Former Social Democratic Party (SDE) member Urve Palo who has served in four governments, long-time leading Center Party politician, European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson and Reform Party chairman Kaja Kallas are among the most successful women in Estonian politics, while gender stereotypes and discrimination are not unknown to them.
“Pealtnägija” collected personal stories of women in Estonian politics that all suggest politics is not somewhere you can show weakness.
“Two years ago, when I was economy minister – an economy minister in her forties – the then editorial board of Postimees decided to go after me. It started with editorials and op-eds where I was referred to as “girlie” and “princess.” I find it extremely unintelligent. I had not thought this was the level of a journalist. After they could no longer come up with belittling titles, they resorted to using a photograph that was clearly of me. Except, instead of portraying my head or my feet, it was just of my backside,” Kadri Simson recalls.
“One example from behind closed doors is when we were discussing something during a government sitting and I disagreed with Jürgen Ligi. And I have noticed that Ligi completely loses control when someone, especially a woman, disagrees with him. He does not like men disagreeing with him either, but he is still able to keep a hold of himself if that happens. He told me: ‘You’re not in the kitchen here!’,” Urve Palo adds.
“During the election campaign, I got letters telling me to cut my hair shorter, wear pant suits, use a lower tone of voice, perhaps get some glasses… You read them and think that the person’s mindset is that because a leader is supposed to be a great big man with a low voice, looking at you, you don’t fit the mold – that there’s something wrong with you,” Kaja Kallas says.
“I have been treated to lines such as “stop you clucking, Kadri” (as put by Jürgen Ligi – ed.) during public debates. It is sad when I think that I was likely not the first person to hear those words. Such an outburst on live TV says a lot about a person,” Kadri Simson finds. “If you have a colleague who engages in such formulas, the only way to get through it is by hugging them to death so to speak – also start referring to them as “darling” in one-on-one formats.”
Kaja Kallas recalls: “There was a party chairmen debate before elections, and before me, it was Jüri Ratas’ turn, and he just kept on talking and talking. When it was my turn, I was very quickly told to wrap it up. I said that it seemed others were given more time and that time suddenly seems to be flying by. “No, everyone has one minute!” I later wondered whether it had just seemed to me that I only got through two sentences, while others spoke at length. We then proceeded to time the speeches and found that Jüri Ratas got to speak for a full two minutes, while I was interrupted just 50 seconds in.”
Palo, Simson and Kallas are rather exceptions to confirm the statistical rule. While women make up around 30 percent of the Riigikogu and local government councils, only a few ever make it to the top.
“We can start with ministers. We have not had a single female prime minister nor a single justice or defense minister since we regained our independence. Those fields have belonged exclusively to men,” says Mari-Liis Sepper, equality policies expert for the Praxis Center of Policy Studies.
“Let us look at the elections this spring. Who won the elections? It was a party that had elected a woman to lead it. Let’s move on to European Parliament elections. Who won, got the most votes? Again, it was SDE – a party the leading candidate of which was a woman. However, what we got after society had sent such a message was a government only two of the 15 ministers in which are women. Two!” Raimo Poom from Eesti Päevaleht emphasizes.
The Praxis Center is set to publish a survey to explain why women seem to be falling behind men. It questioned a few dozen politicians and journalists and studied the formation of the image of a female politician in a few hundred newspaper articles published around election time.
“We cannot say that party leaders or male politicians have been spared the question of where are all the women. It has been put to party chairmen at several elections, has been relevant for some time,” Mari-Liis Sepper finds.
The Riigikogu has 72 men and 29 women, meaning that women make up fewer than 29 percent of MPs, which is the best result to date.
Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas got the single biggest mandate (20,083 votes) and many believed Estonia would get its first female prime minister next to its first female president.
Political journalist for daily Eesti Päevaleht Raimo Poom says that Jüri Ratas’ alliance with Isamaa and the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) was not just an exercise in political technology but also a sign of leading politicians’ fear of strong women.
“The people are on board and hold it entirely normal that women need to participate in political life, but what we’ve seen lately is a kind of last call for the patriarchy,” Poom says.
