- The phase of searching for gender
- Constructions of gender perspective
- Diversification and reconstruction
- Gendered understandings of folk poetry and folk narratives
- Body, sexuality and rituals
- A critique of age perspective
- Research projects: reorganising gender orders in a postmodern frame
Aspects of Gender in Finnish Folkloristics
This article aims to outline some of the main trends in gender perspective in Finnish folkloristics. Even though the male bias has been obvious in Finnish folkloristics until recent decades, women have always played a visible role, at least as bearers of culture and performers of tradition, in our discipline1. This role is the focus here, while three contexts of interpretation are examined: first, the history of folklore studies, second, the social status of women and the development of feminist thought, and third, the impact of the international theoretical stimulus on women’s studies. Thus I see the scholarship of gender studies as having a long history within this field, but at the same time I consider the impact of theoretical and substantial achievements of gender studies as important too2. As for the terminology used, I mean by “gender studies” and “women’s studies” large and loosely defined viewpoints or fields of study, which highlight, question and discuss the meanings of gender in a culture and in cultural productions, as well as all the mechanisms and structures of culture as gendered.
I try to take into account recently published studies and the themes they have raised, not to paint a complete picture of the history of gender perspective in folkloristics. Nevertheless, as an introduction to this examination some milestones in the development of gender perspective in Finnish folkloristics are mentioned. In order to structure my examination I divide the history of gender perspective in Finnish folklore studies into three phases. These phases do not represent any unified ideology or methodology, but rather serve as a practical tool to assist in locating aspects of gender in a broader timeframe within folkloristics. These phases are: 1) the phase of searching for gender, when the gender difference – femaleness and maleness – was considered as given and natural (up to 1977); 2) the phase of building up the field of gender studies in folkloristics, when women’s culture and point of view was addressed (1977 onwards); and 3) the phase of questioning of gender meanings, when the objects and questions explored are continuously deconstructed (1995 onwards)1. The methodology applied here is purely practical. All disciplines in fact evolve in a more complicated way: theoretical discussions overlap each other. Moreover, if the horizontal aspect is considered, it may be observed that Finnish gender-specific study of folklore does not represent any uniform type of applied methodology, point of view or interests of research. On the contrary, there are many ways of carrying out gender studies even within the relatively small field of folklore studies in Finland2.
The emphasis in this preliminary review is on the last phase, of contemporary research, while the first two phases are only briefly outlined since three Finnish scholars, Satu Apo, Aili Nenola and Laura Stark-Arola, have already published in English a review of the history of gender studies in Finnish folkloristics in an introduction to an anthology entitled Gender and Folklore3. This compilation and review offer valuable insight into the achievements and directions of gender in folklore studies in Finland. Thus I concentrate here on the more contemporary research and try to continue where Gender and Folklore leaves off4.
In addition, the special nature of contemporary cultural disciplines is worth bearing in mind. Many scholars have described our disciplines as being in a phase of “blurred genres”, meaning that their boundaries are in part breaking down and being reconstructed elsewhere, and that interdisciplinary interaction is an everyday practice5. Contemporary popular thinking structures, methodologies and theoretical innovations can be traced back to old research traditions as well as to modern discussions within and between disciplines. In sum, the “contemporary” here forms only one aspect for examination, which is subjectively constructed here.
Women’s folklore and its study were often marginalised, a process which is analysed by Senni Timonen in an interesting manner in her dissertation on Kalevala-metre folk lyric2. She points out that all early researchers from Elias Lönnrot and H. G. Porthan on considered Kalevala-metre lyric as a female genre, even though it was also performed by men. According to Timonen, the link between lyric and femaleness was constructed on the basis of the subjective and poetic expression of emotions characteristic of folk lyric, especially when the poem depicted emotions of suffering and sorrow. Having come to be regarded as essentially feminine, poetry which manifested feelings was marginalised as an object of collection and study3.
The tendency to marginalise traditions considered feminine emerges clearly when we consider the general attitudes toward gendered traditions as manifested in their social use. For instance, the Kalevala, compiled by Elias Lönnrot from epic folk poetry4, which was regarded as masculine, was raised to the status of national epic in Finland and was put to use as a symbol of a young nation trying to gain its independence. In contrast, the second important compilation by Lönnrot, the Kanteletar, which is a collection of lyric folk poetry considered as feminine, almost fell into oblivion in a society given over to the masculine ideology of nationalism1.
