Maria Raunio – a Member of Parliament with an elementary school background

JUNE 2017

“When women have had no direct influence whatsoever on legislation, this has resulted in their being subject to all the laws created by men, no matter how difficult and inconvenient for women these laws have been.” 

This was written by Maria Raunio, who as a young woman had been the model for Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting A Girl in the Old Church at Keuruu. Maria, who became a professional seamstress, later on as an adult was active as an agitator for the feminist and labour movements, and in the early years of the parliamentary institution, between 1906–1909, as a Social Democratic Member of Parliament.

The painting A Girl in the Old Church at Keuruu was finished in the late summer of 1889 in Keuruu. The young Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) used Maria Saarinen, who was then 17 years old, as a model for a humble church girl, placing her in the middle of the church aisle, with a psalm book in her hand, looking towards the altar. The two other identified models of the painting are the impressive vicar Herman Pihlman (in service 1886–1906) and the sexton Fredrik Uskali who is moving along the aisle.

More than 30 years after finishing the painting, after the Finnish Civil War in 1918, Gallen-Kallela characterized Maria as a lost soul in the patriotic sense, who had lost her innocence. The fact that Maria had become an agitator for the labour cause, didn’t go along with the artist’s idea of Finnishness.

The wooden church in Gallén’s painting was built in the 18th century, and is the same one that the mill owner Gösta Serlachius later wanted to buy and move to Mänttä, but the parish of Keuruu wouldn’t give up their church, just as the parish of Petäjävesi wouldn’t give up theirs. In a letter Serlachius sent to Gallén he noted that the girl in the painting was beautiful, “just like all the girls in Keuruu are”. Maria / Maiju with her sparkling eyes has been characterized, apart from having a beautiful face, as intelligent and lively. Gallén possibly noticed the young beauty in the summer of 1889 at a summer party organized in Keuruu for the benefit of the municipal hospital of Keuruu, a party whose programme included Robert Kiljander’s play Amalia ystävämme (Amalia Our Friend). Gallén, Louis Sparre and Eero Järnefelt made the scenography for the play and Maria had a small part in it.

The church girl subject had already interested Gallén when he was staying at Ekola Croft by the lake Jamajärvi in Keuruu. Later on, to the collections of the Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation, a work called Church Girl has also been acquired, the model for which was one of the daughters of Ekola Croft, probably Johanna.

Maria Saarinen (1872–1911) was born in Keuruu in the family of tailor Erland Saarinen and the maid Kristiina Hellén as the eldest of thirteen children. The home had a religious background, but after the working class had become conscious of the need to improve their situation, the family began to support the cooperative and working-class ideals. The Saarinens’ home was among other things provided with a sewing machine, their home served as post office, telephone centre and later also as the cooperative shop of the workers. Even though the income of the Finnish-minded, energetic family was small, all the children could go to elementary school, something that still wasn’t common at the end of the 19th century.

Maria married the painter Kalle Flinta (later Raunio) and the couple had seven sons, five of whom reached adult age. In 1905 her husband immigrated to the USA, but died there during the same year in a mining accident. Maria was left alone with her small children and had to depend on poor relief to feed her family.

After becoming a widow, Maria wanted to open a grocery store, but couldn’t get a warrant for a loan. First she moved to Tampere and worked as a clerk for Kansan Lehti (The People’s Paper)and left her children with her parents in Keuruu. From Tampere she moved to Lahti and became editor of the paper called Raivaajat (The Pioneers). Later on Maria was an ambulating orator. At the beginning, she was paid by the Women’s Suffrage Committee, and later by the Social Democratic Party’s electoral district of Mikkeli, as whose actual agitator she ambulated, for example, the Northern Häme, the Southern Vaasa and the Mikkeli districts.

Maria Raunio was a candidate in the first parliamentary elections. The parliamentary reform in Finland was in its day exceptional, in the sense that it granted also women suffrage and eligibility. Maria was elected to Parliament in the eastern electoral district of Vaasa, and she was one of the nineteen female members of the first Parliament. Having served as a Member of Parliament in 1907–1909, she was no longer put up as a candidate in 1910. The reason was that she hadn’t followed the group discipline during a voting about the Parliamentary Supervisory Council.

As a Member of Parliament, Raunio strived above all to improve general culture, education and the situation of poor women and children. She for example proposed “a period of protection”, that is maternity leave, the establishment of municipal midwives, and also wanted homes to be created for poor orphans, for destitute children and their mothers, in other words she formulated the idea of the necessity of “women’s shelters”. She also considered it important to build mental hospitals and sanatoriums. In her opinion, the best way to prevent poverty was education.  Maria even proposed that elementary school should be compulsory for everyone and the base for continuing to secondary school. In addition, she requested the establishing of school kitchens in elementary schools and the organization of clothes aid for the poor pupils.

After being obliged to leave Parliament, Maria immigrated to the USA. Her future, second husband, the tanner Aaltonen, Maria had met in Lahti. The couple got married in the USA, but their marriage was short-lived and soon ended in divorce.

Initially, in the autumn of 1910, Maria served as an orator for the western district of the American-Finnish Socialist Organization. In the following spring, she moved on to becoming the editor of the first American-Finnish feminist paper Toveritar (Woman Comrade)which was being published on the north-western coast in Astoria, Oregon. After having lived only a little over a year in the USA, Maria died suddenly in the midst of her career only 39 years old. The cause of death of Maria (Maiju / Mary) appeared to be an overdose of sleeping pills. It has never been clarified whether her cause of death was deliberate or an accident. Maria is buried in Astoria.

Marjo-Riitta Simpanen
Curator, Art historian

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Girl on the Old Church at Keuruu, 1889.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Girl on the Old Church at Keuruu, 1889., oil on canvas, Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Yehia Eweis.