Kaja Kallas has previously admitted to shedding a tear out of disappointment. “I believe people to be who they say they are and act how they say they will act. I’m disappointed when they don’t, but I will get over it quickly.”
“The thought that perhaps the reason was that a young woman had won the election crossed my mind at some point. We have never had so many young female politicians before, giving the men a run for their money. At some point, there is resistance,” says Kristina Kallas, head of the Estonia 200 party.
If Kaja Kallas can feel hurt over how the men pulled the rug from under her prime ministerial ambitions, more experienced politicians Urve Palo and Kadri Simson know that a woman needs to work three times as hard as a man to get to the same place.
“When I returned to Estonia with a master’s degree from London and became the Center Party’s secretary general toward the beginning of the century, journalists wondered who was the new girl – a person with a master’s degree – in a situation where two other major parties had secretaries general one of whom was a year my senior and the other a year younger than me and neither had higher education,” Simson recalls.
“I remember well how when I served as minister of population in Andrus Ansip’s government, some wise men said on the “Keskpäevatund” radio show that the government does not have a single person with an education in economics. I did, but since I was a woman, I bet they didn’t ever bother to check my education. I had graduated from the University of Tartu economics faculty, [worked] 15 years in the private sector, seven of those as an executive, but since I was the population minister and a woman, I clearly knew nothing about the economy,” Urve Palo says.
After becoming education minister in 2014, Palo had to tackle the rocky ferry procurement and the situation of the national airline. She feels that she was treated unfairly by the media when it picked up on her competitors’ hints that these topics were too much for her.
“I was taking flak round the clock. Everything was called into question, described as foolish. That is when I saw that it was not the case for men. That some of them didn’t do anything or if they did, it seemed foolish to me. While all of it is subjective, I began to see this preconception toward women in top politics and the feeling stayed with me for some time. I wanted to return to the private sector to feel like a respected person again for a long time,” Palo admits.
Viktoria Ladõnskaja-Kubits is the only woman in Isamaa’s group of 12 MPs and has stood out by voting differently from her fellow party members on several counts. She was the only member of the conservative party to join the opposition’s no-confidence motion against the interior minister.
“It would not be entirely truthful to say that I do not wish there were more women in our group. I would definitely like it if there were more women,” she says.
Even though Ladõnskaja-Kubits has gradually withdrawn from party management, she does not want to play the card of victim of discrimination – unlike many of those from whom we’ve heard.
“When I was a kid in the early 1990s, my mother told me to forget the word ‘discrimination.’ If the word no longer exists in your vocabulary, you simply do not count on being wronged for certain reasons – because you’re a woman or because you’re a Russian in Estonia, because you’re young etc. I forgot the word ‘discrimination’ even exists,” she says.
Several of Ladõnskaja-Kubits’ colleagues who participated in the Praxis survey admit there are still double standards in society.
Former minister and soon to be mother of three Riina Sikkut has her own story.
“You keep on being asked how will you manage with the children, who is watching the children, who is babysitting? It was surprising to me, this feeling that if you’re a woman, it is not right for you to be doing certain things; that feedback was so… Dozens of people, it was so monotonous and overwhelming,” Sikkut says. “If I have decided that I want to play that role in the future, no one should feel more qualified to make that decision than me.”
“The women on the forefront of politics today need to be very strong to weather this personal attack against them – are you a proper mother, why do you have so many children – it’s not normal, or why don’t you have children,” Kristina Kallas says.
Leaving aside prejudice that a woman is incompetent or that it is impossible to be a successful politician and a mother, a female politician publicly standing up to a man is quickly labeled an emotionally heated woman, as was the case for President Kersti Kaljulaid.
“Mart Helme is emotional. He is emotional all the time. He is not one to hide behind numbers; he puts things very emotionally, while it is converted into charisma in his case. When Kaja Kallas or Kadri Simson allow themselves to be emotional, it is seen as hysteria,” Kristina Kallas finds.
“When you criticize the other side’s position, you are told not be so mean, that no one likes mean women. What do you mean? I’m explaining my position and using argumentation to make my point. However, men hear no such criticism. At least not that I have noticed,” Kaja Kallas adds.
The incoming Praxis survey could help answer the question why such an image has developed of women in politics.