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Päivi Setälä

Päivi Eeva Marjatta Setälä (née Priha)
Born January 20, 1943, Kuopio. Died March 3, 2014, Helsinki.

Master of Arts, 1968 and Doctor of Philosophy (General History), 1977, University of Helsinki
Honorary Doctor, University of Kuopio, 2005

Docent, General History, University of Helsinki and University of Tampere, 1978-2004
Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Helsinki, 1991-94
Board Member, Federation of Finnish Learned Societies, 1981-86
Research Council for Culture and Society, Academy of Finland, 1982-87
Director, Kristiina Institute, 1991-94
Project Leader, Academy of Finland, 1992-2001
Director, Finnish Institute in Rome, 1994-97
Chair, Finnish Institute in Rome Foundation, 1999-2005

State Award for Public Information, 1991
Warelius Prize, 1998
Finnish Church’s Cultural Award, 2003
J.V. Snellman Award, 2006
Commander of the Order of the White Rose of Finland, 2008
Knight of the Order of the Lion of Finland, first class, 2008

Photo: Eero Roine, HY.
Written by Lauri Lönnström
Translated by John Calton

A Pioneer in Women’s Studies

Päivi Setälä began her studies at the University of Helsinki in 1961. She studied history, and from the very beginning participated in the activities of the Kronos student organisation and Hämäläis-Osakunta, one of the student nations at the University. Setälä had no particular academic aspirations at the time, but her talents soon became evident.  The then professor of Finnish and Scandinavian History, and the supervisor of Setälä’s master’s thesis, Pentti Renvall, saw the potential in Setälä and arranged a research scholarship in Stockholm for her.

Setälä initially studied Finnish history, but attending a course offered by the Finnish Institute in Rome in 1964 gave a new direction for her studies. She became interested in Roman history and met Jaakko Suolahti, a professor of General History. In 1970 Suolahti recruited Setälä as an assistant of General History and to participate in the Roman Industrial History project. In 1977 she completed her doctoral thesis on the female landowners who lived on estates which produced clay for the brick industry in the Roman Empire.  

The historical study of women became increasingly topical during the 1980s. Setälä was greatly encouraged by a trip to the United States, after which she began to emphasise the proprietary role of women in the Roman Empire as owners of clay pits. Her book Antiikin nainen (‘The Woman of Antiquity’) was published in 1993 on the back of her lectures. The book achieved great success and was nominated for the Finlandia Literary Prize for Non-Fiction and was translated into Swedish and Estonian. Three other books dealing with the history of women followed: Keskiajan nainen (‘The Medieval Woman’) in 1996, which was also nominated for the Finlandia Literary Prize, Renessanssin nainen (‘The Renaissance Woman’) in 2000, and Pohjoisen renessanssin nainen (‘The Woman of the Northern Renaissance’) in 2002. The role of women in European history was at the centre of Setälä’s pioneering work. In addition to her literary output she also served as an advisor on several PhD theses dealing with Antiquity and women’s history.

Photo: Eero Roine, University of Helsinki.​
Photo: Eero Roine, University of Helsinki.​

One of the central themes of the 350th anniversary of the University of Helsinki was women’s university education, and as a result the Christina Institute was founded to promote Women’s Studies at the University. Setälä was chosen as its first director, and was also given a supernumerary professorship in Women’s Studies. She acted in these capacities between 1991 and 1994.

From the late 1970s on, Setälä was entrusted with several honorary positions, and by the end of her life she had amassed quite a few of them. Perhaps the most notable of these were being appointed to the Research Council for Culture and Society of the Academy of Finland (1982-87), and being made a member of the board of the Finnish Cultural Foundation (1987-1996), as well as the board of the Order of the White Rose of Finland and the Order of the Lion of Finland (1993-2004). She was among the first women to hold these posts, if not the first.

Setälä was—and remains—an important role model for young academic women, and a pioneer in Women’s Studies.



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