Subsequently, the female characters represented in folklore and especially in the Kalevala were examined and interpreted at the turn of the twentieth century in a nationalist light2. The new nation was in its early stages and sought to create for itself a heroic past, and at the same time to produce good models of citizenship for the future. For this the female characters of the Kalevala were esteemed, for example as mothers fulfilling their reproductive duties and raising new generations for the newborn nation state. Also, many women’s civil societies were founded, some of them aimed at female emancipation and the improvement of women’s status in society, while others emphasised the value of educating agrarian women as competent citizens for the new state3. An association aiming to discuss female characters in “the spirit of Kalevala”, Kalevalaisten naisten liitto (the Kalevala Women’s Association) was founded later, in 1935. The organisers of the association were upper-class women who took part in public discussions about women’s roles and status in society4.
Elsa Enäjärvi-Haavio (1901–51) acted as a chairperson of the Kalevala Women’s Association for a short period, but she is principally remembered as the first woman in Finland to attain a doctoral degree in folkloristics, in 1932. In addition she was appointed as docent in the University of Helsinki in 1947, and is thus regarded as a pioneer in gender studies in folkloristics. In fact she was important not only as a female academic who functioned in the then male sphere of the university, but also because of her achievements in the field of folklore research, for she was the first to take women’s folklore seriously. Although her research methodology reflected the then prevalent “historic geographical method” (or “the Finnish method”)5, the themes and subjects she brought into her field of research were radically new in folkloristics: the study of children’s games, various ways of performing folklore and folk poetry, lyrical folk poetry and the legend songs sung by women. On the other hand her topics come close to those studied by early American female scholars, defined by Claire Farrer as “subjects limited to natural phenomena, games, or things associated with home”1, but on the other hand they addressed women’s public spheres and culture as well.
It is thus evident that Enäjärvi-Haavio would have gone on to greater achievements as a pioneer in women’s studies if cancer had not cut short her life and career. After her, the field of gender studies in folkloristics remained relatively quiet for more than twenty years.
Constructions of gender perspective
The 1960s is considered in Western countries an age of social and political transition which included the inauguration of the women’s movement and the vivid discussion of sex-roles in Nordic countries. It was likewise a critical period for Finnish folklore studies, because the old text-centred paradigm of “the Finnish method” reached its end, and scholars started to search for new theoretical stimulus elsewhere, principally from anthropology, sociology and linguistics. Researchers started to collect their materials not from archives but from various fields, and the focus of studies shifted from texts to persons, groups and societies and to the culture and traditions they constructed. In consequence scholars were also compelled to redefine and ponder upon the main concept of the discipline: folklore2.
Despite these new winds blowing in folkloristics and the women’s movement, the first folkloristic studies making women and their culture visible appeared much later, at the turn of the 1980s, after the so-called second wave of feminism3. Three research articles marked the beginning of the new period: Senni Timonen’s essay4 exploring the image of women as drawn by male collectors of folk poetry, Aili Nenola-Kallio’s analyses of death in women’s world view5 and Leea Virtanen’s work on the singing tradition of Setu women in Estonia1. The most outstanding works were the dissertation by Aili Nenola-Kallio2 and her anthology Miessydäminen nainen3. The first analysed lament tradition as an expression of peculiarly women’s culture and as a tradition carrying special meaning for women – a viewpoint presented for the first time in our discipline. Nenola’s second book aimed to explore the basic assumptions of women’s studies in cultural research and the male bias in the study of culture. Both studies gained a great popularity and influence among students of folkloristics in Finnish universities as study books and as a source of inspiration for discussing aspects of gender. As a result – and owing too to the spreading ideas of social construction, I suggest – women came to be viewed as active generators and interpretators of their own way of life, culture and traditions. Thus the female experience and interpretations of the world and life became an important aspect of research on folklore4.
