Recovering old archives of my research to Finnish women’s life stories and their assimilation process in Australia
The original reason of why I came to Australia in 1995 was to conduct research on the Finnish women migrants to Australia. I had been accepted to do PhD studies with the University of Helsinki, under Professor Anto Leikola’s supervision in the General History Department. My accepted research title was A Comparative Study on the Situation of Scandinavian Born Women’s Assimilation to the Australian Society. A Study on how they keep their ethnic and cultural identity. (Vertaileva tutkimus Australian suomalaisten naisten sopeutumisesta ja suomalaisen kulttuurin säilyttämisestä).
For ten months we, my daughters and I, travelled around Australia interviewing mainly Finnish women and collecting hard data in a way of questionnaires. We landed in Cairns and visited Tully and Townsville. From there we went to Mt Isa for a month, then to Alice Springs, Adelaide and Melbourne. We stayed two months in Wollongong and Sydney area and then after another month’s stay at Mt Isa, we settled to Brisbane.
I interviewed 63 women, mostly from the Finnish background, spanning well over 40 years of immigration in Australia, conducted seven group discussions, had approximately 90 questionnaires filled, connected to other researchers, held seminars about my work and sang in every city to various groups of people who were willing to participate in my research project. In April, 1996 I presented a study paper on my research to that date at the 6th International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women in Adelaide.
Then we decided to stay in Australia permanently, and after a year, I deemed the distance to Finland too far to travel to and from, and boxed my research while waiting for new opportunities to carry it further. The new life took over and I shelved the research in my mind as well until a couple of years ago when the subject of my research came up in relation to my work and return to university. I ransacked our garage and took out the boxes and the floppy discs, the cassettes containing the interviews and related materials. It is amazing how quickly the technology of last decade gets old and outdated and it is hard to recover old research materials. But I did start to do it anyway.
Recently the subject came up again in relation to further studies and I was asked if I had in fact done some research for my PhD studies. So, out came the boxes and amongst it all I found a recording of the talk I gave when presenting some of my research at the 6th International Interdisciplinary Congress for Women in Adelaide on April the 26th, 1996. The title of my paper is: Some Experiences of the Nordic (Finnish) Female Migrants in Australia; how they have survived and keep up their ethnic identity. The paper includes ten life stories of the women I found interesting and who had emigrated from the Nordic countries to Australia during the 1950’s to 1964.
I was really curious of what I had said fifteen years ago as I didn’t even remember there was a recording of the presenting of the paper. So, I loaned a cassette player from an old friend and scripted it out and here it is. I have shortened it and modified the language. My paper might be of interest to someone currently doing research on immigration or collecting stories of women who have migrated to Australia or other countries as a comparison. It might be of interest to know that there have been others doing such research not so long ago.
Here are the basics of my talk in 1996 [April, Adelaide]
I’ve done a study on the Nordic women’s experiences in Australia. The reason I chose to interview particularly the Finnish women was because I was captured by their pioneering flavoured stories during the 70’s, when I was living in Mt Isa and also because no-one else has bothered to do so, so far.
When I first came to Adelaide to interview the women here, the notion of lesser importance was expressed by a woman who said to me : “Are you really interested in us women? Wouldn’t the male storied be more appealing?”
On the research method
At first when starting with my research, I thought that I could tell the Nordic women’s storied as a group but quickly found that it is not possible. I’ve grouped them according to their time of arrival to Australia. I’ve named them the 50’s [1951-1964], the 60-70’s [1967-1975] and Newcomers [thereafter], according to the ethos of the times when they arrived. (Now a days I could categorise the later group as the 80’s-90’s).
In this paper I am concentrating on the women from the 1950’s. And why is this? Because I was particularly captured by the early storied from Mt Isa and their inspiring character.
In my research I have mainly used the in-depth interview method [63 single interviews and 7 group interviews]. I have also collected hard data by the way of questionnaires .
