Women have historically been equal to men in Estonia

Song and Dance Festival.
Song and Dance Festival. Source: Minupilt.err.ee/Kert Kõivik

Women's roles in Estonian history have changed dramatically. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, women in this region had significantly more rights than the rest of the world.

Merili Metsvahi, associate professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu, said on Radio 2's "Pulse" program that Estonian women were not as repressed historically as is commonly believed. The patriarchy was first acknowledged in Estonia during the second part of the 19th century. The eldest son, who also inherited the land, would become the family's most influential member. "Truth and Justice" by Tammsaare, for example, echoes this development.

Metsvahi said that for a long time, this gave the impression that Estonian society was always patriarchal. "Researchers have only recently begun to delve into the past, and it turns out that prior to the advent of Christianity, women in Estonia held positions of power and high rank. Especially when compared to the rest of the world," she said.

Metsvahi explains that in the 13th century, Estonian women had significant rights, including the extremely rare for that time right to inherit land. In coastal regions and on islands, males were sailors and Vikings, while women tended the land and bore responsibility for it. The arrival of Christian culture in Estonia transformed the status of women.

Speaking of the later period, women's status was higher in the 18th century than in the 19th, as the Estonian people did not adopt many of the new habits. For example, Metsvahi described how, near the end of the 18th century, power institutions appeared to people remote and distant. When regulations were imposed top down, they were often too alien to the populace's way of thinking and were simply not accepted.

Metsvahi told about a pastor from the parish of Torma, who described in his memoirs how he read out the new wedding regulations from the pulpit, the church pulpit at the time was the primary means of communicating with the general public: weddings could not last more than two days and there were limits on the number of attendees and the amount of beer and wine that could be served.

Weddings were very important at the time, according to Metsvahi, and were almost always held for more than two days. Besides, the amount of beer consumed exceeded the limit. "So when the pastor read the regulation, the congregation burst out laughing." The laws were distant from the people and frequently ignored.

Another case in point, unmarried mothers were treated terribly at the end of the 18th century in Sweden. In Estonia, too, there was a desire to enact legislation prohibiting the wearing of bonnets. A bonnet, on the other hand, was a sign of a womanhood at the time. However, the local way of thinking was, "When you first become a mother, that's when you become a woman, not when you marry," Metsvahi explained, and so because of the strong opposition to the regulation, it could not be implemented.

Women also had more leeway with their dowries. If a cow was given as dowry, for example, the woman could decide what to do with it. Similarly, Estonian girls could choose who they married. Historically, in many other countries, it was the parents who had the final say in this regard. "In comparison to the rest of the world, there were very few cases of young women being forced to marry someone they didn't want to," Metsvahi says.

It was important for people at the time to live in harmony with their families, animals and the natural environment, Metsvahi said. "In today's society, which has come to embrace antagonisms and sometimes overly individualistic values, people could learn a lot from our older traditions," she added.


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