If you believe that women hold up half the sky – at least – then you're going to love Helvi Sipilä. Little known outside her home country of Finland, she took her cues from past suffragette leaders as Victoria Woodhull, Frances Barker Gage, and Sylvia Pankhurst and helped pave the way for the generation of female leadership typified by such powerhouses as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama.
In 1972, a new Assistant Secretary-General walked onto the floor of the United Nations. Unlike any other member of the UN senior management team up to that point, this Assistant Secretary-General wore a skirt and heels. Her name was Helvi Sipilä and she was the first female high-level UN official, ever. When she took the position, the UN management team was then 97% male.
Being a woman in local politics – nevermind in a global politics – was then considered an extraordinary accomplishment. But it was time for this to change. And Helvi was ready to lead the charge.
“Half the world was ‘found’ in the 15th century,” Helvi used to say, referring to Christopher Columbus’s exploratory voyage around the world. “But it would take another 500 years before the other half of humanity was officially recognised.”
Helvi Sipilä dedicated her entire life to the advancement of women. Born Helvi Maukola in Helsinki, Finland, she may have been brought up in the countryside, the only child of a pair of farmers, but she went on to become one of the first Finnish women ever to graduate from law school.
She was one of the first women in Finland ever to establish her own law office in 1943, where she became known, right away, as an advocate for women's rights.
She was among the first female attorneys to join a newly formed Association of Women Lawyers. The organization would later expand into the International Federation of Women Lawyers with Helvi at its helm from 1954 to 1958.
Her work on the international arena also began in the 1950s when she acted as commissioner for developing countries with the Girl Guides. From 1960-68, she represented the government of Finland on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which she did again in 1970-72. From 1968-70, she was elected international president of Zonta International, an organization dedicated to improving the status of women. And in 1971, she advanced to chair the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs Committee of the UN general assembly.
All these experiences more than qualified Helvi Sipilä to take the reins of the UN Secretariat in 1972.
Nothing was business as usual in the UN – or the world – after Helvi Sipilä hit the global stage. As Secretary-General for the first-ever World Conference on Women in 1975, she saw to it that targets were set on securing equal access for women to such resources as education, employment opportunities, political participation, health services, housing, nutrition and family planning. Further World Conferences on Women followed in Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995), ensuring that Helvi’s pioneering work continued.
Helvi Sipilä served as the head of the Center for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs until her retirement in 1980. She also aided in the foundation of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), changing the lives of thousands of women around the world, forever.
After retiring from the UN, Sipilä made history again when she ran for the Finnish Presidency, the first woman ever to do so. Though she did not win, she inspired an entire nation, and beyond, paving the way for women in politics, worldwide.
In 2001, at the age of 86, Helvi Sipilä experienced yet another first: That year in London she received the International Bar Association's outstanding woman lawyer award. By that time, she had already been awarded twelve honorary doctorates and been given the title of Minister in Finland.
Helvi Sipilä died peacefully in 2009 at the age of 94. She will forever be remembered for her courage, perseverance, and leadership in advocating for women's rights. Throughout her life, she demonstrated a strong sense of justice, and dedication to political, social, and legal change for women. She represented Finland in the fight for gender equality with grace and patient fortitude, showing women from countries everywhere how it's done. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
Many thanks to Tuija Wallgren of Paris and Helsinki for nominating her for the #HistoryHero BLAST.