.

In the early 1980s, women’s affairs rose even higher up SYL’s advocacy agenda. At the beginning of the decade, SYL cooperated with various actors in organizing several seminars on the status of women, such as a seminar in Turku entitled “A sexist culture as a harasser of women (and men)”, which was attended by more than 300 participants. In 1983, the first women’s meeting was held.

In the 1980s, SYL’s own women’s network, SYL sisters, was established. The women’s network was considered particularly necessary because the men had traditionally organized gentlemen’s and similar clubs. The aim was therefore to promote the networking of women. The SYL sisters still meet at least once a year.

The 1990s: From women’s activities to gender equality

In the early 1990s, the General Assembly decided to move the focus from action on behalf of women to promoting equality. In the 1990s, women’s forums and debates were still being held with the women MPs. Women’s rights and equality were also strongly highlighted in SYL’s international work, with SYL members participating in several seminars of what was then the ESIB, as advocates of women’s rights and equality.

In the 1990s, equality issues increasingly cut across SYL’s activities and, by the middle of the decade, equality was being discussed more often alongside women’s rights. After the mid-1990s, SYL’s debates and publications on equal rights focused more broadly on equality and fairness within the university community and society, as well as intergenerational equality. “Five equality meetings in 1998 considered women’s research and equality in working life; gender equality in student admissions, teaching and research careers; sexual equality and men’s activities; education among the Roma; the status of foreign students; and problems encountered by people with disabilities,” writes Seija Silventoinen in her memoirs.

The 2010s: Equality and feminism as guiding values

In the early 2000s, the Chairpersons of SYL had almost without exception been men except in 2002, when Elina Moisio was Chairperson.In the 2010s, specific account began to be taken of gender in appointments, and the gender balance of Board members has evened out since then. In the 2010s, it has also been customary to elect a Vice-Chairperson whose gender differs from that of the Chairperson.

In 2016, SYL became a supporting member of Seta ry and declared itself a feminist organization by a decision of the General Assembly. As important values for SYL, equality, fairness and non-discrimination continue to guide its daily lobbying activities.