Centenary of women's full political rights in Finland

The General Strike and women’s suffrage

Irma Sulkunen

The most apparent and far-reaching implication of the General Strike of 1905 was undoubtedly the adoption of the principle of universal and equal suffrage in Finland. Compared internationally, the most important outcomes were the confirmation, in 1906, of a unicameral parliamentary system and the achievement of women’s right to vote and stand for election. Although the number of people entitled to vote expanded radically among the middle and lower classes, the primary beneficiaries of the voting reform were women, who were freed from restrictions relating not only to their gender but also to class and wealth, and particularly married women, whose husbands were no longer to act as their wives’ guardians.

The political rights gained by women as a result of the General Strike were a remarkable achievement also from an international perspective. Finland was the first European country to grant women both the right to vote and the right to stand for election. In the Pacific region, New Zealand and Australia were ahead of Finland in the advancement of gender democracy. New Zealand granted women the right to vote in 1893 and Australia allowed women to both vote and stand for election in 1902. However, Finnish women were the first to exercise both of these rights.

In most countries, women’s suffrage was achieved at dramatic historical turning points or immediately before or after them. In the countries in the Pacific region, the voting reform was triggered by the construction of an administrative system separate from that of the British mother country and by the related nationalist movements in which the campaign for women’s suffrage was an important element. In Norway, the issue of women’s suffrage was debated actively after the country became independent from Sweden. Similarly, as a direct or indirect consequence of the First World War, several European countries granted women the right to vote. Developments in Finland followed the same pattern: a strong nationalist emphasis combined with political instability in conjunction with the General Strike resulted in a radical reform of suffrage legislation in Finland.

However, the adoption of the principle of universal and equal suffrage for both men and women in Finland cannot be attributed purely to skilful employment of the state of emergency created by the General Strike. More accurately, the chaotic General Strike and the collective sense of threat created by rumours and fears led to a radical culmination of a situation which was by then long overdue to be resolved. An interesting example of the events leading up to the reform was the approval at a strike meeting in Vyborg on 30 October 1905 of a resolution in which women’s suffrage was included in the demand for universal and equal suffrage. The same demand was repeated in a declaration issued on 1 November 1905 in Tampere and was approved at popular meetings held during the General Strike. The fact that the demand for women’s suffrage was expressed as a matter of course right at the start of the strike indicates that it was not a spontaneous idea but rather part of a previously formulated programme which was implemented as soon as the opportunity arose. The matter-of-course nature of the demand for women’s suffrage surely also explains the fact that the gender aspect of political citizenship was barely discussed during the General Strike.

In examining the achievement of women’s suffrage, more interesting than to analyse the General Strike is to focus on the chain of events that preceded the historical moments that culminated in the breakthrough for gender democracy. Irrespective of the interpretative model used, the establishment of the Finnish Women’s Association in 1884 has been seen as a key milestone in the progress of the women’s movement and the closely related suffrage movement. The central objective of this association was the improvement of women’s educational circumstances, in addition to which the association demanded equal pay for equal work, equal judicial status for men and women, and the application of the same criteria to both men and women who wanted to stand for election to posts of the State, the municipalities and the Church. In practice, the Finnish Women’s Association was aiming to extend the right to vote to independent women who met certain wealth requirements, i.e., to affluent bourgeois and/or educated women. The same stand was also taken by another Finnish women’s rights association, the Union Women’s Rights Federation in Finland, which had split off from the Finnish Women’s Association in 1892 because of differences of opinion on politics and practices. Although the demand for suffrage was included in the programmes of women’s rights associations on their establishment, the issue did not appear on the political agenda until the end of the 19th century.

The first step towards the endorsement of women’s suffrage was taken when representatives Herckman, Killinen and Kyander submitted a petition in 1897 to the Estate of the Burghers. The representatives wrote in their petition that ”all women in our country who meet the conditions set by our Constitution concerning the right to stand for election should be granted the same right to vote as men”. This petition was originally the brainchild of the Kuopio Women’s Association and clearly reflected the views of the well-known women’s rights advocate Minna Canth: in the grounds for the petition, the sanctity and permanence of legislation that oppressed women were disputed in a manner characteristic of Canth, and the duties and usefulness of women in Finnish society were emphasised. Although the petition did not achieve any practical results, it had some significance as the first gender-specific demand for the right to vote and it compelled the Diet to take a clear stand on the issue of women’s suffrage for the first time.