The aspect of gender studies in folkloristics was, particularly in the beginning, emancipationist and it aimed to criticise the male bias in all disciplines studying culture by making women’s way of constructing and interpreting everyday life visible5. Understandably this project was mostly conducted by women researchers studying women’s culture, but other ways of analysing gender aspects of collective materials – for example folklore performed by women and men – from a gender perspective existed as well6. An imposing example of this phase is a compilation edited by Aili Nenola and Senni Timonen, entitled Louhen sanat7, where the name Louhi refers to the Mistress of Pohjola (Northland) in the Kalevala. Louhen sanat ran the gamut of gender studies in folkloristics, analysing for example symbolic meanings of gender and womanhood as a point of research, traditions used by women, the images of good and evil women in folklore and, finally, images of women in folk poetry. The theoretical frameworks were grounded on a broad spectrum of concepts, such as gender regime, folklore as a tool for contest, female experience, the other, and cultural models for gender and sex roles. In order to analyse mental models of gender meanings most researchers now committed themselves to the social construction perspective in their investigations.
After Louhen sanat Finnish female scholars began to plan the first research project exploiting gender-perspective from a broad, multidisciplinary point of view. This project was named “Culture, Tradition and Gender System” (1992–96) and it was funded by the Academy of Finland and directed by Aili Nenola, a folklorist and a professor of women’s studies at the University of Helsinki. Thirteen female researchers participated in this project and the compilation of articles published in the aforementioned Gender and Folklore originated in the context of this group1. In addition to the project and its achievements another compilation had a great impact on the development of gender perspective in Finnish folkloristics, namely Satu Apo’s publication entitled Naisen väki2, where she considered archaic sexual discourses and gender relations of agrarian Finnish culture. Her analysis is based on materials of folk poetry and literature, and examines various constructions of gender relations in the Kalevala and Kanteletar, and in the experience of women in other text materials. Apo’s texts paved the way for new interpretations of old folklore materials from the perspective of body and sexuality, an approach applied among others in the works of Laura Stark-Arola3.
Diversification and reconstruction
At the start of the new millennium, perspectives of gender studies in folkloristics are continuously broadening and diversifying, while engaging in intensive dialogue – even argument – with old research traditions and theoretical standpoints of the discipline. Gender perspective is today, in comparison with earlier phases, increasingly informed and enriched by theoretical ideas and discussions of international feminist theory, feminist philosophy, postmodern theorising and finally, postcolonial critique in order to question not only the basic assumptions of its mother discipline – folkloristics – but to critically examine itself, the basis of gender studies. Thus the main concepts of sex, gender and gender regime/orders are problematised, disentangled and reconstructed from a cultural point of view in research practices. The influence of, say, postcolonial critique, aspects of men’s studies, lesbian and queer studies as well as ethnic and age critiques has compelled scholars to take new positions and to search for new tools for conceptualising “difference” and mechanisms of constructing “the other”1.
Typical concepts characterising contemporary folkloristics could be mentioned, such as context, reflexivity, narrative, ethnography, interpretation, discourse, construction and articulation – most of them vividly discussed in cultural studies and anthropology. Furthermore, multiple methods and methodology of exploiting various research materials in a single study as well as aspects of multidisciplinarity are considered as popular means of doing research, and occasionally even old discussion of folklore genres comes up.
These very same issues and theoretical discussions overlap gender studies in so far as they are applied to gender-specific perspectives. In order to reinterpret these materials, the gender studies aim to construct new questions and ways of seeing them from a gender perspective, while the experience of women, their ways of constructing everyday life and their world view are continuously kept in mind2, but now with the help of partly new means of interpretation such as the analysis of emotions, narratives of dreams or other personal documents. What is also new is critical reflexivity: women researchers regard themselves as persons and subjects to be analysed critically in the frame of the process of research. Multiple research methods and research materials are deployed and the “texts” examined embrace various cultural materials, such as, in addition to folk poetry and folk narratives, media messages, visual materials and texts mediated by computers and the culture surrounding them. Next I will present some major themes of gender aspect in contemporary folkloristics by reviewing briefly the most important recent research.
