”We had no food at home”: Women's explanations for joining
the Red Guard in 1918 
Finnish women in the Civil War
Civil War broke out in Finland in January 1918, less than two
months after the country gained its independence. Officially the
bloody war between the Reds and the Whites  lasted for only three and a half
months but approximately 35 500 Finns lay dead in its wake.  Several women also took part in this
war: about 2000, mostly young women acted in the Red Guard as soldiers.  Their role models were the women of previous
revolutions, especially Russian women who had actually fought with
rifles in their hands. A majority of the women in the Red Guard,
however, worked as nurses, cooks and cleaners. Their contribution
to the Revolution  was significant.
After the unsuccessful uprising, both armed and unarmed Red women
were taken to court. I have studied the court cases of the unarmed
women (N= 267) from the region of Pori
 who were prosecuted after the war in courts
dealing with crimes against the state. In this article, I will
discuss how these women explained why they enlisted in the Red Guard
in court, and how they tried to justify their actions. I shall also
briefly discuss the significance of these statements for the sentences
For decades after the Civil War, Finns who fought for the Red
side were ashamed. In other words, those who had lost the war kept
silent about their experiences. Within the family, tales were told,
but in public the losers were silenced by shame. Not until in the
late 1960s, when the political atmosphere changed, were the Reds
finally entitled and ready to express their feelings and proffer
their version of what had happened during the war. During the 40
years’ interim, many had already died and many remained silent.
Most of those who were interviewed and whose narratives have been
archived were armed women. Those women who worked in the service
troops did not attract as much public interest. Most of this latter
group did not think their role was sufficiently significant to be
worth sharing with others or writing down. For this reason, first-hand
information about the real reasons why women joined the Red Guard
is very difficult to obtain. Fortunately, the official records of
the pre-trial investigations and the trials are available. These
records contain, among other things, the answers the women gave
when asked why they had joined the Red Guard.  In the following section, I will
outline the main categories of response in order to suggest their
relative order of importance.
The reasons given
Several reasons for joining the Guard were given. Discrepancies
between the reasons stated and the actual truth are likely and should
be taken into consideration. Discrepancies are most likely to have
occurred when the plaintiff’s commitment to the cause was a central
component in the sentencing process. The truth is less likely to
be uttered in cases where a lie might save the person’s life or
reduce her sentence. On a subject like this, determining when a
woman was lying was impossible and so stretching the truth was quite
safe.  Finding
out how these women tried to get out from an unpropitious situation
is interesting. Table 1 shows how many of the examinees were willing
to explain why they had joined the Guard.
Table 1. Number of women giving reasons for joining the Guard. 
|Revealed the reason
|Did not belong to the Guard
|Did not reveal the reason
In the hearings, 93 (34.9 %) of the total 267 women did not give
a reason for joining the Guard. This high figure is not surprising:
76 of these who did not answer had not actually been a member of
the Guard at all, but were being suspected of crimes against the
state for other reasons (for instance for possessing stolen goods).
Those who had left their homes as refugees were also included in
this group; thousands of civilians had, in fact, fled to the East
before the approaching White troops, who had been said to be revengeful
and violent. These refugees travelled together and were arrested
with the Red army. They were taken to the same prison camps to wait
for the investigations. 
Only 17 (6.4 %) women who had worked in the Red Guard did not
want to reveal the reasons for their actions. They considered it
safer to remain silent. The rest of the women, 174 individuals (65.2
%), explained why they joined the Guard (see Table 2).
Table 2. Reasons given for joining the Guard.
The given reasons can be roughly divided into four categories: economical,
ideological, social and other reasons. In the following, we will
have a closer look at these specified reasons.
The most frequent reasons given for joining the guard were economical.
There were 124 women (71.3 %) who justified their actions on economical
grounds. Most of these women (75 %) cited unemployment as
the more specific reason for their actions. According to
an enquiry by the National Board of Social Welfare, 14 industrial
premises were completely shut down and eight functioned only partly
in the hometown of these women.
 Thus unemployment was, indeed, very common in the city
of Pori prior to and during the Civil War.
The better wages offered by the Guard had tempted 24 women. At
the beginning of the war, the Guard promised notably higher salaries
than most workers received at that time. For example, Rauha Lampi
who had previously worked at an office more than doubled her salary
when she started to work in the administration of the Red Guard.
 The Red Guard could not maintain its promises about good
wages for long, however. Already in February after the first month
of the war, it was clear that their resources were insufficient,
and in March the troops were informed that from then on they would
receive only 11 % of their wages in cash and the rest in cheques,
which would be honoured later. This change in the payment of the
wages also applied to craftsmen, including many of the women focused
on in this study. 
Seven women claimed that hunger had made them join the Guard.
Hunger was, of course, related to unemployment. The shortage of
food was severe and inflation was strong throughout the country
due to the war. The Red authorities tried to improve the situation
by strictly rationing food, but the results were unsatisfactory
because the rules were not obeyed and food was often illegally confiscated. 
Some of the defendants had specified their economical situation
and included details about their family lives in their pleas. The
court records include comments such as:
“There was no work, her husband was lazy and they lived separately.” 
“Her husband was sick and she had to get a job somewhere.” 
There were also some explanations, which suggested the women were
unselfish and/or disinterested: “They had no food at home and she
wanted to take care of the wounded.” 
“After staying unemployed at her parents flat for four weeks,
she felt obliged to make her own living.” 
Some nurses were stunned to discover that they were being suspected
for crimes against the state. This was a really unpleasant surprise
for many of these women: they thought that they had joined the Red
Cross, not the Red Guard! They considered their work to be humanitarian
aid and not revolutionary activity.  One nurse had stated for the court records:
“When the defendant joined the Red Cross she was led to believe
that it was an independent institution. She would not have joined
it if it had been a partial institution. The Whites were treated
as well as the Red patients. ” 
These explanations did not help. Nursing was considered to be
the second most seditious job in the Guard (after military service).
In my research material, as many as 92.5 % of nurses were convicted
and only three were exonerated.  It is interesting to note that professional
and unprofessional nurses were not treated equally in court. Those
who had not been trained for nursing tasks until the war broke out
were generally convicted, whereas those who were professional nurses
were not treated as criminals, even though they had worked on the
Red side. 
Only one woman openly declared ideological grounds for joining
the Guard. Emilia Kantola was a 30-year old cotton factory worker
from the city of Pori. She was married but did not have children.
Her activity in the craft union had started in 1913. According to
the White authorities, she was one of the movers and shakers in
her union. Emilia admitted joining the Guard on the first day of
the Revolution with enthusiasm. Her husband Kaarle was in a noteworthy
position in the Guard, he worked as the prosecutor of the revolutionary
court of Pori. Her own role in the Red Guard was much more minor:
she worked in the kitchen making tea and coffee for the guardsmen.
When the defeat became clear, Emilia and Kaarle joined the withdrawing
Red troops and started their journey to the East hoping to escape
to Russia. Their flight was abruptly stopped in Hollola by the Whites.
Emilia was not arrested and she returned to Pori. Her husband, however,
was sentenced to death at a court-martial held shortly afterwards.
Emilia continued her life quietly, but in the autumn she was denounced.
She was taken to court and was finally given a three years’ suspended
In reality, she was unlikely to have been the only one who tried
to change society and the social conditions by participating in
the revolution.  16 % of the examinees stated that they had
joined the Guard voluntarily. They did not reveal their actual reasons,
but voluntariness indicates that they were ideologically committed,
even though they did not directly state this. A closer examination
shows that all the women who joined voluntarily were politically
active: they were members of the labour party or a craft union.
This supports the view that these women were politically committed
to the revolution.
The labour movement had distributed propaganda earlier in order
to incite the workers to action. The First World War and the Russian
revolution had caused a shortage of food and increased unemployment,
which made the time very convenient for the enlightenment of the
labour movement. Political awareness caused a rush to join trade
unions and the labour party in 1917.  This change could also be seen in Pori.  57 % of the women studied
declared themselves to being a member of either the labour party
or labour unions or both. In addition, the local White authorities
recognised several other women who were also known to be politically
active, although they did not admit this in court. Altogether, 69%
of these women were also at least on some level politically active.
Therefore, it is very plausible that there were more women who were
ideologically motivated to join the Red Guard than those who were
willing to admit it.
Social pressure and other reasons
Approximately every tenth woman claimed that she had joined the
Guard under some sort of social pressure. According to their statements,
half of them had practically been forced to become a member of the
Guard and the other half said that they had been lured and urged
to follow their friends’ example. There were statements like: “I
went to help in the kitchens, because I was told to.”  “I was asked to follow the
soldiers to the front, because there were not enough nurses.”
Those women who worked in places that had been taken over
by the Red Guard felt that they had been forced to join the Guard.
These women stressed that they had no other choice, when all the
tools were confiscated and staff was mobilized.  Presumably they were not kept
in their jobs by force, but the labour market of the time was so
poor that there were no other jobs available. Thus, in practice,
they had no alternative but to work for the new master. Therefore,
these women had also actually joined the Guard under economical
pressure, although this was not the reason they stated. One
could argue that they had joined the Guard automatically and unintentionally.
In his dissertation Klemettilä has claimed that the working community
often played an important role when men joined the Guard.  The women’s explanations do not imply that they were pressured
to join by fellow workers or that the joining took place as some
sort of group movement.
The other reasons proffered the harshness of the former job or
medical reasons. For example, one of the defendants had worked in
a lumber mill. Some also had doctor’s orders to ease their work.  This was a factor that these women emphasized in court. They
thought that this doctor’s order would make their actions more acceptable.
This factor, however, had no effect on the sentence.
The women’s reasons for joining the Guard were not always straightforward.
Some of the women pointed out that, in addition to financial matters,
social pressure also played a part in their participation. This
was especially true for young girls. For example, a 17-year old
girl said she joined because she was unemployed and needed some
money, but admitted that an additional motivational factor was that
“her brother and others encouraged her to join the Guard”. The investigators
suspected that her parents may also have affected her decision,
because they both were in the Red Guard.
 In many cases, the influence of a man could be seen behind
a woman's decision. At the beginning of the 20th century,
the Finnish society was very patriarchal and women were supposed
to follow men’s lead. That significant man could be, for example,
a father, a brother, a husband or a fiancé. Furthermore, if the
whole family took a positive attitude towards the revolution, it
was natural that women also joined the Guard. 
In conclusion, we can propose that the given main reason
for joining the guard was unemployment. Some said that they had
been tempted by the better wages the Guard could offer in the beginning
of the war. The Guard could not afford to pay the promised high
salaries, and those who joined the Red Guard towards the end of
the war had to settle for board. That means they received only food
as a reward for their military services. This indicates clearly
that money was not the primary motivation for joining the Guard.  In addition, the political activities of
the defendants show that there must have been an ideological interest
below the surface, although revealing this in court would have further
endangered them. Most women tried to present an explanation, which
they thought would sound more acceptable and less dangerous for
The significance of the reasons
Finally, I will briefly discuss the significance of the given
reasons for the sentences given. No correlation or other statistical
significance between them could be found. As far as the sentences
are concerned, the women’s statements were not as decisive as other
matters. For example, the women’s actions during the war were naturally
matters of crucial importance, but their behaviour prior to the
war was also investigated closely. For instance, membership in the
labour party and the craft unions proved to be statistically significant
when tested against the sentences issued.
Although there is no direct correlation between these given
reasons and sentences, I believe the way these statements were given
did affect the attitudes of the judges and investigators. There
are several notes in the official records that some examinees had
been acting either arrogantly or regretfully during the examination.
 Defendants’ behaviour during the hearings was very important,
because after these pre-trial hearings, the White authorities decided
who were less dangerous and could be sent home pending the trials
and who should remain in custody until their trials. Naturally the
actual deeds committed during the war were the most decisive factors
in determining the punishments, but attitudes were also evaluated.
Here are examples of both cases:
“During the hearings the defendant was arrogant denying
everything and even threatening by saying: “There will come another
time.”  “She
looks like an honest and decent girl.” 
