Helvi Sipilä at 85 - a strong-willed woman marks the way

By Anne-Riitta Isohella
Photo: Milla von Konow

Helvi Sipilä
Helvi Sipilä

“I started out as a female lawyer, but soon turned into a promoter of women's rights. This was primarily due to my practical experience of the weaker position of women in society rather than any sentimental conviction.”
   The delicate fair-haired woman offers her guests gingerbread cookies and goose liver pâté on salted crackers in her suburban home in Espoo. Helvi Sipilä, who still follows world events as actively as ever, is well known for being a staunch promoter of world population development and welfare. She is, however, best remembered for her position as Assistant Secretary-General to the United Nations in the 1970s, the first woman ever to hold this post.


The only child of a wealthy farmer, Ms Sipilä was awarded her Higher Law certificate (Bachelor of Laws) in 1939, an exceptional feat for a woman at the time, but thanks to the example of her progressive parents she was brought up to think independently, regardless of her gender.
   After the war, the young lawyer and enthusiastic girl scout took on leadership duties in many international organisations. Ms Sipilä is convinced that the training she received as a lawyer and the language skills she acquired on-the-job are what carried her towards greater challenges from the 1950s onwards. It was a time when a woman was a rarity at the moving and shaking levels of society.
   Friends and colleagues from that time remember her uncompromising sense of justice and her persistence in defending those in weak positions, more often than not fellow-women.


The seeds of peace activism were sown early in the young child after Finland had gone through the transition from the Czarist period into a republic, resulting in the Civil War of 1918. The atmosphere left an impact on the soul of the three-year old and the mature Helvi Sipilä decided to “do all she could so that there will never again be war.”
   “When the League of Nations was founded, my fellows and I were happily convinced that that marked the end of war since the world nations could now negotiate with one another.”
   “Nevertheless, war did come”, said Helvi Sipilä, whose marriage in September 1939 to her husband Sauli Sipilä, economist and lawyer, was being celebrated at the same time as the radio news was announcing the outbreak of World War II. This is why Sipilä would never again repeat “the unrealistic declaration that there will never be a new war”.
   “At that time, I almost took on the role of warmonger”, says Sipilä who is also known for her spirit of national defence. “It is easy to understand that peace is not lack of war. Peace is only the situation in which a nation has no need for war.”
   “The only way to prevent war is to strive for justice in the world by reducing discrimination and injustices”, says the founder of the Finnish Refugee Council, the Finnish Organisation of the United Nations Women's Development Fund, and several other national humanitarian organisations, as well as being the honorary chairperson of countless associations.

A woman
in the UN

Helvi Sipilä knew that having elected a woman to the ranks of Assistant Secretary-General of the UN in 1972 would prove to be a significant turning point, also within the UN. She took maximum advantage of her high-profile position. She turned to the male leaders of the UN and reminded them that the world can ill afford to let half of its most valuable resources go unused: women.
   Sipilä, in charge of the Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, planted concepts important to the Nordic countries into the UN's vocabulary, words such as “humane” and “social”.
   In 1975 Helvi Sipilä organised the first UN World Conference for the Advancement of Women. She is now pushing for Finland to be selected to host the fifth conference in 2005. “Supporting this is the fact that the World's first UN Women's Development Fund was founded in Finland.”
   Mother of four and - in the words of one senior diplomat - “Finland's most international woman”, Helvi Sipilä was the first woman to stand for the office of President of Finland in 1982. She did not win, of course, but many say that her example paved the way for the near-success of Elisabeth Rehn six years ago, and for the final victory of Tarja Halonen earlier this year.
   “Tarja Halonen is an example of a woman who has achieved quite a bit”, Sipilä states, pleased above all with the current President's gender. She got to know Halonen when she asked the then lawyer for the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions to join the board of the Finnish Refugee Council, many years ago.

Helvi Sipilä, 85

Helvi Sipilä was born on May 5, 1915 in Helsinki. She was awarded her Higher Law certificate in 1939 and the title of Deputy Judge (Master of Laws) in 1941. She worked as a lawyer and managed her own legal office until 1972, when she was named Assistant Secretary-General of the UN. Sipilä retired from her post in 1980.
   She was the Secretary-General of the first United Nations World Conference for the Advancement of Women, held in Mexico during the International Women's Year in 1975. She also had a great influence on the UN's decision to celebrate the decade of women 1976-85 and to found the first women's fund.
   Throughout her lifetime the politically independent Sipilä has influenced the promotion of peace and the advancement of women. She headed the Finnish Girls Scout Organisation 1950-69. She has also been long active as a member of the international committee of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the International Federation of Female Lawyers, Zonta International, and the International Council of Women.
   Helvi Sipilä holds honorary doctorates from 12 foreign and Finnish universities.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.5.2000