Centenary of women's full political rights in Finland

Suffrage as the turning point in the moral reform

Pirjo Markkola

Moral issues in a changing society were at the forefront of discussion in Finland in 1906 and 1907. Since the 1880s, many organisations had advocated a moral reform of Finnish society: among others, Suomen Siveysseura (the Finnish Morality Society), Suomen Naisyhdistys (the Finnish Women’s Association), Valkonauha (the White Ribbon Union), Nuorten Naisten Kristillinen Yhdistys (the Young Women’s Christian Association) and various temperance associations campaigned not only for abstinence, but also for stricter sexual and social morality. The members of the White Ribbon Union supported the women’s cause because they believed it was based on a Christian ideal of equality. They considered suffrage a major achievement and hoped that women would use their right to vote. The Finnish-language section of the White Ribbon Union of Turku noted in its annual report of 1906: “Since our association is active in matters involving women, temperance and morality, it has keenly followed the ongoing reform efforts which we hope will soon lead to the achievement of universal suffrage which was granted to women this year.” This quote reflects a strong belief in the transforming power of suffrage to improve women’s status and redress the social evils attributed to the lack of abstinence and morality. Moral reformers believed that women would use the right of suffrage to improve society as a whole.

The White Ribbon Union of Turku named the year 1906 as the jubilee of the Finnish people and a landmark in the history of womankind. The Union members believed that temperance and morality would be promoted now that women could put forward their views in elections. One Union member even visited the unicameral Finnish parliament in September 1907 to see the new women MPs. She travelled to Helsinki, took her place at the end of a long queue in front of the parliament building and was finally allowed in to follow a parliamentary session. She immediately recognised the MPs Aleksandra Gripenberg and Hilda Käkikoski, two staunch moral reformists. According to the visitor, they and the other women MPs of the Finnish Party seemed wise and mature. In contrast, the women representatives of the Social Democrat Party looked superficial, although one of them, Miina Sillanpää, made a favourable impression on the visitor: “She is a woman who thinks – it emanates from her whole being,” the visitor later wrote (Markkola 2002, 200). A middle-class moral reformist’s view of MPs was based on how actively they strived to promote a new morality. The more ardently they defended the moral reform of Finnish society, the more reliable they appeared to be.

In the first elections to the unicameral Finnish parliament, Berta Heikel, the chair of the Swedish-language section of the White Ribbon Union of Turku, ran for office on the candidate list for advocates of Christian values. Christian electoral coalitions were established to attract religious voters who shunned political parties. Heikel’s candidacy was motivated by a Christian advocacy of women’s rights and by moral reform (Mustakallio 1983, 208–232; Markkola 2002, 201). Electoral coalitions did not, however, become a significant political force. More successful were political parties, such as those known as the Old Finns and the Young Finns. Some of their women candidates campaigning for moral reform were elected as MPs. The Old Finns included not only Gripenberg and Käkikoski, but also Eveliina Ala-Kulju whose religious background was revivalist. As of 1912, she worked as a speaker for the Christian Kotikasvatusyhdistys (Home Education Association). She served as MP until 1917. Of the Young Finns, Lucina Hagman, a teacher, had defended women’s efforts to promote morality as early as the 1880s when Bishop Gustaf Johansson questioned its wisdom (Pohls 1997; Ollila 1997; Markkola 2002, 187). Political parties were thus more successful than Christian electoral coalitions at bringing top women moral reformists closer to the centre of Finnish political power.

Members of the White Ribbon Union described women’s parliamentary work as the fulfilment of the highest national duty. They hoped that the parliament would strive to benefit both women and society at large. The White Ribbon Union accepted women’s public role unlike some Christian organisations that held negative views of politics. The women members of the White Ribbon Union were also faced with these doubts. They explained that women’s rights and the temperance issue were political issues which required new legislation. That is why religious women were needed in politics. The leaders of the Finnish Women’s Association spoke in a similar vein. Christian women were needed in politics, and women with Christian beliefs had to vote for candidates who campaigned for the right issues. The White Ribbon Union openly endorsed this view. Voting for the right candidate would help to promote the common good and the nationalist ideology, protect religion, abolish drunkenness, ease the plight of the poor and suffering, and expand women’s opportunities outside politics as well (Markkola 2002, 202). Since these ideas were based on the Christian tradition, women could promote a worthy cause in the name of God.

