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  • Women in the Margins, or Not?The Year in Finland
  • Maarit Leskelä-Kärki (bio)

As 2017 marks the hundredth anniversary of Finland's independence, media coverage on literature and art depicting the history of Finland has grown, including the country's biographies. In August, the biggest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, revealed how unbalanced the publishing of biographies has been. The article claims that out of fifty-six published biographies this autumn, only six were about women (Kanerva). Instead of concentrating on the question of why big publishing houses are primarily publishing biographies about men, including former presidents (like C. G. E. Mannerheim), sportsmen, politicians, and other present-day people, the Helsingin Sanomat article leaves women authors and biographies of women aside. The pictures in the article depict those men who have been written about—and another picture gallery does represent women, but only present-day women (including actors, business leaders, artists), and not historical women. Thus it totally neglects those marvelous, highly scholarly biographies of women that have been published this year. As it bases the information only on the catalogues of big publishers, it also leaves many biographies of women unmentioned. And it does not take into account the hybrid genre of biography, but gathers everything (including memoirs of present-day politicians, interview books on athletes and pop idols, scholarly biographies, and autobiographical books) under one genre heading.

After reading the Helsingin Sanomat article, I decided to write a letter to the editor to ask whether we should think more about the genre of biography and the historical and gendered context of writing biographies rather than concentrate on reconstructing biography as a genre for and about men. Shouldn't we ask why the publishers are so eager to publish biographies on and by men and to promote them? As biography has historically been the genre of those who are seen as remarkable and worthy of attention, we should be careful in analyzing our cultural memory and ask whom do we remember [End Page 581] and whom do we write about in our present-day culture. What was striking was that the original article by Helsingin Sanomat hid behind an answer from a smaller publisher, Docendo, and reprinted the words of its publishing editor: "We just have to understand that, in fact, there just are fewer and less interesting women historically" (Kanerva). He even proclaimed that biographies on women are not being offered to publishers. I would have preferred that the journalist had studied this question more closely and asked why this undervaluation and underrepresentation of women's lives continues to exist.

During the past couple of years, two of my colleagues have written biographies on historical women. It was hard for them to find a publisher, and in the end they placed their books with very small publishing houses run by one or two people. Such anecdotes tell a lot about the situation of publishing biographies on women and makes one too aware of the politics of publishing—especially when historical literature is at stake. Historical books and biographies are among the most-read nonfiction literature in Finland, and biographies in particular are favored by women readers. Why is it, then, so hard to publish biographies of important historical women?

This we need to ask again and again, and be careful when analyzing the literature that is being published, particularly in a small country like Finland. At the turn of the 2000s, Danish biographer Birgitte Possing assessed women's presence in biographical literature. She noticed that "92% of all reviewed historical biographies in Europe and in the US had male protagonists, and the 96% were written by male biographers. Thus, only 4% of the reviewed biographies were written by women, while just 8% had a female protagonist—and these women were either religious figures, queens or feminists" (Possing, Historical 1213–15). This imbalance persists today, although women's history has been one important field where biographical research has been developing since the 1980s. In my own book, Toisten elämät: Kirjoituksia elämäkerroista, which was published in September 2017, I aim at depicting the history of Finnish biographical tradition from the perspective of women biographers...


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pp. 581-587
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