Gender in Estonia: Observations from a Foreign Feminist

I came to Estonia as a visiting PhD student, a folklorist, meaning that I was primarily interested in tales and traditions. However, I’m also a feminist and a gender studies scholar, so I couldn’t help but notice some of the gender dynamics around me.

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in July 2011 was just how many pregnant women there seemed to be. There were many women out and about with small children, too. Coming from the United States, where most maternity clothes are meant to hide the pregnant belly for as long as possible, it was a refreshing change to see so many pregnant women out in public life. I subscribe to third-wave feminism, which promotes women having choices regardless of whether women choose traditional things like motherhood or modern, feminist things like having a career (or try to juggle both!).

With birth rates low enough to not replace population decreases due to mortality, it makes sense that Estonia would have policies encouraging women to give birth. I later learned about Estonia’s progressive maternity leave policies, which I’d heard nicknamed the “baby salary,” whereby women can apply for 12 months’ paid leave during the birth of a child, and men can also apply for parental leave. This is, perhaps surprisingly, better than the situation in the US, where maternity leave is not guaranteed at the federal government level, and most states do not offer job protection or paid leave for women who wish to have children. And paternity leave? Practically unheard of in the US, unfortunately.

So on the surface, Estonia’s doing pretty good in terms of gender legislation. More options for women—meaning, not having to sacrifice their careers in case they want to have children—generally means more gender equity. It also seems that young people in Estonia receive a good amount of sex education in schools. Having greater access to knowledge about sex and sexuality usually means fewer unplanned teenage pregnancies and less disease transmission which, again, is an issue we’re having trouble with in the US.

However, Estonia also has one of the EU’s largest pay gaps between men’s and women’s wages. Men earn up to 30% more than women – and that’s a lot! Especially in a country where wages are, overall, considered to be on the low side compared to the rest of the EU. Although there is equality legislation in place, it seems that the gender gap is slow to close, in part due to workforce segregation that keeps women in low-paying public service occupations.

This tallies with my experiences exploring Tartu and the rest of Estonia. The store-clerks and secretaries I saw were overwhelmingly female. I also sat in and lectured to graduate seminars that were almost all women. Perhaps this has to do with the military service policy in Estonia affecting the ages and genders of university students, and perhaps it has to do with women seeking higher education in order to escape the low-paying jobs that require little education to obtain. Either way, it seems that the workplace, as with many spheres of Estonian life, is very gender segregated.

Gender segregation doesn’t automatically mean gender oppression (though it can). For instance, I was delighted to find a very active belly dancing community, wherein women form strong friendships and achieve a high degree of solidarity. I had an especially good time practicing American Tribal Style® with the women of Fakesnake, a Tartu-based troupe that studies the American improvisational style of belly dance that I had also studied in the US. While not all of the members spoke English, we all spoke the same dance language, so we were able to instantly synchronize our movements and perform and play together. You can see an example of our performance—which was completely improvised and not choreographed in advance—here:

I got the sense that although Estonian heritage has a number of traditional dances to offer, many modern Estonian women prefer the independence of belly dance because they don’t have to wait up for a male dance partner, and could focus instead on dancing as a form of communication with their friends.

I was concerned that in a university town such as Tartu, alternative sexualities seemed invisible. Then again, I’m a native of California and have most recently attended school in Bloomington, Indiana (which is known as the gay capital of the Midwest), so I’m used to quite a lot of counterculture. Estonia does not currently recognize same-sex marriages, but then again, most parts of the US don’t either. Still, I would love to see more tolerance, which could be aided by organizations such as gay-straight alliances.

It seems to me that the general attitude in Estonia toward sex and gender was not overtly oppressive or sexist, but there are still deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that can be harmful. For instance, it seems like Gender Studies as a discipline has yet to take hold, and I met very few Estonians who identified as feminist. The desire to simply not talk about gender seems very strong. This happens in the US too, and is often accompanied by a smug attitude toward the past, acknowledging that feminists helped women get the vote, which is cool, so we don’t need feminism anymore.

In Estonia, it seems that the reverse is true: women have always been strong and have always had many rights, so why do we need feminism? I’m of the opinion that feminism helps point out inequalities based not only on gender and sex but also on the intersection of race, class, and other identity factors. Feminism also helps us see that narrow gender roles are not just something that negatively affect women, but they can impact men, too. Being forced to conform to damagingly limited stereotypes sucks for everyone.

Overall, my experience in Tartu was wonderful, and I never felt that institutionalized sexism affected me negatively. Then again, I stayed only 10 months, and circulated mostly in university culture, which tends to be more egalitarian. It’s also worth noting that I experienced more sexual harassment in Estonia than I ever did in the US, including incidents where men groped and grabbed me while I was walking in public areas. I felt upset and violated. I wondered how common these events were, and how Estonian women felt about them. I wondered what kinds of life experiences these men had, in order to feel like it was somehow appropriate to molest a stranger in public.

In the end, these are the observations that come from living in a place just long enough to learn my way around, make friends, and start to get a feel for the culture. There are surely aspects of Estonian culture that I don’t yet understand, and this is one of the reasons I’m hoping for a chance to come back. In the meantime, perhaps gender equality will slowly continue to improve, as more people come into contact with global cultures and realize that there’s more than one way to go about these things.