At the same time, it has been somewhat of an anthropological study. [With my daughters and my family, we settled to Brisbane and went through the process of becoming Australian citizens.] I can compare my experiences in Australia as a teenager and now.
Who are these women?
In the group of women included in my paper [the 50’s], I have 41 interviews from the Finnish and Swedish speaking women migrants to Australia [1950’s to 1964].
The Finnish community in Australia is very close knitted and their experience has not been recorded because they do not cause any major problems. This is to say, from the government’s point of view.
There are about 17000 Finns and their descendants in Australia. Most of them came here between the years 1950-1975. Then the laws changed [the Australian government financial assistance schemes ceased to exist] and the newcomers have a completely different experience from the earlier arrivals. The whole Nordic ethnic population in Australia amounts to around 50000.
The common appearance makes it easy for the Nordic people to settle to Australia. We pass off as British if we don’t open our mouths. We have fair hair and blue eyes. The Swedish speaking learn English very quickly, except for the pronunciation of the letter j. The community holds close ties to each other and do not feel they need help from other groups. They are quite invisible as a group and as a whole when it comes to migration research.
A very brief historical background to Finland and migration and the position of women there
The area we now call Finland has been under Swedish rule until 1809 and then it became autonomy under the Russian rule. In 1917 when Finland declared independence the Finnish women had had a vote in local government since 1899 and in federal government since 1901.
Until the 1950’s Finland was characteristically an agrarian society. It was the last Scandinavian country to be industrialised. This quickly occurred after the WWII and during the 1950’s.
Every time during the history, when the times were ‘bad’, the Finns would emigrate. Presently, there are around 5 million Finns around the world. Many of the Finnish communities are quite old. Approximately 200-year old communities can be found for example in Ingermanland, Sweden, Norway, USA and Canada. They often keep their Finnish language up to the third and fourth generation and also preserve their Finnish customs.
How about the sample of the Australian immigrant women?
Most of the women in the 50’s group I interviewed come from the rural Finland, only two are from the city. They all have had their primary education [except the children] and are literate. Compared to many other groups immigrating to Australia, they are well educated. Two have secondary education. Most of them followed their husbands to Australia in order to keep the family together.
‘Tuovi’ (name changed for privacy reasons) is a typical one. She still can’t understand why her mother was so angry with her when she moved to Australia with her eight children. The morning after our interview, she came to further discuss the issue with me saying that she had been thinking about that question all night.
“I mean I had no say. My husband, who rarely did anything [meaning that he usually never showed any initiative for anything] decided that we would go after reading an article in a magazine about this other family who had moved. Within two months, he had organised it all, sold our house, and everything we owned. I didn’t even get to take my rug mats with me, only one suitcase per person. My mother stopped talking to me for two years. I mean, she should have understood. She never had any say herself. That is the way we were brought up, to follow our husbands.”
One of the main deciding factors for emigration to Australia was the articles published in the Finnish papers and magazines about the families leaving for Australia. Many families settled to Brisbane because during the Melbourne Olympics a famous Finnish sports commentator referred to Brisbane as the best place in the world. For many, that was their only information about Australia.
Although the decision to leave Finland was not theirs, the women were no victims to their faith and eventually took control of the situation. ‘Tuovi’ says: “Well I said to him, [husband] after we moved to Mt Isa and he was working in them mines.” Her husband had tried all kinds of jobs in several locations around Australia, from cane cutting to factory work while she lived in Brisbane with their eight kids. “Now we stay”, she demanded. “I put my foot down and said that we are not moving anywhere, before our children are out of the school. The pay check, every fortnight, was a real comfort. We never had that on the farm in Finland.”
Two thirds of the women I interviewed took a positive view after the move and many felt that anything is better than working the farm in Finland.
What did the women do in Australia?
They surely cleaned a lot of houses and businesses. They have worked in the factories and they have made sausages. Most of them  were at home taking care of their children. Each family had from 3-8 children and then there were other people’s children to care for.