Another position is taken by Tarja Kupiainen, whose dissertation entitled Kertovan kansanrunouden nuori nainen ja nuori mies3 attemps to reveal the construction of womanhood and manhood in folk poems as well as in the study of them. She exposes the masculine hegemonic interpretation and deconstructs the dimensions of the gender concept and female subjectivity in folk poetry. Thus Kupiainen examines among other things the taboo of incest, family and gender relations and the sexuality of young women and young men in folk poetry, applying theoretical viewpoints derived mainly from the works of Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray4.
A third perspective of the contemporary study of gendered folk poetry is generated by Lotte Tarkka, who approaches the ancient world created by folk poetry from the anthropological and interpretative perspective. She has earlier interpreted the images of nature and forest as linked to gender and to gendered division of labour in the world of folk poetry1 and analysed the symbolic meanings of gender in oral poetry2.
The distance between the world of folk poetry and old folk narratives is in some respects relatively small, and folk poetry and folk narratives depict to some extent the same world. The ethical world produced by old folk narratives forms the main research theme for Irma-Riitta Järvinen, who has explored Karelian Orthodox religious legends in her dissertation3. She considered the narrative structures of these legends, and analysed folk beliefs and ethics evidenced by religious legends and their changing developments. The focus was, in the latter part of her study, on one Karelian female narrator of sacred legends and her world view, whence Järvinen broadens her perspective to contemporary narrating and constructing of world views by women in a small Karelian village, and to religious and ethical themes which are found in their collective narrating of dreams and other stories4.
Remembering and narrating comprise an important research topic in modern folkloristics. Ulla-Maija Peltonen has comprehensively explored the various ways of remembering – and forgetting as well – of the Finnish Civil War in 1918 and of the “black times” that followed after the war. One of her aims has been to investigate the memorising of war widows on the side who lost the war, the “reds”, and their means of surviving in and after wartime5. Telling the past by women is also tackled by Taina Ukkonen6 in her dissertation, where she focused on the ways women workers in a dockyard collectively remembered and narrated their past1. Contemporary narration from the perspective of humour and gender is pondered by Eeva-Liisa Kinnunen2, and also Lena Marander-Eklund3 (2000) specialised on narratives by women (see below).
Rituals and the cultural meanings of the female body are the focus of Laura Stark-Arola’s dissertation Magic, Body and Social Order4 in which she examines women’s magic and sexual themes linked to it. By “women’s magic” she refers to magic rites performed by women and for women in traditional agrarian Finland and Karelia. Reinterpreting archived folk belief materials, mainly incantations and ethnographic descriptions, she examines the gender concepts and gender systems expressed. The themes analysed in her study cover sexuality, pairing, marriage and pollution of the female body, which are explained and interpreted in the frame of historical time, social context and the agrarian household. Stark-Arola offers an interesting description of the ritual preparation of a woman for marriage, and how her sexuality is raised in a bathing ritual to help her to become a partner in a socially sanctioned heterosexual relationship.
Another type of contemporary female rituality is analysed in the Russian ethnic context by Kaija Heikkinen in her study of women’s marginality and the manifestation of everyday life (1992), and in her examination of religious rituals of Vepsian women, and the changing image of old women in Russia1. These studies, based on a gender-sensitive approach, refer to aspects of sexuality and meanings of gender orders2.
Aspects of sexuality expressed in rituals have previously been studied within the framework of childbirth, a subject neglected in early research; if examined by male ethnographers, these archaic practices were judged as women’s secret realm and often superstitious by their nature. A comprehensive picture of the childbirth practices in Karelia at the turn of the twentieth century is given by Marja-Liisa Keinänen in her dissertation entitled Creating Bodies. Childbirth Practices in Pre-modern Karelia3. Her research material consists of archived folklore materials, ethnographic descriptions and interviews. In addition to childbirth practices and the role of the traditional midwife, she investigated the ideas and practices pertaining to female bodily states, and how women perceived the restrictions and other norms of their behaviour. Her study is closely linked to Hilkka Helsti’s dissertation about the practice of domestic childbirth and maternity education in the early-twentieth-century Finnish culture4. Helsti’s aim was to examine cultural conflicts between motherhood and maternity education through three different themes: fertility, the public and the private, and purity and impurity, with reference mostly to Mary Douglas’s works. The main material studied comprises archived remembrances of agrarian women and midwives, and the midwives’ magazine of the time. The picture formed by agrarian women did not have much connection to the high-class ideals of motherhood5.