Showing regret and being humble was vital, because the winners
disliked the Red women. They disliked all Red people and women did
not get away easily. Only a minority of the women had fought as
soldiers, but they stigmatised all Red women. Finnish society, which
was run by the Whites, was shocked that women had taken part in
the war. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was
thought that a woman’s duty was to maintain life, not to destroy
it.  Some White women had also shown interest in fighting at the
front, but these intentions were abandoned very quickly by the administration
of White troops. The army had always been a patriarchal
institution, and women soldiers were regarded as ‘unnatural’ creatures.
The wild reputation of women soldiers harmed all Red women.
The Whites considered that, by undertaking the Revolution,
the Reds had jeopardized the independence of Finland and acted against
the legitimate government. Everyone who joined the Revolution had
been disloyal to the new nation and should be punished, regardless
of their role in the Red Guard. In White eyes, cleaners, nurses
and cooks had supported the Red Guard, and were therefore guilty
of assisting high treason. The court did not seem to believe or
give credit to the non-political motives the women gave for joining
the Guard. As far as the Whites were concerned, these women’s work
had helped the Red Guard in its illegal enterprise.
The author is a Licentiate of Social Sciences, who is writing
her doctoral thesis for the Department of Contemporary History at
the University of Turku.
Kansallisarkisto, KA (National
Valtiorikosoikeuden (vro) aktit (a collection in the National
Valtiorikosylioikeuden (vryo) aktit (a collection in the National
Hakala, Anu, Housukaartilaiset
eivät tyytyneet Maarian punakaartin naiskomppania Suomen sisällissodassa.
Unpublished pro gradu thesis, University of Turku, Department
of Finnish history. 2004.
Ilvonen, Mirja, Varustajia,
lipuntekijöitä, ruumiinpesijöitä – Valkoiset naiset Suomen sisällissodassa
1918. Unpublished pro gradu thesis, University of Helsinki,
Department of history 2002.
Lintunen, Tiina, Punaisen
naisen kuvat. Vuonna 1918 tuomitut Porin seudun punaiset naiset.
Unpublished licentiate thesis,
University of Turku, Department of Contemporary history 2006.
Piiroinen-Honkanen, Marja, Punakaartin aseelliset naiskomppaniat
Suomen sisällissodassa 1918. Unpublished pro gradu thesis, University
of Helsinki, Department of Political history 1995.
2/1993, s. 98–120.
Suomen Virallinen Tilasto (SVT) XXXII, sosiaalisia erikoistutkimuksia.
Alapuro, Risto, State and Revolution
in Finland. University of California Press. Berkeley 1988.
Alenius, Juha, Toimeentulon pakosta
valtiota vastaan. Naiset sisällissodan jälkiseurauksissa Lahdessa
Lahden kaupunginmuseo. Lahti 1997.
Enloe, Cynthia, Nainen – taakse poistu.
Naisten elämän militarisointi. Rauhankirjallisuuden
edistämisseura. Helsinki 1986.
Johnson, Eliza, The Girl with
the Titus-head: Women in Revolution in Munich and Budabest, 1919.
Nationalities Papers, Vol. 28, No. 3
(September 2000) p. 541–550.
Klemettilä, Aimo, Tampereen punakaarti
ja sen jäsenistö. Tampereen yliopisto. Tampere 1976.
Lappalainen, Jussi T., Punakaartin
sota 1. Punakaartin historiakomitea. Valtion painatuskeskus.
Latva-Äijö, Annika, Lotta
Svärdin synty. Järjestö, armeija, naiseus 1918–1928.
Otava. Helsinki 2004.
Lähteenmäki, Maria, Vuosisadan
naisliike. Naiset ja sosialidemokratia 1900-luvun Suomessa.
Sosialidemokraattiset naiset. Helsinki 2000.
Mäkelä, Pentti, Panu Saukkonen
and Lars Westerlund, Vankileirien ja -laitosten kuolintapaukset.
Teoksessa Sotaoloissa vuosina 1914–22 surmansa saaneet.
Toim. Westerlund, Lars. Valtioneuvoston kanslian julkaisusarja.
Helsinki 2004. p. 115–133.
Olsson, Pia, Myytti ja kokemus.
Lotta Svärd sodassa. Otava. Helsinki 2005.
Piilonen, Juhani, Rintamien selustassa.
