Volume 2 Number 1
Finland's 'Miss Grit'
01 January 1989
'If it were not for Margit Borg Sundman, I would be dead today.'
By PAUL GUNDERSEN
Eighteen months ago, the veteran Finnish politician Margit Borg Sundman celebrated her 85th birthday. At the reception, a woman stepped forward and announced, `If it were not for Margit Borg Sundman, I would be dead today.' She described how some 20 years before, Borg Sundman had found her lying overcome by drugs in a deep snow drift, as she hurried home from a midnight sitting of Parliament. Instead of simply informing the police, Borg Sundman had taken her home and nursed her. The young woman had made a new start and gone on to help other addicts to do the same. As she spoke, she said, a chorus of 70 former addicts was giving a concert in the church next door to the reception.
The story is typical of Borg Sundman, who for 22 years was one of Finland's most colourful and fearless Members of Parliament, a conservative who was prepared to vote with the socialists against her party when she deemed it right. Along with her intense political activity went a fiery character and an extraordinary interest in individuals which continues today.
Her life spans the most dramatic years of Finland's history. Born in 1902, she grew up under the Russian Czar, when Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia. She was one of nine children of a Lutheran dean. The composer, Jean Sibelius, was a cousin.
When Margit was 15, the Finns seized the opportunity of the Russian Revolution to declare independence, which Lenin acknowledged. Next year a bitter war broke out between the Finnish `whites' led by Marshal Mannerheim and the `reds' who were inspired by the Russian revolution. The reds were defeated and in July 1919 Finland became a democratic republic, but the scars left by the civil war affected political life for decades.
Margit grew up in a home where moral and spiritual values were stressed. Her father had the disconcerting habit of greeting visitors with enquiries about the state of their souls. Both parents set great store by honesty and courage, hospitality, selfdiscipline and faith.
With her vitality and wholeheartedness, there was no lack of eager young men competing for Margit's favours. Her sister suggested she sort out the sheep from the goats by inviting her suitors on a hundred-kilometer hiking tour in the wilderness of Northern Lapland. So Margit set out with one candidate at a time, taking her sharp-eyed elder sister along as chaperon and judge. Finally she made her choice. The marriage ended only eight years later when her husband died of cancer.
No pay rise for MPs
She studied at Helsinki University and then in the US at Vassar and Columbia University. This paved the way for her to jobs previously not held by women. Soon she was Personnel Manager of one of Finland's huge forest-based industries, and by 1940 was working in the Ministry of Social Affairs.
In this position she was one of those responsible for the vast resettlement programme which resulted from Russia's invasion of Finland in 1939. In March 1940 Finland was forced to cede 16,000 square miles to the Soviet Union. 400,000 people had to evacuate their homes at a few days' notice. People all over the country opened their homes and all the refugees were rehoused.
In under a year, Finland was back at war again - first as a military ally of Germany, in an attempt to regain the lands lost to Russia, and then, after defeat by Russia in 1944, fighting the Germans in Lapland. During this period, when most men were at the front, Borg Sundman was in charge of the female workforce.
In 1947 she was elected President of the National Council of Women in Finland, a post she held until 1967, and in 1948 she entered Parliament. She also became a member of Helsinki City Council and in 1954 became Executive Vice-President of the International Council of Women. She was known for her stand against all forms of injustice, particularly towards women.
Just as she was beginning to climb the political ladder, she met the ideas of Moral Re-Armament. `I was using all the usual selfish, divisive, political tricks, although I thought I was a Christian,' she remembers. `These people talked about standards of morality and taking time to listen quietly for God's direction. "How can a politician apply moral values to his work?" I thought. "How can a politician find time to think?"'
Moral Re-Armament, she says, threw the faith she had learnt as a child into a wider perspective, and strengthened her belief in the individual and her determination to fight for what she believed. This led her to build bridges across party lines - apologizing, for instance, to one colleague to whom she had said `cruel words', although their opinions continued to differ. Later they cooperated in defeating a proposal to raise MPs' salaries at a time of national industrial unrest over pay.
In the Sixties Borg Sundman found herself at the heart of a national debate on faith and morality, sparked off by a book by the Finnish author, Hannu Salama, Midsummer Dance. Borg Sundman felt that Church and political leaders were allowing the essentials of Christianity to be repudiated and with a few other MPs tabled a question to the Cabinet on blasphemous and degrading publications. Eventually the Minister of justice took the book to court - a mistake, Borg Sundman says with hindsight, as it only gave the author's ideas more publicity.
