Gender in Estonia: Observations from a foreign feminist

I came to Estonia as a visiting PhD student, a folklorist, meaning that I was primarily interested in tales and traditions. However, I’m also a feminist and a gender studies scholar, so I couldn’t help but notice some of the gender dynamics around me.

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in July 2011 was just how many pregnant women there seemed to be. There were many women out and about with small children, too. Coming from the United States, where most maternity clothes are meant to hide the pregnant belly for as long as possible, it was a refreshing change to see so many pregnant women out in public life. I subscribe to third-wave feminism, which promotes women having choices regardless of whether women choose traditional things like motherhood or modern, feminist things like having a career (or try to juggle both!).

With birth rates low enough to not replace population decreases due to mortality, it makes sense that Estonia  would have policies encouraging women to give birth. I later learned about Estonia’s progressive maternity leave policies, which I’d heard nicknamed the “baby salary,” whereby women can apply for 12 months’ paid leave during the birth of a child, and men can also apply for parental leave. This is, perhaps surprisingly, better than the situation in the US, where maternity leave is not guaranteed at the federal government level, and most states do not offer job protection or paid leave for women who wish to have children. And paternity leave? Practically unheard of in the US, unfortunately.


So on the surface, Estonia’s doing pretty good in terms of gender legislation. More options for women – meaning, not having to sacrifice their careers in case they want to have children – generally means more gender equity. It also seems that young people in Estonia receive a good amount of sex education in schools. Having greater access to knowledge about sex and sexuality usually means fewer unplanned teenage pregnancies and less disease transmission which, again, is an issue we’re having trouble with in the US.

However, Estonia also has one of the EU’s largest pay gaps between men’s and women’s wages. Men earn up to 30% more than women – and that’s a lot! Especially in a country where wages are, overall, considered to be on the low side compared to the rest of the EU. Although there is equality legislation in place, it seems that the gender gap is slow to close, in part due to workforce segregation that keeps women in low-paying public service occupations.

This tallies with my experiences exploring Tartu and the rest of Estonia. The store-clerks and secretaries I saw were overwhelmingly female. I also sat in and lectured to graduate seminars that were almost all women. Perhaps this has to do with the military service policy in Estonia affecting the ages and genders of university students, and perhaps it has to do with women seeking higher education in order to escape the low-paying jobs that require little education to obtain. Either way, it seems that the workplace, as with many spheres of Estonian life, is very gender segregated.


Gender segregation doesn’t automatically mean gender oppression (though it can). For instance, I was delighted to find a very active belly dancing community, wherein women form strong friendships and achieve a high degree of solidarity. I had an especially good time practicing American Tribal Style® with the women of Fakesnake, a Tartu-based troupe that studies the American improvisational style of belly dance that I had also studied in the US. While not all of the members spoke English, we all spoke the same dance language, so we were able to instantly synchronize our movements and perform and play together.

I got the sense that although Estonian heritage has a number of traditional dances to offer, many modern Estonian women prefer the independence of belly dance because they don’t have to wait up for a male dance partner, and could focus instead on dancing as a form of communication with their friends.

I was concerned that in a university town such as Tartu, alternative sexualities seemed invisible. Then again, I’m a native of California and have most recently attended school in Bloomington, Indiana (which is known as the gay capital of the Midwest), so I’m used to quite a lot of counterculture. Estonia does not currently recognize same-sex marriages, but then again, most parts of the US don’t either. Still, I would love to see more tolerance, which could be aided by organizations such as gay-straight alliances.

It seems to me that the general attitude in Estonia toward sex and gender was not overtly oppressive or sexist, but there are still deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that can be harmful. For instance, it seems like Gender Studies as a discipline has yet to take hold, and I met very few Estonians who identified as feminist. The desire to simply not talk about gender seems very strong. This happens in the US too, and is often accompanied by a smug attitude toward the past, acknowledging that feminists helped women get the vote, which is cool, so we don’t need feminism anymore.

We Can Do It Rosie the Riveter

In Estonia, it seems that the reverse is true: women have always been strong and have always had many rights,so why do we need feminism? I’m of the opinion that feminism helps point out inequalities based not only on gender and sex but also on the intersection of race, class, and other identity factors. Feminism also helps us see that narrow gender roles are not just something that negatively affect women, but they can impact men, too. Being forced to conform to damagingly limited stereotypes sucks for everyone.

Overall, my experience in Tartu was wonderful, and I never felt that institutionalised sexism affected me negatively. Then again, I stayed only 10 months, and circulated mostly in university culture, which tends to be more egalitarian. It’s also worth noting that I experienced more sexual harassment in Estonia than I ever did in the US, including incidents where men groped and grabbed me while I was walking in public areas. I felt upset and violated. I wondered how common these events were, and how Estonian women felt about them. I wondered what kinds of life experiences these men had, in order to feel like it was somehow appropriate to molest a stranger in public.

In the end, these are the observations that come from living in a place just long enough to learn my way around, make friends, and start to get a feel for the culture. There are surely aspects of Estonian culture that I don’t yet understand, and this is one of the reasons I’m hoping for a chance to come back. In the meantime, perhaps gender equality will slowly continue to improve, as more people come into contact with global cultures and realize that there’s more than one way to go about these things.


This article was first published by the University of Tartu blog. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover picture: a scene from the “Three Kingdoms”, a Sebastian Nübling’s production for the Tallinn-based theatre, NO99.

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