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21 October 2020

Sanna Marin: Finland’s fearless prime minister is challenging sexism in politics

Marin, who was the world’s youngest head of government when she entered office in December 2019 at the age of 34, wants to change expectations of politicians. 

By Sophie McBain

In an interview with the Finnish magazine Trendi, the country’s 34-year-old prime minister Sanna Marin described being asked by one journalist, ahead of a meeting of her centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), whether she had cleaned her house that day. She reflected on how female politicians’ personal lives are frequently subject to excessive public scrutiny and criticism. As if to prove her point, her interview sparked a national debate and international headlines, not because of the words she said but because of the accompanying photoshoot. Marin posed in a black blazer with nothing underneath except a vintage gold-and-blue necklace.

While some online derided the photos as “tasteless”, “ridiculous” and “attention-seeking”, others were quick to notice the double standards. Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, Finland’s president between 1944 and 1946, and a former military leader, was after all photographed in 1914 stark naked on horseback, leading his troops. The Russian president Vladimir Putin is fond of the ultra-macho, unintentionally comical shirtless photoshoot. When David Cameron was snapped in his swimming trunks, emerging from the sea in Cornwall, these photographs invited gentle ridicule and unflattering comparisons with Daniel Craig, but no outrage.

The real problem is that too many people don’t expect politicians to be young, attractive and female. Marin seems determined to change that.

When she entered office in December 2019, Marin was the world’s youngest head of government (a few weeks later the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz returned to power, he turned 34 in August). She is the leader of a five-party coalition headed by five women, four of them under the age of 35. “It’s not as big a deal in Finland as it would be somewhere else,” she told Time magazine: she is Finland’s third female prime minister, and women make up 47 per cent of parliamentarians. 

Marin was born in Helsinki and was raised by her mother after her parents divorced when she was very young. She describes herself as coming from a “rainbow family” – her mother found love with another woman, something that she has said made her feel “invisible” growing up, when same-sex relationships were not recognised in Finland. Marin was the first in her family to go to university, and has said that her working-class background cemented her commitment to fighting all forms of inequality. 

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In 2013 Marin became the chair of the city council in Tampere, Finland’s third biggest city. The role raised her profile and popularity, and in 2015 she was elected to parliament. In early 2019 when the SDP leader Antti Rinn fell seriously ill, she served as his deputy for several months, and was later appointed minister for transport and communication. Rinne was forced to resign in December when he lost the support of his coalition partners over his handling of a national postal strike, and Marin was appointed in his place.

As well as the nationwide strikes, Marin has had to contend with surging support for the far-right Finns Party, which won 17.5 per cent of the popular vote in April 2019. The SDP, the largest party, won 17.9 per cent. Now she is also managing the country’s coronavirus response, for which she has won international praise.

Marin instituted an early, partial lockdown that succeeded in keeping infection rates among the lowest in Europe while also preventing a major economic downturn. By 16 October the country had registered 351 deaths from Covid-19 (compared to almost 6,000 in neighbouring Sweden), although new infections had doubled in the previous fortnight.

The SDP came to power in April 2019 promising to end the years of austerity imposed by the outgoing centre-right government by boosting spending on education, pensions and social services. Marin is seen as to the left of her party. She has pledged to make Finland carbon neutral by 2035, one of the most ambitious green commitments in the world. She has also said she wants to prioritise closing the gender pay gap (as in the UK, Finnish women earn on average $0.83 for every $1 men earn) and to encourage men to take up parental leave, which she raised from just over two months to almost seven months, bringing it in line with maternity leave. 

Marin has tried to model these ideals in her own life. She and her partner, the former professional footballer Markus Raikkonen, each took six months’ parental leave to care for their daughter, who is now two. In her Trendi interview she discussed the strain of trying to manage motherhood and work, but said she hoped she was setting an example for other women.

She has an Instagram account in which she documented her baby bump, posted a photograph of herself breastfeeding and, when she married Raikkonen in August, shared her wedding pictures.

The photographs, like the Trendi photoshoot, convey the unspoken message: “This is what a leader looks like.” 

This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic