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Historical Background

Historical Background 

Pioneers of women's suffrage

Granting the universal right for women to vote and stand for election in Finland was a radical reform by international standards. In Finland, we like to think of ourselves as pioneers in the comparison of Parliaments. But is this true in the light of research?

Extending the basic democratic rights to involve women was connected to the era in which the outskirts of the empire started to detach from the mother country. New Zealand was the first country of the British empire to grant women the right to vote in 1893.

In Australia, women were granted both the right to vote and stand in elections in 1902. Unlike in Australia, Finns were keen to use these rights and selected 19 women for the first unicameral Parliament in the 1907 election.

In a European comparison, Finland was unquestionably a pioneer of democracy. Norway, disengaged from Swedish rule, began to extend women's right to vote in 1907, and the reform reached the Finnish degree in 1913. Other Nordic countries soon followed; albeit Sweden not until 1919. Full political rights were granted to women in many European countries in the turmoil following the end of the First World War.

In a comparative research on suffrage, notions have been expressed that Finland's trailblazer role could be questioned as Finland was not, at the time of the reform entering into force, an independent state but a Grand Duchy of the Russian empire. In this review, Norway would be the first and Denmark the second independent country to grant women universal suffrage.

Professor Irma Sulkunen has crystallised the international comparison on suffrage reforms: "In comparison with the suffrage reforms that took place both in the new world and Scandinavia and the restrictions they entailed, the 1906 parliamentary reform in Finland was, unquestionably, the most democratic for women and men alike. The eligibility, or right to stand as candidate, included in the suffrage, enables wide representation, and the unicameral Parliament, together with the proportional vote, removed the obstacles that remained in the way of equal use of the vote in New Zealand, Australia and most Western countries (Sulkunen 2006, p. 21)."

How was the Finnish suffrage reform achieved?


"For the first time, I am speaking to my sisters as a free woman."
Lucina Hagman in November 1906.

In the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Diet of Finland had been called for assembly regularly since 1863. The representative system, based on the Estates, was considered stiff, old-fashioned and elitist in the early years of the 20th century: only eight per cent of the entire population held a right to vote, and it was confined to wealth. In other countries, the reforms had already started, with extending the scope of eligible male voters.

The decisive impulse for the realisation of the suffrage reform in Finland was that the weakness of Russia was revealed in the ill-fated war against Japan. The restlessness and strikes that foreshadowed the revolution spread from the mother country to Finland, and a general strike was put up in October 1905. Adding to the agitation was the Russification trend that had been going on since the turn of the century; the November Manifesto that ended the general strike also managed to break this development. An imperial pledge to grant and realise universal suffrage.

The temporary weakness of Russia gave way to the parliamentary reform, but the Emperor's subjects' awareness of the need for reform and including women in those granted the right to vote and stand as candidates had already been kindled. The most eager promoters of the cause were the women's movement organisations and the labour movement, but the temperance movement also held an important role in the promotion of the suffrage reform.

The emphasis of the women's rights organisations and the labour movement

The Naisyhdistys Women's Alliance, established in 1884, and the Unioni Naisasialiitto organisation that came to be in 1892 as a result of separation from the former, both recorded equal suffrage in their charters. At the time, this demand meant that the suffrage would be extended to independent (unmarried) women above the required wealth. The reforms that the women's right movement pushed would have only affected a relatively small, wealthy group of educated women and the upper social classes.

Extending suffrage was the goal set by the labour movement organisations in the first assembly in 1893, but the demands continued to radicalise as the labour movement began to gain popularity and turned to socialism. The Finnish Labour Party's platform of 1899 included the purpose of universal suffrage for everyone over the age of 21.   

The Finnish Labour Women's Alliance (Työläisnaisliitto), established in 1900, immediately adopted the same purpose, but within the labour movement the gender issue remained secondary to the class question: the primary goal was to demolish the system based on class and wealth; granting political citizenship for women was an addition.

The women's suffrage movement gained ground in the International Congress of Women in Berlin (1904), at which one of the common goals was to achieve equal suffrage to women in compliance with each country's constitution. The Finnish delegates at the conference set up a committee to which a few working class women were selected as representatives.

However, this effort to reach out did not succeed in uniting women behind the common goal; the class conflicts escalated in the women's general suffrage assembly in Helsinki in November 1904: the labour women's rights movements pleaded the cause of universal suffrage unconditionally, but this was not, at the time, approved by the bourgeois women's movement.

The plead for universal suffrage found echoes outside the labour movement, too. The gender-neutral civil rights movements came together in early 1905 to plead the cause of suffrage with non-parliamentary measures. When the suffrage matters were addressed at the Diet in April 1905, the voice of the people could be heard in the passionate demonstrations outside the House of Estates. By the general strike, more and more people had joined the plead for the reform of universal suffrage.

Processing the reforms at the Diet of Finland

Women's suffrage was first discussed at the Diet in 1897. In the appeal submitted to the Burghers it was suggested that women who fulfilled the conditions set for wealth would be granted equal suffrage. It has been assumed that writer Minna Canth was a force behind the appeal that corresponded to the views of the liberal bourgeois women's right movement. Although the appeal was endorsed at the legal committee, the majority decided to reject it, which gave rise to a dissenting opinion being added to the decision.

The proposition of the Senate, issued for the 1904–1905 Diet, concerned the extension of male suffrage within the Burghers and Peasant estates. Four appeals had been submitted for the estates with the starting point of equal treatment of women in terms of suffrage. Adoption of the eligibility to stand for election divided opinions, and not a single word was spoken of a unicameral Parliament.

If the proposition of the Senate and the appeals had been carried out, Finland would have gone in the direction paved by the western countries, but the matter did not advance at the Diet. With the Noble and Burgher estates boycotting the matter, claiming that its legality should be restored, the matter was put on the table for the next Diet. The reform being renounced had a radicalising effect that led the crowds to support the demand of universal suffrage.

General strike forces reforms

The peaceful, gradual suffrage reform, advocated by the estates, lost its appeal in the radical climate of the general strike. The pressure put on by the labour movement and the fear of violent outbursts turned the rest of the undecided groups into supporters of universal suffrage. The only alternative left to appease the situation, which foreshadowed revolution, was to accept a suffrage reform. Women's rights were no longer a separate topic of discussion, as they were included in the main cause.

A parliamentary reform committee was established to prepare the reform; its starting point was universal suffrage pledged by the Emperor. The committee discussion addressed women's right to vote and stand for elections on a principal level, but the opposing statements were weak. The committee's proposal for a new Parliament Act was presented to the Emperor in February and was discussed by the Estates in May, 1906.

The Estates approved the Parliament Act and Elections Act on 1 June, and the Emperor's confirmation was granted in July. The fundamentally radical reform was conducted at a notably fast pace.

The higher estates opposed the transition to a unicameral system and removing the criteria of right to vote, not as much the political rights being extended to apply to women. They yielded to the reforms because of, on one hand, the pressure from the crowds but also due to the situation in Russia.

If the reform had not been conducted instantly, the favourable historical moment could have slipped away. The consent to a reform that made void the privileges of the estates, took place as a result of the unexceptional circumstances that came to be due to the democracy of the streets and the fear of Russia growing stronger.

Who were not granted the right to vote?

The labour movement feared that the estates proceedings would vitiate the radical suffrage reform. This did not happen, albeit the higher estates did push through a few reservations: The voting age was raised to 24 years and the Grand Committee was established to compensate the upper chamber. Completely without the right to vote were left the very poorest: those relying on poor relief, vagrants, individuals under guardianship or without civil rights and persons in permanent military service.

However, the actual obstacle standing in the way of real representational democracy was the Tsar's right to order extraordinary parliamentary elections and to veto any laws enacted by the Parliament.