Because the petition on women’s suffrage was discussed in conjunction with other petitions concerning the expansion of the right to vote, the Law Committee addressed the issue of women’s suffrage only at a general level in a memorandum analysing various options for the reform of the inflexible system of representation based on the four Estates. However, the Law Committee also had to speak out on the issue of whether women who met the wealth requirements for standing for election at the municipal level could also stand for election at the State level. Since this problem was particularly acute among the Estate of the Burghers, this Estate showed considerable initiative in raising the issue of women’s suffrage in State elections.

Although a report written in 1897 shows that the majority of the Law Committee was against granting women the right to stand for election at the State level, this right was strongly supported by those in the minority and a dissenting opinion was filed with the report. The discussion also indicated that the fight for suffrage in State elections was gradually becoming a key political issue. Through it, the criteria for citizenship were gradually being defined, and the inner circle of the Finnish nation was being determined. The suffrage issue was also used to fight openly for the political power that was about to be redistributed as a result of the disintegration of the system of political representation based on the four Estates. At this stage, it was thought that the options were, on the one hand, the expansion of men’s suffrage according to the general Western model and, on the other hand, the maintenance of class distinctions by upholding the system in which suffrage was based on wealth but by allowing women to vote if they met the wealth requirements. The latter view, represented by the liberals, was also adopted by the bourgeois women’s rights advocates who held on to it up until the days following the General Strike.

The workers’ movement that was organised at the turn of the 20 th century and the women who joined that movement took the view that civil rights were primarily a class issue, not a gender issue. The issue of suffrage had been put on the agenda as early as 1893 at the first meeting of the delegates of the workers’ associations. The delegates set as their objective the restriction of the number of votes in both municipal and State elections. However, general mobilisation surrounding the issue soon led to a radicalisation of public opinion. At the second meeting of the delegates of the workers’ associations in 1896, there were calls for the abolition of the scale of votes based on wealth and for the expansion of the right to vote so that ”no class of people is denied the right to vote, except the regular armed forces”. Women were not mentioned in the programme approved by the delegates, although the campaign for women’s suffrage was growing in prominence as socialist tendencies gathered strength. In its programme of 1899, the Labour Party demanded in no uncertain terms that all 21-year-old Finnish citizens, men and women, should have a universal, equal and direct right to vote and stand as a candidate in all elections and referendums. The same stance was adopted by the Women Workers’ Union when it was established in 1900.

At the end of the 19 th century, the workers’ movement radicalised and, as a result, the suffrage movement became polarised in Finland, as in other countries. The bourgeois women’s suffrage movement became active at the same time, both in Finland and in other Western countries. An important milestone that led to the adoption of a common stance by the bourgeois women’s rights movement was the convention of the International Council of Women in Berlin in 1904. The participants of that convention confirmed as their collective objective the achievement of women’s suffrage under the same terms as those for men’s suffrage at the time. Inspired by this resolution, convention participants and members of the Union Women’s Rights Federation in Finland, Annie Furuhjelm and Lucina Hagman, proposed that a conference on women’s universal suffrage be held in Helsinki. Those invited to serve on the organising committee included not only bourgeois women but also some social democrats, the best known of whom was Miina Sillanpää. The dual role of Miina Sillanpää in the middle ground between the bourgeois women’s movement and the working class suffrage movement reflects not only her attempt to find a political home but also the fervent desire of liberal bourgeois women to support women’s solidarity in order to achieve Western citizenship, which was gendered at the time.

The boundary between the bourgeois suffrage movement and the socialist-led general suffrage movement became unusually rigid in Finland because all women and most men were denied the right to vote under the system of political representation used at the time. Because only some eight per cent of the population had the right to vote, the campaign for the radical expansion of suffrage resonated powerfully also among those not associated with the social democrat workers’ movement.

The growth of popular support for universal and equal suffrage was given new impetus not only by the workers’ movement but also by the temperance movement, even though the leadership of the national central organisation, the Friends of Temperance, kept its distance from the suffrage movement up until the beginning of the 20 th century. However, because its membership mostly consisted of workers and women, the temperance movement played an important role in introducing the idea of universal and equal suffrage in the public consciousness and, later, in pushing through the radical suffrage reform in the aftermath of the General Strike.

This backdrop was liable to play down the gendered nature of the suffrage issue and to weaken the arguments put forth by the bourgeois women’s movement. As a result, the meeting held in December 1904 to unite the sisterhood had an unwanted consequence: instead of uniting all women under the banner of a gender-specific demand, the meeting turned into an aggressive confrontation between the two fronts in which the principle of universal and equal suffrage was set as a counterpoint to the suffrage objective of the bourgeois women’s movement.

Thus, whereas the fight for women’s suffrage that had intensified at the beginning of the 20 th century culminated in the demand for equal voting rights in State elections for both genders, particularly in Anglo-American countries, the democratic process and public debate on democracy followed a different pattern in Finland. Because of the conservatism of the Finnish voting system, the issue of expanding the civil rights of both men and women moved to the centre of the policy debate, and there was increasing willingness to come up with a radical solution that would address both of these contentious issues. Popular movements not divided along gender lines had a leading role in the formulation of this solution as official political institutions were lagging behind.

The unusual nature of these circumstances became clear when the 1904-1905 Diet convened and began to discuss petitions on suffrage, four of which applied to women’s right to stand for election, and a bill aiming at the expansion of Senate voting rights among the Burghers and the Peasantry. Significantly, although none of the petitions or the Senate bill mentioned universal and equal suffrage, nor a unicameral Parliament, these demands were supported strongly during the discussion. New arguments were used in the debate on the nature of the parliamentary institution. It was described as an expression of the will of the people in which everyone – including women – had to be equally represented. On the other hand, the advocates of restrictions to the right to vote openly talked about how acquired rights would be jeopardised if full democracy was implemented in line with a reform based on ”class interests”.

At the start of the debate in April 1905, the political atmosphere was extremely agitated. Restless crowds were gathering, and the threatening atmosphere became even more pervasive when the Nobility and the Burghers refused to debate the suffrage bill, appealing to the filibustering tactics of the group known as the Constitutionalists. Demonstrators, who were waiting for the decisions of the Peasantry and the Clergy, surrounded the House of the Estates and thus took extra-parliamentary control of the political state to which they officially had no access.

Both the Peasantry and the Clergy debated the issue of women’s suffrage actively and also discussed the expansion of suffrage to that of a universal and equal right. The speeches suggested a strong urge to implement a comprehensive democratic reform, but the members of these Estates were unable to agree on how to reconcile women’s suffrage with the abolition of wealth requirements applying to voting rights. A report written by the Committee for Constitutional Law provided for the former but preserved the latter. However, in a dissenting opinion submitted by Ståhlberg and Mikkola, it was proposed that all men be provided with full civil rights but that women not be granted the right to vote.

The Clergy considered the simultaneous implementation of both changes as impossible. It accepted the Western model whereby universal and equal suffrage would first be extended to all men. The Clergy believed that women’s suffrage would be achieved soon after this first stage. The Peasantry, in contrast, concurred with parts of the dissenting opinion of Ståhlberg and Mikkola but demanded that the right to vote be granted to both married and unmarried women and was against women being allowed to stand for election – this view met with strong objections. The stand taken by the traditionally conservative Peasantry nevertheless meant that it was the first Estate to take a decisive step towards democracy across class and gender boundaries.

The hectic days of April 1905 were a prelude to the General Strike. They demonstrated that even before the strike was called, there was a willingness to implement a democratic parliamentary reform. They also showed that the issue of women’s suffrage had made its first major breakthrough at the parliamentary level before the General Strike, not as a separate issue but rather as an intrinsic part of the expansion of democracy across class barriers. The quick change in public opinion in favour of universal and equal suffrage was also reflected in the inclusion of this principle in the party programmes of the Social Democratic Party and the Finnish Party in summer 1905. Against this background, it is only natural that when the General Strike began in October-November 1905, the issue of universal and equal suffrage regardless of gender united the people, by then accustomed to popular action, in a campaign approaching a revolution that finally resulted in a radical breakthrough for democracy.

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The General Strike of 1905. People waiting to hear a manifesto on the Senate Square in Helsinki. National Board of Antiquities, Archives for Prints and Photographs.