Sanna Marin, Finland’s new leader, is breaking an age-old mould with her progressive politics and female-led cabinet.
Sanna Marin has made a career out of defying what’s expected of a woman in power. Whether that’s posting a photo of her breastfeeding her daughter while holding a position as a Finish politician, showing women can be honest about the realities of being a mother while still being taken seriously in the workplace. Or whether that’s becoming the world’s youngest prime minister at 34, a role she stepped into a little over six weeks ago.
She is Finland’s third female prime minister and leads a coalition government made up of five parties, all led by women – three of whom are also under the age of 35. It’s a much-needed antidote to the chaos we currently know as modern politics, where being middle-aged, middle-class and male feel like requirements.
The momentous appointment saw the whole world take notice. Marin has been lauded as a “rising star” by the BBC. The Helsinki Times referred to her “female- powered cabinet”. Even Finland’s right-wing opposition leader Petteri Orpo called it “amazing”. A tweet with the photos and ages of the coalition leaders went viral, along with the hashtag #NewGeneration.
In fact, Marin’s next-gen ideas have already caused a stir. Just this month, she stated that she believes in a four-day working week because “people deserve to spend more time with their loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture”. The internet went into overdrive. American human rights lawyer Kate Kelly was just one of many on Twitter feeling inspired. “BRB. Moving to Finland,” she wrote. The buzz forced Marin to issue a correction, explaining that while a four-day week is her aspiration for Finland, it’s not yet government policy.
“Among her supporters and the younger generation, excitement and hope for a forward-looking leadership is palpable,” says Finnish reporter Jasmin Ojalainen. “It seems nearly everyone has something to say, most of which is positive. She’s generally regarded as principled, approachable, ambitious, driven and a less ambiguous communicator than her predecessor.”
That predecessor was Antti Rinne, a 57-year-old lawyer who was an MP for four years before becoming prime minister in 2019. He took the country out of 20 years of right-wing governance, leading the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to election success last April. Then it all went wrong. After promising an end to austerity, Rinne’s postal service announced pay cuts, sparking backlash and strikes. He resigned in December after his coalition withdrew support for him, and in came Marin.
The new guard
With a uniform of a black skirt suit and eyeliner flicks, Marin acts as a bridge between the millennial left and traditional politics. Rather than shoehorning herself into the prime ministerial mould, she isn’t ashamed to do things her own way: at a recent press conference she was asked if she would give up social media now that she’s in power. She replied, “I won’t change the way I behave. I’m an individual, a person, a real person, even though I’m prime minister.”
Much in the same way we associate politics with Etonians, being an MP was not something Marin – raised in a rented home rather than a boarding school – always felt was possible. “When I was in high school, I felt that the people who make the policies were quite different and came from different backgrounds than me,” she told Finnish magazine Me Naiset. “At that time I didn’t think it was possible to get involved myself.”
Now a mother to a two-year-old daughter, Marin grew up in what she calls a “rainbow family” (her mother had a same-sex partner) and joins Jess Phillips and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on our small but ever-growing list of relatable women in politics. Her parents divorced when she was young because of her father’s alcohol addiction, so Marin worked in bakeries and shops to help make ends meet. She was the first in her family to go to university, and during her election campaign she wrote an open letter thanking her “demanding teachers” and the support of the welfare state for helping her get there.
The disenfranchisement left her as she realised she could be the one to make a change. She flew through the political ranks. In 2012, she was elected to the City Council of Tampere, and by 2014, she had become second deputy chairperson of the SDP. A year later she was elected as an MP and by June 2019 she was transport and communications minister. Then, in December, Marin won the vote to take over as prime minister after Rinne.
“She is where she is today because of our welfare state,” says Ojalainen. “Finland has flourished into one of the most literate, democratic, developed countries in the world from very vulnerable beginnings. She has essentially done the same. She encapsulates the Finnish dream.”
It’s why Marin is wedded to the policy programme that got Rinne and the SDP into power in the first place. Its key policies are about protecting the welfare state and creating more jobs for Finland’s unemployed, who currently stand at 5.9% (the UK’s make up 3.8%)
Her vision for the country is liberal. She’s pro-refugee, taking a strong stance on a topic that has divided Finland since the European migrant crisis began in 2015. A few days after her appointment, Marin also put pressure on the EU to speed up action on climate change. “She’s the most left-wing prime minister this country has ever had,” a senior MP from the centre-right National Coalition Party told Politico.
Is any of this to do with the fact that she’s a woman? Probably. While it’d be ignorant to suggest all female-led countries are left-wing, feminist utopias (the UK’s track record on that front isn’t great), there is evidence to suggest that policies implemented by women differ to those of men. According to Unesco, legislatures with higher proportions of women tend to support health, education and social welfare spending at the expense of defence spending.
But while we’re caught up with how being a woman surrounded by women will make Marin a different kind of leader, it’s less interesting to the Finnish. “The fact that she’s a woman is, or at least was until the global press got really excited about it, less remarkable in Finland than it is outside of it,” explains
Dr Katharine Millar, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and consultant for the UN’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Women have been visible in public life in Finland for some time. In 1906, it became the first country in Europe to implement universal suffrage. The following year, the first female MPs were elected. In 2020, it’s the third most gender equal country, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. “Throughout my life, I’ve seen reflections of my potential and grown up with an organic belief that I have every opportunity available,” says Ojalainen. “Not in spite of my gender, but because of it.”
That isn’t to say Marin won’t come up against sexism, classism and political challenges. In fact, the far-right Finns party gained the highest percentage increase of votes between the 2015 and 2019 elections, as the country deals with the same populist swing that’s sweeping the rest of Europe.
“When parties are really opposed to policies promoting diversity, inclusion and particularly immigration, there’s often a not particularly subtle undercurrent of anti-feminism, anti-green politics and misogyny that goes along with that,” says Millar. Internationally, Marin has faced some unsavoury attitudes: Estonia’s president apologised after the country’s interior minister called her a “sales girl” on a radio show.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Marin has a support network. In photos, the five women of the coalition stand together as a team, like a defensive wall, and their supportive messages fill each other’s Twitter timelines. “I’m not aware of, even in coalition systems, male political leaders presenting themselves in this particular way,” says Millar. It’s not the only example of this type of sisterhood in politics: Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” have taken US politics by storm.
We can’t ignore the fact that Marin clearly intends to lead with a ‘women supporting women’ wave of feminism, something that has become a priority for many millennial women. Compare this to former UK prime minister Theresa May’s frosty relationship with first minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster, and it seems like Marin’s outlook is a recipe for political productivity.
May and Foster aside, women are scientifically proven to be more collaborative. While that’s often portrayed as a drawback, Anna- Maja Henriksson, Marin’s justice minister and leader of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland, says it’s positive for the coalition. “We share the same values and thoughts about democracy, equality and the importance of standing up for these things,” she tells Stylist. “As parties, we have different ideas about the economy, how to get more people into jobs and taxation. But we have decided together that this will be our common programme, and we all think it’s so important for our country and our citizens.”
Henriksson attributes a large part of her government’s popularity to Marin’s clarity. “She answers the questions. She doesn’t try to get around them and I think people like that,” she says. “[Women] are not afraid to talk about how things are in real life. It’s easier for us to talk about difficult issues.”
It would be foolish to present Marin as the one beacon of hope left in the world, especially given the impossibly high standards we hold women to. This is something Ojalainen worries about, too. “I’m concerned that this coalition will be regarded as some benchmark barometer for how well women can govern. If gender takes too much precedence, it can bolster the problematic structures these examples seek to liberate us from.”
However, Marin’s success does signal a “growing enthusiasm for women’s participation and leadership in politics and public life all over the world,” says Millar. “The presentation of her appointment as a good thing, even in right-wing tabloid press, is interesting. But it’d be great if young female leadership was not presented as novel.”
For Henriksson, their message is inspiring. “There are so many countries where it’s very unusual that women can be in leading positions,” she says. “And I think we give hope that someday their countries will change.” Here’s hoping she’s right.
Images: Getty Images, Papphotos.com
This article originally stated that Finland was the first country in the world to grant universal suffrage. This has been corrected to state that Finland was the first country in Europe to grant universal suffrage.