Bourgeois women MPs moved moral issues into the national spotlight. In the first parliamentary session of 1908, MP Hilma Räsänen of the Agrarian Party and some of her colleagues submitted a proposal in which they asked the government to support efforts to promote the morality of former prostitutes. Had this proposal been approved, the White Ribbon Union would have received a major government subsidy. In the second parliamentary session of the same year, MPs Hilda Käkikoski, Aleksandra Gripenberg and Hedvig Gebhard of the Finnish Party submitted a proposal which would also have entailed the payment of subsidies to associations and institutions that promoted morality in Finnish society. Käkikoski continued to campaign for similar causes in the parliamentary sessions of 1909 and 1910, proposing that the government allocate funds to the Christian promotion of morality (Innala 1967, 112–113). In practice, this proposal would have guaranteed better financial conditions for the White Ribbon Union and the safe houses that religious associations maintained.

The moral reform ideology accentuated the differences between bourgeois women MPs and the women representatives of the workers’ movement. In the unicameral Finnish parliament, the women MPs of the Social Democrat Party advocated the rights of unprotected women and children just as actively as the women of bourgeois parties. However, while bourgeois women supported private charity and Christian safe houses, the women workers’ movement demanded municipal and state-owned homes for single mothers and unprotected children (Sulkunen 1989, 45; Sulkunen 1997, 164–165; Oikarinen 1997, 132–133). The representatives of women workers and the moral reformists recognised the same problems in Finnish society, but offered different solutions. Christian moral reformists believed that both new legislation and personal spiritual rejuvenation were required.

Literature and sources

  • Innala, Aune: 1967. Suomen naisen alkutaival lainsäätäjänä. Helsinki: Kirjayhtymä.
  • Markkola, Pirjo: 2002. Synti ja siveys. Naiset, uskonto ja sosiaalinen työ Suomessa 1860–1920. Helsinki: SKS.
  • Mustakallio, Hannu: 1983. Säätypapista kansalaiseksi. Papiston poliittis-yhteiskunnallinen rooli demokratisoitumisen murrosvaiheessa 1905–1907. Helsinki: Suomen Kirkkohistoriallinen Seura.
  • Oikarinen, Sari: 1997. ”Hilja Pärssinen – työväenliikkeen poliitikko ja runoilija”. In Maria Lähteenmäki, Pirjo Markkola & Alexandra Ramsay (ed.), Yksi kamari – kaksi sukupuolta. Suomen eduskunnan ensimmäiset naiset. Helsinki: Kirjastopalvelu.
  • Ollila, Anne: 1997. ”Vahvojen naisten puolestapuhujat: Lucina Hagman ja Alli Nissinen”. In Maria Lähteenmäki, Pirjo Markkola & Alexandra Ramsay (ed.), Yksi kamari – kaksi sukupuolta. Suomen eduskunnan ensimmäiset naiset. Helsinki: Kirjastopalvelu.
  • Pohls, Maritta: 1997. ”Eveliina Ala – Kulju ja Hilma Räsänen – kaksi maalaisnaista eduskunnassa”, In Maria Lähteenmäki, Pirjo Markkola & Alexandra Ramsay (ed.), Yksi kamari – kaksi sukupuolta. Suomen eduskunnan ensimmäiset naiset. Helsinki: Kirjastopalvelu.
  • Sulkunen, Irma: 1997. ”Miina Sillanpää – sillanrakentaja”, In Maria Lähteenmäki, Pirjo Markkola & Alexandra Ramsay (ed.), Yksi kamari – kaksi sukupuolta. Suomen eduskunnan ensimmäiset naiset Helsinki: Kirjastopalvelu. 1989. Naisen kutsumus. Miina Sillanpää ja sukupuolten maailmojen erkaantuminen Helsinki: Hanki ja jää.