She was pilloried by the media but characteristically stood her ground. On one occasion she and some leading clergymen were invited to take part in a public debate on morality. All the standing room in the hall was filled and none of the clergy turned up. Every time Borg Sundman tried to make a point there were shouts of derision. Finally a psychologist on the panel began to analyze her sex life. The speaker, Borg Sundman replied, had clearly not read page 32 of the university's standard text book on social psychology, written by herself. The hall fell quiet as she proceeded to express her strongest convictions. Ilta Sanomat, the country's largest evening paper, devoted two pages to the meeting next day, under the headline, 'Margit stood up alone against the packed hall.'
By 1970 she had been crippled by an unsuccessful hip operation but took the debate into a wider arena at a conference for International Education Year in Bangkok. As part of the committee drafting the summary of proceedings she was struck that nothing was being said about character development or the importance of moral foundations. The committee split over her motion to include this element - the African and Asian countries voting for it, and North Americans and Europeans against. Borg Sundman was defeated by two votes - but, she noted, the meeting did not have a quorum.
That evening she went to the Norwegian chairman of the meeting, brandishing her crutches, and got him to promise to take another vote next day. She spent the night lobbying and drafting a motion for a final resolution, which was carried by a majority of two next morning and adopted unanimously by the General Assembly. At home in Finland, the episode earned her the nickname of `Miss Sisu' (guts or grit).
She took up the cause of ecology before it became fashionable and led the Finnish delegation to the interparliamentary conference in New Delhi in 1969, where the environment was high on the agenda. The delegates took the overnight train to Moscow and continued by plane. Borg Sundman found herself sharing a sleeping-car with a long-standing adversary, Hertta Kuusinen, President of the Finnish Communist Party and daughter of one of Stalin's Cabinet during the Finnish-Russian war.
After a while, overcoming her antagonism, Borg Sundman suggested they go to the restaurant car. Kuusinen told her there was none on the train. Borg Sundman was on the verge of snapping, `So this is your ideal country!', but instead she offered to share her sandwiches, as Kuusinen had forgotten to bring any.
Early next morning Borg Sundman knocked on Kuusinen's bunk and asked if she could read the day's text -`Carry one another's burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.'
`That's good,' said Kuusinen. `Where does it come from?'
'It's from the Bible,' said Borg Sundman. As they started in on the sandwiches again, Hertta Kuusinen began to talk about the war years, which she as a Communist leader spent in a Finnish jail. While she was there her only son had died, without her seeing him or even hearing he was ill. Borg Sundman was shocked - she had not known that Kuusinen had a son.
Borg Sundman told Kuusinen how she had hated two people who had wronged her and how God had healed her heart.
Kuusinen listened intently. `I don't believe in God,' she said.
`I had a faith,' said Borg Sundman. `Yet I allowed bitterness to take root in me.'
A friendship was born that lasted until Hertta Kuusinen died.
Borg Sundman rejected communism, but she also attacked the materialism and hardness of capitalism. It was members of her own Party who finally engineered her departure from Parliament in 1970. When she left, a political opponent came and thanked her for a conversation they had once had -`Through it I was liberated from the yoke that kept me in chains.' Looking around furtively, the MP whispered, `Perhaps your God and your promise to pray for me helped, although I don't believe in him myself.' Sundman says that this handshake from the other side of the barricade was the best farewell gift of all.
Poems at night
She remains alert, moving around on her crutches. Six years ago, aged 80, she was invited to Zimbabwe, a country facing similar resettlement problems to those she had dealt with in Finland in the 1940s. Against medical advice, she decided to go. `Next time we meet it'll be in Heaven,' said her cleaning lady sadly. But Borg Sundman returned - in better health than she had set out.
Leaving the intensive life of politics was difficult, Borg Sundman admits. It wasn't easy to accept that new people could make a go of leading the organizations she had run for years. But she is not lonely. `If your heart is filled with people your own loneliness simply evaporates.' Living in constant pain, she singles out self-pity and indifference as the `worst of all diseases' - and compassion as one of the greatest gifts.
One night when she was nearly 80 she woke with an urge to go to her typewriter. She found herself writing poems - something she had never done before, although she had written a four-volume autobiography - and at the end of three months was able to publish a volume, It's a joy to live. The second edition has sold out and people from all over the country have written to tell her how much it has meant to them.
The poems take the form of a Don Camillo style dialogue with her Creator. In one she describes a person coming to her in deep trouble. She responds with a slick 'recipe', but it does not help. `I did not know her pain because I was not patient enough to listen and she herself did not even know her trouble,' she tells God. `But you knew. We could have listened to you together, because you have the answer for the listener.'
Borg Sundman has carried many banners in her life - education, social work, politics, the cause of women, international cooperation. Most important of all, she feels, is the banner of faith, of the change that can come to the world if God's will prevails. `I once consciously laid down this banner. I wanted to be free. But I found myself under my own dictatorship and my alleged freedom became my chains. I learned, paradoxical as it may sound, that only tied to something higher than ourselves, to the Lord of life, can we become truly free.'