Informal History of FAWN By Elizabeth Kendall

Once upon a time (before two generations of feminism and last Sunday’s March for Women’s Rights) women didn’t support each other very much or even talk to each other.  “When I moved to America in 1970 from Finland,” says Riitta Widen, one of the founders of the Finnish American Women’s Network and now its board’s Chairperson, “the women’s movement was not very present here.  Things were more equal in Finland.”  Widen spent her first diaspora years in Appleton, Ottawa, Montreal and Seattle.  When she came to New York in the late 1980’s to work at Finnair, she found some Finnish women in high places around the city – but no professional links among them, formal or informal.

“The idea to start a network was shared among Widen, Marjariitta Giardina (also at Finnair) and Tarja Ruuska, who now lives in Finland (but remains on FAWN’s advisory board).  They went to see Finland’s then Consul General, Maija Lahteenmaki, who came on board as an enthusiastic supporter.  “Maija was delighted,” says Widen.  That was in 1997.  The small band got together “four or five times” that year.  They took stock of the six or so Finnish-linked organizations in New York.  Lahteenmaki went to speak to the Finnish-American Chamber of Commerce, to see if it wanted to expand or change its shape somehow to include more women to it’s organizing body. 
conclusion reached was that Finnish-linked women needed their own organization.

The first formal meeting, at New York’s Estonia House in early ’98, spoke to the heart of that need.  It was called “Learn to Network.”  It featured guest speaker Merna Popper, then an editor of a women’s magazine in Westchester, New York.  Sixty-five to seventy women showed up.  And all of them joined. 

Was Widen surprised at the numbers?  “Not at the numbers,” she says. Working in Finnair’s passenger service at the JFK airport, she had seen a growing number of businesswomen come and go between Helsinki and New York.  What surprised her at that first meeting was the sense of “such a fever about getting something like this going.  There were lots of intelligent women – who had had few possibilities of networking in ”Big Apple”.

FAWN grew fast after that first meeting.  Two years after its inception, membership fees were introduced.  Now a core of about 100 members pays fees on gold and silver membership levels, while the mailing list hovers over 250 with participating women.

One of the key FAWN player is Katri Saunders, who came on board in 1999 and became, almost by chance, FAWN’s treasure and webmaster, linking members far and wide with a colorful, readable photograph-filled website ( 

What those members get, in the flesh, is a series of events – about five or six a year.  Some are “fun” – like the exuberant Finn Fun Day last May at New York’s Chelsea Pier; some serious - like the April, 2003 conference on Finnish women’s history, held at Scandinavia House and some gator for carrier development like “How to Succeed in Business” during spring 2003. 

The best thing FAWN offers, in the opinion of this reporter (an American FAWN member with close Finnish friends), is a sense of community - of a very special community.  Finnish women who find themselves making a life, temporarily or permanently, in the New York area, seem to be mostly strong individuals – enterprising, inventive, and outspoken.   Continuing contact between them and Finnish diplomats, such as Finland’s U.N. ambassador H.E. Ms. Marjatta Rasi and Finland’s New York Madame Consul Eva Leino, turns out to be a nurturing phenomenon all around.

As the organization evolves, a more active exploration of issues affecting women’s issues is planned. “I’m most proud of the things we do for the women’s cause,” says Widen. Her zeal informed FAWN’s most recent event, an absorbing panel discussion on the subject of domestic violence. The event, called “Silent Scream: Domestic Violence Against Women- the Cost of Hurt,” was hosted by FAWN board member Maureen Porter. H. E. Ms. Marjatta Rasi opened the session with a report on the new seriousness with which the U.N. treats the subject on a worldwide basis. Then came panelists Tracy Weber of the Major’s Office (Initiative to Combat Domestic Violence); Irene Navero, Executive Director of the Queens Womens’ Network; Inspector Kathy Ryan of the New York Police Department and her colleague Captain Charles Stravalle; Pastor Annele Martin of the New York Finnish Lutheran Congregation and artist and FAWN board member Rea Nurmi.
The sobering message, that any woman can be sucked into a spiral of abuse and shame; that help is needed to climb out; provoked much discussion after the panel’s end. 
But one outcome of the panel sums up FAWN’s hopeful spirit: panelist Rea Nurmi donated her vibrantly colored painting called “Healing Garden” to a women’s shelter, to be arranged by the 9th St. Lutheran Church. Perhaps this painting and the gift of it, can stand for FAWN’s mission: to be an active community; to consider women’s issues with energy and imagination.

Written for Finlandia Weekly May 2004