Their efforts and they interests are all concentrated on the Finnish community, and their church, either the Pentecostal church or the Finnish Lutheran church or the various Finnish Associations. They job has been to maintain the Finnish heritage for their families, and do a lot of handicrafts.
English language skills
Their children have learned the English language and lost their Finnish skills in the process. This has generated a huge gap between the generations.
The Finnish conversations have often been limited to ordinary daily utterings like “would you like more milk” and such. The children’s Finnish is really bad and the parent’s English is if possible even worse. And I am talking about today . These women and their husbands never assimilated in a social sense to Australia. They for example never read Australian newspapers. They have lived all of their lives in Australia relying to the knowledge of their children or someone else who could speak English.
But of course for example in Mt Isa, where there were over 2000 Finns in a community of about 25000. And this was so the whole time between 1964 and 1974, at least or even longer (I left from there in 1975). So you didn’t have to speak English. Everywhere someone could be found who would speak your own language. And I remember how after coming to Mt Isa at the age of 16, after two weeks, I was interpreting for people who had lived there for 30 years. My grandfather never learned English; his daughter has never learned much English and her husband and their children spoke very poor English and Finnish.
How are they now? [In 1996]
Of the women I interviewed most are happy now. Except for a very few, they are widows and have survived their husbands and can do what they want. This they feel is a real blessing. They concentrate on their grandchildren and can freely visit Finland whenever they want. After 40 years, they have unanimously decided that their life was a good experience. They are not the same women who left Finland. They have learned unselfishness along the way and feel that if they had stayed in Finland they would have been more selfish.
The impact of the Finnish migrants on Australian society
The Australian community near where they live has learned to eat ‘pulla’. That is the Finnish sweet bread. And they have also learned that there are these people who, despite + 40° of Celsius, heat up this little room to + 80° and sit inside of it, naked and trow water on hot stones and think that it is wonderful.
I look at these women and see that they are just like everybody else who adjust to their situation which in many cases was intolerable.
In closing I’ll tell you ‘Anni’s’ story:
She came to Australia, through Finland from Karelia in the early 1950’s. She had been forced to leave her original home because of the war, when Karelia was overtaken by the Russians [Soviet Union]. She already lost everything she had once before coming here.
In Australia, she and her husband recreated their Karelia. Her house looks exactly like the houses there before the war. Singlehandedly, she built here house here, restored all the furniture and sewed the five meters tall red velvet curtains.
She has a dog, called Nelli, who is the size of a tea cup and has a velvet cushion. She also bakes the best Karelian rice pies I’ve ever eaten.
As her occupation she tells me, a cleaning lady. She cleaned in a nearby factory and everyone called her by her first name. Her job description is a little peculiar for a cleaning lady, though. Besides cleaning the factory, she also built the factory museum because she deemed it important for everybody that the history of the factory be told. There also, she restored furniture, built all the display cabins for the artefacts. She even restored the old saws and the woodworking tools.
Because she decided that the men who were supposed to do the interior painting in the factory did not do a good enough job, she also did the paining.
She told me that the ovener of the factory was happy with her and basically let her do what she wanted. She also told me what her wages were. I can only say that the director seemed to be a very honest and wise man when it came to his relationship with Anni. He employed her as a ‘cleaning lady’ and paid her very high wages. Her work was never acknowledged, though. She wasn’t looking for recognition. Her husband was well recognised as an artist in the community.
It gives me great pleasure to tell you about her in this conference. Here we can celebrate her and other gifted immigrant women who have come to this country.
As a conclusion to this posting I’d like to say that...
If anybody is interested in this kind of research, please tell me. I am really honoured to have been able to interview so many interesting women of Finnish background who have lived in Australia. Many of the people I interviewed have passed away, just like the people in the accompanying photographs but their memories linger on and are shared by their descendants, even though the next generation might not speak their language so well.
So, if you suddenly find that it is the melancholy tunes you like, it might be your Finnish background lurking, trying to tell you to find out more about your ancestry.