Sipilä, Helvi (1915—)

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Sipilä, Helvi (1915—)

Finnish lawyer and international advocate for women's rights. Name variations: Helvi Sipila. Born Helvi Linnea Sipilä on May 5, 1915, in Helsinki, Finland; daughter of Vilho Sipilä and Sanni Maukola; attended the University of Helsinki; married Sauli Sipilä, in 1939; children: one daughter and three sons.

Born in 1915 in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, Helvi Sipilä later attended the University of Helsinki, then worked as an acting judge in Finland's rural districts from 1941 to 1942. The following year, she served as secretary of Finland's Ministry of Supply before opening her own law office in 1943. Sipilä was only the second woman in Finland with a private practice, and her professional status merited her ascendancy to the presidency of the International Federation of Women Lawyers in 1954.

Sipilä continued her government service during the 1950s through her work on government committees related to children's social benefits, citizenship education, marriage legislation, and international development. While she maintained her law practice, her interest in advancing the status of women and children spurred her to take on a number of leadership roles in Finnish and international organizations throughout the following years, including chief commissioner of the Finnish Girl Guides (1952–69), which overlapped with her membership in the World Committee of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (1957–66); chair of the Finnish Refugee Council (1965–72), of which she remains a member; member of the Finnish delegation to the United Nations General Assembly (1966–72); member of the Council of the Human Rights Institute in Strasbourg (from 1969); and vice-president of the International Council of Women (from 1970). A Finnish representative to the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women from 1960 to 1968 and from 1971 to 1972 (the year she closed her law office to devote her full attention to international affairs), Sipilä became Assistant Secretary-General for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs at the UN in 1973. She was the first woman to hold that post.

When the UN proclaimed 1975 to be International Women's Year, Sipilä became the project's Secretary General. She also served as Secretary General for the UN World Conference in Mexico City that year; 20 years later, in 1995, she would give a speech at the opening ceremony of the 4th World Congress on Women in Beijing. Sipilä retired from the UN in 1980, although she remained active over the following decades in the Finnish commission of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). In 1981, she became the first woman to run for president of Finland. Sipilä was the recipient of numerous accolades for her work on behalf of women, including some 12 honorary doctorates, the Commander of Finland's White Rose (1977), the Great Cross of Finland's Lion (1989), the inaugural Helvi Sipilä Award from the U.S. Committee for UNIFEM (1999), and the International Bar Association's first lifetime achievement award for women, the Outstanding International Women's Award (2001).


The Bermuda Sun. February 2, 2001.

The International Who's Who. 55th ed. London: Europa, 1991.

Kinnear, Karen L. Women in the Third World: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Uglow, Jennifer S., comp. and ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1982.

Lisa C. Groshong , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri