Elore 1/2001, 8. vuosikerta
Julkaisija: Suomen Kansantietouden Tutkijain Seura ry., Joensuu
ISSN 1456-3010, URL: http://cc.joensuu.fi/~loristi/1_01/sta101.html
E-mail: loristi (at) cc.joensuu.fi

Riddles of Finnish Gender History

Laura Stark-Arola

Jan Löfström: Sukupuoliero agraarikulttuurissa. "Se nyt vaan on semmonen". Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran toimituksia 757. Helsinki: SKS.1999. 320 s.

Sukupuoliero agraarikulttuurissa is a book that aims to delve into some of the riddles of Finnish gender history in traditional rural culture, and to illuminate how it was that the agrarian gender system shaped gender concepts at the political and juridical levels of the emerging Finnish nation-state. Despite its title, the book does not explore or explain Finnish rural gender differences per se or the forms they take, but focuses primarily on two issues: 1) homosexuality and 2) gender polarity, in other words, the idea that maleness and femaleness represent binary opposites, occupying different poles on a continuum of physical, mental and emotional traits.

The author begins his book by grappling with a question which has occurred to many folklorists of gender and sexuality ­ where are the references to homosexuality in the archival texts? As Löfström points out, the scarcity of references to homosexuality in archival folklore materials cannot be explained by any censoring or scarcity of sexual folklore in general, since there exists an abundance of texts (including bawdy songs, incantations, sayings, humorous anecdotes, and riddles) utilizing themes of sexuality: and not only normative sexuality, but also for example, bestiality. Löfström thus rightly calls attention to the gap formed by the 'missing' homosexual texts as an important methodological and theoretical challenge to cultural researchers. He approaches this challenge by seeking clues to cultural categories and images of sexuality through language (e.g. folklore and popular terms). Based on his research, the author concludes that there exist very few descriptions of male homosexual acts in folklore, and importantly, those that do exist can be seen as instruments for ridiculing or calling attention to the 'otherness' of some ethnic group or social class rather than to the sexual orientation of the actors per se. This is also true to some degree of descriptions of female homosexuality.

In seeking to explain the fact that Finnish rural-traditional discourse and cultural images are 'silent' on the topic of homosexuality, Löfström explores two primary dimensions of gender: gender hierarchy on the one hand, and gender polarity on the other. In addressing gender hierarchy, Löfström compares Finnish agrarian culture to the rural cultures of Southern Europe and suggests that in Finnish rural society male prestige and honor did not rest on the 'performance' and 'display' of actively sexual masculinity as they did in Mediterranean cultures, for instance. Rather, according to Löfström, prestige and jockeying for supremacy in Finnish agrarian culture seem to have taken place primarily through the cultural symbolism attached to the skill, industry, physical strength and endurance displayed in the sphere of work.

The second dimension, gender polarity, is connected to the issue of homosexuality by way of the fact that the category of 'homosexual' (either as an identity or as a socially-meaningful act/set of behaviors) has been used in the gender discourse of the modern West to support ideas of 'real' men and women distinguished from each other by natural, fixed, and polemic differences. Of these differences, the orientation of sexual desire has been seen to play a crucial role. Men and women are argued to be fundamentally different because a 'real' man cannot know or experience the sexual desires that a 'real' woman has toward another man, and the 'real' woman cannot know the feelings that a 'real' man has toward another woman. Different sexual orientations, it has been assumed, place men and women in separate worlds of knowledge, desire, and emotion. Löfström uses the theories of Randolf Trumbach, among others, to explain why traditional rural discourse in Finland appears to have not utilized the category of 'homosexual': there was no need for it, because there was no need to emphasize gender polarity. According to the author's reading of Trumbach, the socially-significant category of the homosexual was created in Northern Europe over a period of time from the late 17th- to the 18th-centuries. Its purpose was to redefine the essential differences between men and women at a time when the domestic ideal of companionate marriage, the romanticization of the 'home', and bonds of affection rather than authority among family members were on the rise. Men were expected to spend more time in the 'feminine' sphere of the home, and the self-evident nature of the gender hierarchy was called into question. New boundaries were needed to ensure that men would be able to maintain their position of privilege on the basis of gender alone: this meant that "'oikean' miehen ja 'oikean' naisen kriteerit naulattiin kiinni seksuaalihaluun eli sen heteroseksuaalisuuteen" (p. 198).

Löfström contrasts the cultural gender concepts held by the Finnish rural population with those found among the late 19th- and early 20th-century-middle classes in England and Germany (which included the category of homosexual). In doing so, he focuses on four key areas through which concepts of gender polarity can be compared: space, work, sexuality and the body. For each, the author discusses the extent to which maleness and femaleness were construed differently, and concludes that although Finnish agrarian culture made distinctions between men and women in all of these spheres, 'maleness' and 'femaleness' were not as polarized in the Finnish rural concepts and practices as they were in the bourgeoisie/middle-class cultures of Northern Europe. Rather than occupying separate spheres (public vs. domestic), Finnish rural men and women both worked on the farm, which was the primary unit of production, consumption, and socialization in agrarian society. While there existed a gendered division of labour in rural society, men's and women's work was not so different in kind: both men and women performed hard labour, and both contributed to economic production, whereas in bourgeoisie/middle-class gender cultures, women were largely excluded from economic production, and were relegated to an entirely separate sphere: the reproduction, maintenance and socialization of human workers. In terms of sexuality and sexual desire, there is evidence that women in Finnish agrarian culture were viewed as fundamentally similar to men in that they were sexual 'actors', while in the middle-classes it was argued that a 'good' woman, indeed a 'real' woman, was sexually passive, having fewer sexual inclinations of her own or even none at all. Löfström argues that in Finnish agrarian culture the hierarchy of authority between men and women in the farm household was so self-evident that there was no need to prop it up with assumptions that men and women were completely different on the levels of anatomy and psychology. Agrarian society recognized the physical differences between men and women, but did not elaborate them in order to prove that men and women were destined for entirely different activities, it did not have to resort to biology or psychology to 'explain' inequality between men and women. In fact, the gender hierarchy was so firmly established that occasional gender-crossing individuals (naismaisia miehiä and miesmäisiä naisia) were not viewed as a threat to the gender system. Gender display which diverged from the 'typical' or normative display of maleness or femaleness did not usually lead to suspicions of persons being homosexual (as often occurs in the modern West), but, if anything, to speculations concerning their physical genitalia (particularly whether they were hermaphrodites). And it is important that even the assumed existence of hermaphrodites in a community's midst did not cause much consternation: there seems to have been surprisingly little effort made to force these individuals into one or another category of gender or sexual preference. As Löfström points out: "Ei toisin sanoen oltu kovin kiinnostuneita spekuloimaan, mitä kaikkea tietyn henkilön 'paketissa' oli ja oliko sen sisältö pohjia myöten aitoa 'miestä' vai 'naista'." (p. 198). As Löfström argues throughout the course of his book, in a culture where notions of gender polarity are less pronounced, we should not be surprised if we do not find much emphasis on homosexual identities and acts as such, since in this case "sexual preference" as a category was not needed in order to separate cases of 'aberrant' gender from 'real' men and women.

Although the concept of wide-ranging, essential and natural differences between men and women spread throughout middle-class Finnish culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the direction of influence was not solely top-down, for the Finnish agrarian gender system left its mark on the higher political levels of the developing Finnish nation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these was the unusually active role of women in political life in Finland, culminating in women being the first in Europe to receive the right to vote in 1906 and to stand for Parliamentary elections, as well as the fact that women made up approximately 10% of the first Finnish Parliament in 1907. Despite the fact that different roles were given to men and women in the building of the new Finnish nation and greater 'expertise' was assigned to women in the domestic rather than the public sphere, this did not necessarily exclude women from active roles in the public political life, as Löfström explains. Female activists argued that matters of family, childrearing, hygiene and health were of such vital importance to the general citizenry and thus to the nation that they had to be discussed at the highest levels of decision-making. Thus women justified their full right to participate in political life and hold public office: "He eivät voineet eivätkä saaneet jäädä vain kotiin" (p. 207).

A second case taken up Löfström is the criminalization of female homosexual acts in Finland in 1888. This decision of the parliamentary penal code committee is interesting because similar efforts to make female same-sex acts punishable by imprisonment did not succeed in Germany (1910–1911) and England (1921). Homosexual women in those countries were understood to belong in hospitals or psychiatric wards rather than in prison, they were viewed as not responsible for their own actions. Also, legislators did not want to give women 'ideas' by bringing female homosexuality to level of explicit discourse. Löfström uses his hypothesis of weaker gender polarity in Finnish agrarian culture to explain why the criminalization of female homosexual acts ran into little opposition in Finland, and why women were thus treated as active social persons on par with men, responsible and culpable for their own actions. What is left unclear is why (female) homosexuality was seen as criminal or pathological in the first place, if it had not been of particular concern in the rural culture. One could extrapolate from the author's own line of argument that this criminalization was supported by the Parliament in order to make clearer and more polarized the distinction between 'real' men and 'real' women, which would leave us, in the absence of further elaboration, in the problematic position of viewing the criminalization of female homosexuality as rooted in a loose gender distinction, but at the same time used with the intent to create a more rigid gender division in the jurisprudence of the new nation-state.

The arguments presented in Sukupuoliero agraarikulttuurissa are compelling and for the most part receive support from existing folkloristic research into gender and sexuality. The book is characterized by the author's careful approach to his subject at every step of the way, and Löfström rightly points out the dangers of projecting our late 20th century concepts of sexuality and homosexuality onto 19th-century agrarian culture. From an ethnological or folkloristic perspective, the book could be criticized on the grounds that it tends to treat agrarian Finland as a homogeneous culture and overlooks regional differences: but a more detailed treatment cannot realistically be expected from a book that is already ambitious in scope and whose shortcoming, if any, lies in the fact that it tries to pull together too much material and make arguments on too many analytical levels. Tracing the connections between all these levels would have required several books, a daunting but rewarding task best left to the future researchers who will surely be indebted to Sukupuoliero agraarikulttuurissa for forging a well-needed path into the dense forest of historical concepts regarding Finnish gender and sexuality.

Laura Stark-Arola, Ph.D.
University of Helsinki