Teoksessa Itsenäistymisen vuodet 1917–1920 osa 2. Taistelu
vallasta. VAPK-kustannus. Helsinki 1993. p. 484–627.
Rinta-Tassi, Osmo, Kansanvaltuuskunta
punaisen Suomen hallituksena. Valtion painatuskeskus. Helsinki
Saarinen, Juhani, Porin historia
III 1809–1939. Porin kaupunki. Pori 1972.
Siltala, Juha, Röda gardets kvinnor.
Historisk tidskrift för Finland. 1/1996. p. 1–27.
Tikka, Marko, Kenttäoikeudet.
Välittömät rankaisutoimet Suomen sisällissodassa 1918. Suomalaisen
Kirjallisuuden Seura. Helsinki 2004.
Westerlund, Lars, Aikaisempi tutkimus. Arviot surmansa saaneiden
lukumäärästä. Teoksessa Sotaoloissa vuosina 1914–22 surmansa
saaneet. Toim. Westerlund, Lars. Valtioneuvoston kanslian julkaisusarja.
Helsinki 2004. p. 15–24.
 This paper develops part of my unpublished licentiate
thesis (Lintunen 2006).
 The Reds were mainly people from the working class and
the Whites mostly bourgeois people.
 Of the total number of 35 500, ca. 1/7 were Whites, 6/7
Reds. Approximately 10 000 Reds were shot after the battles and
ca. 13 200 Reds died in concentration camps after the war, mostly
due to hunger and diseases (Westerlund 2004, p. 15; Mäkelä &
al. 2004, p. 123).
 Piiroinen-Honkanen 1995, pp. 36f.
 The Reds referred to the war as a ‘revolution’, whereas
the Whites used the term ‘liberation’. Since then, the war has
also been called: the War of Classes, the War of Citizens, the
Rebellion, The Civil War. Historians have been arguing about the
name of the event for a long time, but the right term depends
on one’s perspective. For more about the names of the war, see
Historiallinen Aikakauskirja 2/1993, pp. 98–120.
 Pori is a small city, located on the western coast of
Finland. The number of inhabitants was ca. 17 600 in 1918.
In addition to the city of Pori my study also includes the rural
commune of Pori (ca. 7700 inhabitants) and the borough of Ulvila
(ca. 8300 inhabitants).
 Lintunen 2006, p. 69.
 Lintunen 2006, p. 70.
 Due to decimal rounding, the sum of the percentages is
 Lintunen 2006, p. 71.
 SVT XXXII sosialisia erikoistutkimuksia 1, pp. 172f.
 Lappalainen 1981, pp. 187f; Piilonen 1993, p. 570.
 Lintunen 2006, 67f; Rinta-Tassi 1986, 379, 388, 392f.
 Vro 142/704, vro 143/276, vro 7/495, vro 9/210, vryo
 Lintunen 2006, p. 119.
 Lintunen 2006, p. 122; See also Tikka 2004, p. 343.
 Compare these answers with the answers of female warriors:
Piiroinen-Honkanen 1995, pp. 26f and Hakala 2004, pp. 88–90.
See also Alenius 1997, pp. 68–70 and Lähteenmäki 2000, p. 82.
 Alapuro 1988, p. 154.
 Saarinen 1972, pp. 544f.
 Vro 141/177, vro 39/245, vro 143/8061, KA.
 Klemettilä 1976, p. 241.
 Lintunen 2006, p. 78.
 Lappalainen 1981, p. 188. On the other hand, one should
bear in mind that, in the spring of 1918, the shortage of food
was so severe that proper meals were a great temptation to the
hungry, unemployed workers.
 All women, but especially young women, did not realise
the severity of the situation before they were taken to court
and the sentence was given.
 Vro 141/62, vro 141/7, vro 143/320, vro 29/253, KA. See
also Siltala 1996, p. 16.
 Latva-Äijö 2004, pp. 56f; Olsson 2005, p. 58; Enloe
1986, p. 22. See also Johnson 2000, pp. 543f.
 Lintunen 2006, pp. 21–23; Latva-Äijö 2004, pp. 54–57;
Ilvonen 2002, pp. 49f, 106–108.