Saluting Minna Canth — Finland’s Feisty Feminist

Tomorrow, March 19th is Minna Canth Day, which is also the Day of Equality, a designated flag day in Finland (beginning March 19, 2007). Additionally, it is Minna Canth’s 175th birthday. She is the only woman in Finland to have a designated flag day.

So who is Minna Canth who has been called a feisty Finnish feminist? She was a mother, a business owner, and an author of books and plays.

Born Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnsson in Tampere on March 19, 1844, she was the elder daughter and first surviving child of Ulrika and Gustav Johnsson. As the child of a worker at the Finlayson textile factory she attended the school the company had for their workers. In 1853 her father was promoted to manager of the Finlayson textile shop in Kuopio, and she continued her education there, doing so well that she was allowed to enter a school for daughters of the upper classes and, in 1863, to enroll at the newly-founded teacher training college in Jyväskylä (now the University of Jyväskylä), the first institute in Finland to admit women to higher education and to deliver teaching in Finnish.

Before she finished her studies, Minna married the college’s natural sciences teacher, Johan Canth, who was nine years her senior, and over the next thirteen years they became a family of seven children. But being a mother did not end her ambitions – they just took a turn from teaching to being a writer.

Johan Canth became the editor of the newspaper Keski-Suomi (Central Finland), and Minna contributed articles on matters relevant to women, including temperance, which she saw as a means of combating the addiction to alcohol which reduced many families to poverty. Her hostile attitude, which her husband shared, compelled them to leave Keski-Suomi in 1876 and to move in 1877 to a rival newspaper, Päijänne, which began to print her stories. Two years later her first collection of these, Novelleja ja kertomuksia (‘Novellas and Tales’) appeared in print.

Minna often took on prominent public figures such as churchmen, politicians, and other writers. In 1885 she published one of her most famous plays, Työmiehen Vaimo (‘The Wife of a Workman’). Set in contemporary Kuopio, Finland, the story was about a spirited and capable woman, Johanna, whose shiftless husband Risto ruins the family by drinking her money away while the laws governing women’s property render her helpless to prevent him. Sounds like a plot line on one of today’s television dramas.

The play created quite a scandal and that same year when a bishop claimed that emancipation of women was against God’s law and a well-known writer Gustaf af Geijerstam supported him by arguing that men’s different needs and nature made it impossible for them to achieve feminine purity, Minna spoke out vigorously against their claims. Before the year was out, the Finnish Parliament had passed a new law allowing married women to hold property in their own right.

In 1879, Johan Canth died and while pursuing her literary career Minna continued to manage not only her household and family of seven but a draper’s shop which she had taken over from her father.

Canth wrote many other plays and works of fiction. Her last drama, Anna Liisa, written in 1895 is considered to be among the greatest and is still often performed and has been turned into a film.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Seduced by Mikko, a local youth, the fifteen-year-old heroine conceals the resulting pregnancy and stifles her baby in a fit of panic. Mikko’s mother Husso buries it secretly, but she and Mikko resort to blackmail when, some time later, another suitor, Johannes, proposes marriage to Anna Liisa. Refusing to give in even if it means sacrificing her happiness, Anna Liisa confesses and goes to prison, but with a calm mind and clear conscience. Although critics have argued against the unfairness of a conclusion in which Mikko escapes punishment and Anna Liisa bears it alone, she emerges as a strong woman capable of making moral choices and determining her own future on the basis of their integrity.

Thanks to the website A Cinema History, a copy of the 1922 silent movie from Finland can be downloaded and you can view it here. The title cards have been translated from Finnish to English and you can find them here: translation

Canth died May 12, 1897 at the age of 53. Her vitality and outspokenness made her a tireless worker for women’s rights and human rights at a time when the Grand Duchy of Finland (the predecessor state of modern Finland) was striving towards independence from Russia. Minna Canth has an established place among Nordic realists and in Finnish literary history. Her first biography was written in 1906 by Lucina Hagman, one of the pioneers in the women’s rights movement in Finland. Canth’s life is studied in Finland, her plays are performed in theaters, and her works are read at schools. Multiple statues, a museum in the town of Kuopio, her own flag day, and a stamp have confirmed her place as one of the major names of the Finnish culture. Thanks to the inspiration her plays constantly offer to theatre directors, she is one of those nineteenth century writers who is still very much alive in Finnish theatres today.

Material for this blog was found on British Library and Women Writers.