The third noteworthy study focusing on pregnancy and women’s concepts of childbirth – this time in contemporary culture – is Lena Marander-Eklund’s dissertation1. She analysed personal narratives of women’s bodily experiences in the context of modern (birth) technology. The women interviewed, expectant mothers, were actually in need of recounting their emotions and sharing their experiences in order to reach a better understanding of them in this critical phase of life. Marander-Eklund analysed women’s narratives and ways of narrating as well, and pondered their change over time2.
Bodily meanings and gender orders in visual “texts” and their performance are analysed in Inka Välipakka’s dissertation3 concerning contemporary choreography, body and women’s dance. Her analysis is based on phenomenological philosophy and dance semiotics and she tackles the information gleaned from each dance performance (four actual dance performances and one photographic representation). In order to analyse choreographical, ethnic and bodily meanings of performative dance she uses cultural analysis omitted from the sociology of art and anthropological ethnography and ponders various topics such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the lived body, and Luce Irigaray’s “ethics of sexual difference”. In addition Anu Laukkanen’s ongoing study of performing ethnicity and gender in oriental belly-dancing in Finland has resemblances of Välipakka’s work4.
For the time being gender studies in Finnish folkloristics is mainly conducted by female researchers focusing on women’s ways of seeing the world. Although the basic arguments posed by men’s study are generally known in Finland, we do not have studies disclaiming or criticising the history of folkloristics or the gender aspect in it from that perspective, in fact only a few researchers have payed attention to these issues. At any rate there are two important studies pointing the way by pondering cultural ways of considering masculinity and sexuality, and criticising hegemonic cultural masculinity, both published in the 1990s. First, the masculine way of constructing culture was pointed out by Jyrki Pöysä in his dissertation5, in which he analysed and interpreted the male-dominant culture of forest workers and the folklore produced by them. He deconstructed the image of the masculine, independent, hard-working and happy fellow – the popular image of a lumberjack – by revealing the formation of social categories through historical situations. Later Pöysä has taken into consideration aspects of forming a masculine identity by eating1, and connected gender perspective to the discussion about the construction of national identity2, both fresh and pioneer approaches in a study of cultural gender meanings in folkloristics3. A second important study takes into consideration sexual and homosexual discourses of Finnish agrarian culture by Jan Löfström4, who interpreted various cultural texts and examined the popular concepts of gender differences by means of themes such as gendered division of labour and concepts of body and sexuality. He suggests that the polarisation of genders was not strict or useful, and that modern homophobic concepts were rare in early modern Finland.
Thus old women are objects of the double standard of ageing, viz., a multiple marginalisation and being ignored both on the level of everyday life and in the world of research. Vakimo argues, after interpreting various cultural texts (such as the Kalevala, sexual anecdotes, newspapers, TV-adverts) that modern cultural representations tend to “grannify” (mummotella) old women in order to create a humourous climate of expression by depicting old women as ridiculous, useless, good-for-nothing persons, who are old-fashioned and unable to use modern technology1. Such views approach those associated with the old woman, the traditional midwife and granny, in Russia and Russian Karelian culture2, suggesting that cultural attitudes linked to the otherness of the character are about the same.
In part the critique of the age paradigm promulgated by Vakimo fits with gender studies in general, because it has so far ignored the meanings of age when theorising and studying aspects of gender and gender orders, even though it has recently been sensitive to other aspects of “difference” like sexuality, class, ethnicity etc. On the other hand, age- and gender-sensitive research has a relatively long tradition in Finnish folkloristics, but only when discussing youth culture. Often this gender-specific youth research has adopted anthropological field methods and approaches and observed the “unknown” culture and interpreted it from the perspective of girls, and in the context of gender orders of (post)modern consumer culture. The examination of the practice of calling a girl a whore in contemporary school culture by Helena Saarikoski3 well illustrates this direction. It achieved great publicity in Finland as the first analysis of social and cultural conditions where girls are compelled to grow up as women. Young girls have to learn to fulfil the demands of womanhood, and hence to fight against the reputation of the archetypical “bad woman”. The ways of controlling girls’ behaviour were various: verbal bullying, gossipping, stamping of special clothes or ways of dancing as a mark of the whore etc. As research material Saarikoski collected descriptions and letters written by schoolgirls or adult women who had experienced bullying in their youth, and interviews of mainly contemporary girls. The stories told to her were impressive, not to say shocking (Saarikoski 2001, see forthcoming).
Postmodern consumer culture is also the frame of interpretation of Anna Anttila’s exploration1 of the public sexualisation of girls’ bodies and its impact on girls’ experiences and attitudes towards sexuality. She has in addition investigated the dating culture of young girls and their plays of foretelling the future2. Furthermore, changing children’s traditions and the meanings of girls’ clapping games are analysed by Ulla Lipponen3. The themes of collective youth culture, of dating and courting and constructing gender identity, are tackled by Kirsti Salmi-Niklander in her dissertation4. She explored the working-class youth in a small industrial community and focused on the interplay between orality and literacy through analysis of handwritten newspapers produced by local youth5.
Aspects of the whole course of life and ethnicity is the focus of Airi Markkanen’s (2003) dissertation6, where she analyses the construction of the life course of gypsy women in eastern Finland in the nineteenth century. The women discussed and interviewed lived in a patriarchal minority culture and as a marginalised group in Finland, yet Markkanen interpreted the women’s narratives as illustrating a sense of strength and self-esteem rather than feelings of being subordinated. Women interviewed felt that the everyday life in a Romany family and the caring of children and other family members and relatives was managed by adult women, and for this reason they felt a sense of continuity and safety1.
For instance, aspects of modernisation are touched upon in the research project “Modernisation and Popular Experience in Finland 1860–1960” (2002–04), led by docent Laura Stark (University of Helsinki). This multidisciplinary project discusses modernisation processes from the viewpoint of ordinary people focusing on transformations at the level of household, individual and community. Gender and generation among others form a basic viewpoint in this project. (See: http://www.helsinki.fi/hum/folkloristiikka/moderniz.html.) In addition the modern information and communication technology and its local impacts on everyday life and on construction of gender identity has been tackled in recent research projects in the university of Joensuu under the leadership of Professor Seppo Knuuttila. Gender-specific folkloristical aspects are represented in these projects by Sari Tuuva, who is conducting research into computing ethnographies from a gender perspective, and Johanna Uotinen, who is polishing her dissertation on narratives of gendered experiences and signification processes connected with computers2.
Another type of multidisciplinarity linking gender, the body and postmodern culture is carried out in a research project “Gender Narrated in Speech and Deed” (2004–06) led by docent Helena Saarikoski (University of Helsinki). The project belongs to the fields of folkloristics and musicology, youth studies, disability studies and dance studies. The project aims to analyse how gender is realised in everyday activities and accounts of those activities. Gender is studied here as intertwined with other factors of identity, like sexuality, age and phase of life, disability, physical appearance and acting in a professional capacity. The materials of the studies are multitype qualitative ethnographic materials interpreted in the frame of respective cultural and historical contexts. (See http://www.helsinki.fi/folkloristiikka/saarikoski.htm.) In addition to research projects, two national graduate schools must be mentioned here as important trainers of postgraduate students for specialisation in gender in the study of culture. The first is the multidisciplinary Graduate School of Gender System led by Professor Aili Nenola (Univeristy of Helsinki) and the other links the fields of folkloristics and comparative religion, namely the Graduate School of Cultural Interpretations: Nationality, Locality, Textuality, led by Professor Seppo Knuuttila (University of Joensuu).
The gender aspect in contemporary Finnish folkloristics is important and inseparable from other directions of study. Here I have only been able to outline a preliminary introduction to the issue. On the one hand, gender-sensitive folkloristics still considers themes derived from the history of the field, such as the making of women’s worlds, folklore and culture visible, and constructs a female perspective in the interpretation of all the materials explored in our fields. On the other hand, research in this field is diversifying from a base of questions raised by old folklore scholars as well as by modern theoreticians of gender: discussion of deconstruction of the subject, otherness, the diverse meanings of sexuality, hegemonic masculinity, bodily signification, emotions, experience, ethnicity, nationality, age etc. – such a list of popular research topics is in a continuous process of change, which is a sign of fruitful development in the field.