Developments in the position of women in Estonia 1882-2018

2nd part of the 19th century – 1st part of the 20th century

  • In 1882, Natalie Johanson-Pärna gave a speech to the Society of Estonian Literati about the education of Estonian woman. It is thought to have been the first time in Estonia when a woman was able to speak publicly about a topic concerning women.
  • In 1882, Lilli Suburg, the first conscious feminist, founded the first Estonian-minded school for girls in Pärnu.
  • In 1887, Suburg started publishing Linda, the first magazine for women, in Viljandi. In addition to feminism, it also addressed topics concerning school and upbringing.
  • In 1905, Helene Taar’s article (“Uue aja naisliikumisest”) “Women’s Movement of the New Era” was published in the Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) anthology “Wõitluse Päewil”. The article was one of the first about feminism in Estonia.
  • In 1905, the first women were allowed to attend Tartu University lectures without being enrolled as students. They were allowed to enter the lecture hall only when there were spare seats among the male students.
  • In 1907, Eesti Naesterahvaste Selts (the Estonian Women’s Association, later Tartu Naisselts or Tartu Women’s Association) was founded in Tartu. The association introduced women’s rights via events but also promoted national handicrafts, organised courses in handicrafts and housekeeping and more. The association also published the handicrafts magazine “Käsitööleht” and its supplement “Naesterahva Töö ja Elu” (“The Work and Life of a Woman”, later “Naiste Töö ja Elu”) which dealt with women’s issues.
  • In March 1907, a women’s meeting and gathering was held in Tallinn. People were encouraged to establish national women’s associations which would form a league of women’s equality to stand up for women’s rights as citizens wherever needed.
  • In autumn 1911, the women studying at Rostovtsev Private College and Jassinski’s higher women’s courses in history, language and jurisprudence in Tartu decided to establish the Estonian Association of Female Students (Eesti Naisüliõpilaste Selts). The aim of the association was to “illuminate for the female student the way to an independent profession and find her place in social life”.
  • In 1915, women were allowed to enrol in university in student places not filled by men and take exams on equal terms. However, women were not added to enrolment registers until 1917. The first woman to be enrolled at the University of Tartu was Yekaterina Sadovskaya; the first Estonian woman was Alma Lüübek.
  • On 30 March 1917, the Estonian Provisional Government approved a regulation which, among other decisions, gave women the right to vote for the first time in the country.
  • In May 1917 the first Estonian Women’s Congress (Eestimaa Naiste Kongress) was held in Tartu. Four other such congresses took place in 1920, 1925, 1930 and 1935.
  • In 1919, seven women were elected to the 120-member Estonian Constituent Assembly, and of the 100 members of the first parliament of Estonia, three were women.
  • At the 2nd Women’s Congress in 1920, the following positions were adopted:
  1. Women are to be freed personally and economically from the patronage of men.
    2. Women are to be given the same rights as men concerning children.
    3. Women’s decision-making power in family matters is to be regarded as equal to that of men.
  • In 1920, the Estonian Association of Women’s Organisations (Eesti Naisorganisatsioonide Liit) was founded, which was later renamed Eesti Naisliit.
  • In 1920, the academic student organisation Filiae Patriae, the first Estonian society of female students, was established and registered with the University of Tartu.
  • In 1935, the Chamber of Home Economics was founded which recognised household work as equal to the work done in other sectors of the economy.

2nd part of the 20th century

  • Between 1918 and 1971 there were no women among the members of the executive power of the Republic of Estonia. The first female minister was Renate Kaasik , and even that was as part of the government in exile in Sweden from 1971-1990.
  • In the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, including in Estonia, the roles and rights of women formed part of state propaganda, symbolised by the figure of the heroic Soviet woman. The main focus was on women’s participation in manufacturing and agriculture, with work heroes being highlighted. Mothers with many children were also awarded with honorary titles and medals, and they were depicted as being just as heroic as progressive workers.
  • In the Soviet Estonia of the 1960s, other images of women emerged alongside the working woman in women’s and fashion magazines, in films, on the streets and in commercials. Social guarantees important to women also improved. For example, in 1968 maternity leave was extended until the child turned one.
  • On 19 August 1991, the first Estonian club of the international organization Zonta International was founded in Tartu. Finnish Zonta clubs helped greatly in establishing the Estonian club.
  • After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, Siiri Oviir became the first female member of government, serving as the Minister of Social Welfare in the transitional government led by Edgar Savisaar. In the period from 1991-2018, the government has included female ministers 40 times.
  • In 1995, centres for women’s studies were established at Tallinn Pedagogical University, and in 1996 at the University of Tartu on local initiative and with the support of Western women’s organisations. Additionally, the NGO Eesti Naisuurimuse ja Teabekeskus (ENUT, NGO Women’s Studies and Information Centre) was founded in Tallinn on the initiative of foreign Estonians and foreign embassies in 1997.

1st part of the 21st century

  • On 25 November 2002, the first women’s shelter in Estonia was opened.
  • In 2003, the Parental Benefit Act was passed. It aimed to compensate loss of income due to raising children and to support people in combining work and family life.
  • In 2004, the Gender Equality Act was passed. It aimed to guarantee equal treatment of the sexes arising from the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia and to advance gender equality as a fundamental human right and common good in all spheres of society. To achieve this purpose, the act provides for:

1) the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of gender in the private and public sectors;

2) the duty of state and local government authorities, educational and science institutions and employers to advance the equality of women and men;

3) the creation of the right to claim compensation for damages.

  • On 4 January 2004, a shelter for mothers and children (Ema ja Lapse varjupaik) was opened by the Society of Johannes Esto in Tartu. The shelter provided housing and counselling for victims of domestic violence. It was later reorganised as an open centre for women – Tähtvere Avatud Naistekeskus. Zonta International District 20 (Finland-Estonia) helped open the centre.
  • In 2005, Margit Sarv was appointed as the first Gender Equality Commissioner.
  • In 2006, the Estonian Women’s Shelters Union (EWSU) was created.
  • In 2008, the EWSU launched the helpline 1492 from which victims of violence could get round-the-clock help. It is run with the help of volunteers and the funding of short-term projects.
  • Since 2013, women’s shelters have been offering counselling for victims of violence in addition to housing.
  • In 2014, the 6th Estonian Women’s Congress, entitled “Missed Opportunity” (“Kasutamata võimalus”), became the first to be held since Estonia regained its independence.
  • Since 2016, there have been women’s support centres in every county in Estonia.
  • In October 2017, Kersti Kaljulaid was elected as the fifth president (the first female) of Estonia.
  • On 25 September 2017, the Istanbul convention of the Council of Europe (2011) was ratified in Estonia. The convention aims to prevent violence against women and domestic violence.