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When widowhood was the only way into the boardroom

Anna Kortelainen's report collects the early history of women as business leaders

When widowhood was the only way into the boardroom
When widowhood was the only way into the boardroom
When widowhood was the only way into the boardroom
When widowhood was the only way into the boardroom
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Kristiina Yli-Kovero
      Dr. Anna Kortelainen is a researcher in art history and on the staff of Helsinki University. She has often written about women, including a biography of the early years of L.Onerva, Finland's first major female poet, and a collection of essays about Virginie, the enigmatic muse and model of 19th century realist painter Albert Edelfelt.
      Muses and other pretty nymphs were looking down from the painted ceiling of the lavish Mirror Room at Helsinki's Hotel Kämp on Thursday when Kortelainen's latest work was published. It is a report produced for EVA, the Finnish Business and Policy Forum think tank, and examines the first female company directors and managers in Finnish industry and commerce.
Kortelainen has sought out women of influence in the world of business from the time of Swedish rule (-1809) through to the first decades of Finnish independence.
      Those few women that there were in executive positions in the early days did not find themselves between the leather-bound covers of books that listed captains of industry. Many a career went unrecorded, because the women's part was to help her husband and her family, and to share leadership without ever getting any public recognition for it.
      The women worked in the shadow of their men because for a very long time only the man was a social actor, an individual.
The report mentions for instance the case of Eva Ahlström (1848-1920), whose career path took her from governess to housewife and - after the death of her husband Antti Ahlström in 1896 - to become an owner-director of the large family business that still exists today as a listed company on the Helsinki Exchanges.
      The Ahlströms are a powerful dynasty in Finnish industrial history, but the family's history has largely been written by - and about - men. Even in the family portrait the mother of seven is practically an extra, her facial features left only half-finished by the painter.
The female business leaders of the old days were in many ways exceptional women, points out Kortelainen. The sort who had been born with a man's brain or who were completely of a new age, often at odds with women around them.
      In her view they were nevertheless not superhuman creatures or women in men's clothing, but simply determined and diligent representatives of their sex. "And there would have been more of them, if the Finnish laws of the time had provided the opportunity."
The law conspired equally with attitudes to limit women's progress up the corporate ladder. Until 1864, women were officially under guardianship or wardship, in the sense that they were not deemed competent of managing their own affairs, and as late as 1929 men represented them before the law. Against this background, the only way for a woman to become an entrepreneur was by marrying well and then being widowed, just as Eva Ahlström did.
      Work was also a passion, one that was not extinguished even though a woman would have had a large - huge by today's standards - family to look after.
      The report describes the Turku businesswoman and shopowner Aline Grönberg (1871-1950), who on her deathbed, surrounded by her family and relatives, is said to have expired with the words: "Say thank you to all the customers!"
Kortelainen's report proceeds in chapters that have been titled by days of the week.
      Monday is the start of the working week and provides an introduction to women in management. The book moves on day by day towards the weekend and a summary and references forward to the modern era.
      Kortelainen also throws out some challenging questions. If a woman as a manager in those days was a scary individual and a bad mother, then how are things today?
The early part of the book consists mainly of short sketches of female executives and directors who have been lost in the mists of history. Towards the close there are some more exhaustive studies of more familiar women, such as Hella Wuolijoki (1886-1954, author, playwright, Marxist, associate of Bertold Brecht, and from 1945-49 the Director-General of the Finnish Broadcasting Company), Miina Sillanpää (1866-1952, journalist and chairwoman, one of the first Finnish female MPs in 1906, and the first female Minister [of Social Affairs] in 1926), Minna Canth (1844-1897, novelist, playwright, social activist, store owner, and from this year the first Finnish woman to have a flag day - March 19th), and Mia Backman (1877-1958, actress, director, and influential theatre manager).
The work forms part of EVA's "Women to the Top!" project, which is being carried out in collaboration with Helsinki University.
      The leader of the report's steering group, the Kone Corporation Chairman Anti Herlin, noted in his speech at the launch that EVA itself could afford to play the gender card in its own house.
      The comment was a telling one. The think tank's Supervisory Board has not one woman among its three chairmen and just two among the 22 other members, while the only female representative on the 8-person Board of Directors is Anne Brunila, the President and CEO of the Finnish Forest Industries Federation.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.5.2007
For those who understand Finnish, Anne Kortelainen's report, entitled Varhaiset johtotähdet - Suomen ensimmäisiä johtajanaisia, can be read in its entirety on the EVA website, linked below.

Previously in HS International Edition:
  Albert Edelfelt´s mysterious Virginie is an enduring myth in Finnish art history (11.5.2004)

  Finnish Business and Policy Forum, EVA
  Report, in Finnish (.pdf file)

KRISTIINA YLI-KOVERO / Helsingin Sanomat

  15.5.2007 - THIS WEEK
 When widowhood was the only way into the boardroom

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