See also Jeana Jorgensen’s blog and our post featuring her: Foxy Folklorist Mistaken for a Sex Professor. Recently Jeana defended her PhD in folklore at Indiana University – congratulations!

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9 Responses to Gender in Estonia: Observations from a Foreign Feminist

  1. John Ferrier says:

    A very interesting piece. For both Estonia and some US states, it would be a teaser to try to formulate fair policies for progressive change.

    •  Yes, it can be quite difficult to encourage people to think differently about gender roles, as they are so deeply ingrained from birth. I’m hoping that continues to change over time.

  2. Michael Gentile says:

    Your thoughts are quite a lot in line with my own on this matter, even though my own experience, being a male, is a lot different. I’m not sure about the following quote, though:
    ‘In Estonia, it seems that the reverse is true: women have always been strong and have always had many rights, so why do we need feminism?’

    In fact, women have always been strong in Estonia – on paper. The Soviet propaganda strongly accentuated the ‘fact’ that Soviet women were equal to Soviet men, participated in the labour market to an equal extent, etc etc. Yet this was mere propaganda. In fact, the Soviet labour market – if it may be called a market at all – was strongly segregated by gender. Women worked as clerks, textile factory workers, school teachers, nurses, etc. Men as miners, steel-workers, electricians, etc. This is in strong contrast with the frequent propaganda images of the Soviet woman working down in the mine. If women did work at the mine, they almost certainly did so as accountants on the surface. With lower pay and, above all, lower access to Soviet-style fringe benefits.

    •  You raise an excellent point. As a foreigner living in Estonia for only 10 months, there were certain parts of the culture and history that I simply wouldn’t have access to unless I knew to seek them out. In terms of the Soviet propaganda, yes, I can see where the reality would be different from the actual life experiences of people.

      I guess my comment about women being strong was based more on my observations of the Estonian women I hung out with. I observed multiple women who balanced careers with family and seemed relatively happy with their lives. I listened to accounts of how back in the peasant days, strong women were especially valued, to the point where girls being courted would stuff their leggings with hay to make them look more bulky and muscled! I agree that it’s really tough to determine how a culture’s values actually tally with its practices, so that’s why I made it clear from the beginning that this post was a series of observations rather than a definitive description of the culture As It Really Is.

  3. reena purret says:

    It’s interesting to read what men think about “strong Estonian women”. Actually Estonian women have had lot more rights than their “sisters” in other parts of Europe – right to own a property, right to carry a knife etc. When Estonia was officially formed there was no arguing if women should have a right to vote or not – NOONE raised this question because it seemed natural that women have right to vote too.

    Firstly, I would like to correct a mistake about “parent salary” – it’s for 18 months, not 12. First six months are reserved for mothers only, because of the belief that every child should be breastfed for at least six months. After that the parents can decide which one of them stays home. Maternity leave lasts for three years (after that the company is not obligated to offer mum or dad their old job).

    Secondly a bit statistics – about 65% of students are female. And they are already treating them differently in highscools – it’s usual that boys need less points to get to highschool than girls (because “we don’t want to have a “girls’ class, now do we?”).

    But it was a very interesting read. Thank you.

    Reena (doing my MA in folklore, we even had a lecture together last semester)

    •  Hi Reena – thank you for your corrections. I had a hard time finding accurate English-language information (next time I will ask a native for help). I’m still impressed with how much parental leave, whether maternity or paternity, exists in Estonia.

      It’s unfortunate that students are treated so differently… but on the other hand, it’s wonderful that women got the right to vote without much hesitation!

      Good luck with your MA!

  4. reena purret says:

    Oops, I forgot – I have lived here for 26 years and I think I’ve had my ass grabbed max 5 times, not more. Maybe less. It’s rather something that drunk assholes do and I try to avoid the company of drunk assholes. = also not hanging around town square on Friday night etc.

  5. neiti says:

    Things are maybe better in Estonia than in US but I’m sure you cannot have lived in Estonia for a year without noticing the fact that because of the low income and low governmental aid more and more people are forced to move to other countries to work. That leads to the situation where men leave their homes to work abroad and women are forced to stay with kids – or the kids are left behind to a grandma or other relative. The aid that the state pays for people who have children is 38 euros per month per child – since you have lived in Estonia, you know that with that money no one is able to feed a child for a month. Thus the government indirectly supports the flee of labor force to nearby countries.

    The situation with the incoming workers is problematic also in those nearby countries. The model of the situation is well-known to a Californian I guess: if an immigrant is ready to work with a lower salary, companies are ready to hire them. In Nordic countries where the flee of Estonian workforce is focused on, the labor unions have always been very strong. The cheap immigrant worker who is not part of a union is thus also on their part destroying the welfare of the neighbor countries. Often the salaries paid to Estonian workers are much lower than the salaries paid to Finnish, Swedish or Norwegian workers – so the only ones to benefit are the employment agencies which use both companies and workers

    At the same time Estonia wants it to be recognized as a Nordic country instead of Baltic even though the only connective characteristics for Nordic countries is the high rate of income and very highly esteemed social welfare system which both are supporting wide gender equality.

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