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Jenny af Forselles

Jenny Matilda af Forselles
Born May 27, 1869, Elimäki. Died September 16, 1938, Helsinki.

BA 1889, MA 1900, PhD 1904, Imperial Alexander University

Swedish, German and History teacher at the Swedish private girls’ school in Helsinki, 1905–37
CEO at the Finnish Tourist Association, 1896–1905

Editor-in-chief of the Nutid paper, 1909–16
Counsellor for the Swedish department of the National Board of Education, 1920

Extraordinary official in the National Board of Social Welfare, 1918–21
Member of Parliament (Swedish People’s Party), 1909–10, 1911–17
Member of the Swedish People’s Party’s executive committee, 1906–16
Member of the board of directors of the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare, 1922–30, member of the central council 1920–38, member of the Helsinki chapter’s board, 1922–38
Chair of the Finnish Federation of Graduate Women, 1922–26
Member of the Finnish Military Institute’s board
Member of the Central Committee of Female Workers

Honorary member of the Lotta Svärd voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation for women
Honorary member of the Finnish Federation of Graduate Women, 1929

Photo: National Board of Antiquities
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by Joe McVeigh

Influential academic women

In the spring of 1921, Carin Rosenius, the English language lecturer turned rector at the Helsinki Swedish Girls School, convened the first meeting of a Finnish academic women’s association. She got the idea for the group after spending time at a conference in London for the International Federation of University Women in 1921. The chair of the meeting in Helsinki was Dr Jenny af Forselles.

As a female PhD, a former member of parliament, a well-known supporter of social work and an esteemed teacher, af Forselles was the perfect choice to be the public face of the organisation. She had also already worked with groups such as the League of Finnish Feminists and was the editor of its journal Nutid from 1909 to 1916. The name of the new organisation became the Finnish Federation of Graduate Women, which is recorded in the minutes of its first meeting on May 11, 1922.

The first issue of 'Nutid' that Jenny af Forselles edited appeared in January 1909. Picture: The National Library of Finland’s digital collections.

There were a number of choices for who would be the first chair of the federation. Among them were Finland’s first female PhD, Tekla Hultin, as well as the docent and professor of General History, Alma Söderhjelm. Hultin was considered to be too politically involved as the chair of the Young Finnish Party, while Söderhjelm, who aspired for a professorship, was a controversial figure in academic circles. Among her other qualifications, af Forselles was the safe choice.

Soon after the federation was founded, however, problems began to emerge as the language conflict of the 1920s came to a head. The Fennomans and Svecomans argued over the laws of the federation which required an equal number of board members from both language groups. The academic women were divided into two groups, even though the federation remained their umbrella organisation.

The Fennoman members of the federation started to prepare changes to the rules. The Finnish-speaking people, who were quickly becoming the majority, also wanted more of an influence on matters. The vice chair of the federation, Kaino W. Oksanen, was the most fervent advocate for the changes. She was able to push her agenda through and the changes took effect in 1927, giving the Finnish-speaking majority a stronger position and weakening the influence of the Swedish-speaking side.

Jenny af Forselles, who was described as having a ‘calm and agreeable’ personality, had already left her chairwomanship in 1926. Evidently she was frustrated by how the basic goal of the federation – the advancement of women – had been overshadowed by the language conflict. Oksanen was elected as her successor. Due to her work which benefited the federation and her country, af Forselles was invited to be an honorary member in 1929.

Finnish female graduates of upper secondary school in 1906. Jenny as Forselles worked for a long time to improve the status and education opportunities for women. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

Today the Finnish Federation of Graduate Women has 20 local associations, including three which operate in Swedish, and thousands of members. The local associations organise various cultural events, lectures and informal programmes. The basic task of the federation, however, has not been forgotten. The federation is involved in the debate on education and equality with a number of organisations at the UN, such as ECOSOC, ILO and UNESCO.

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