Centenary of women's political rights in Finland

Finnish women's suffrage from the international perspective

Irma Sulkunen

The centenary of suffrage in Finland once again gives rise to the question of which country was the first to grant women the right to vote. While Finland is a strong contender, other countries competing for this title are, first and foremost, New Zealand and Australia. In fact, the latter two countries are known to have granted women the right to vote years before Finland. To dispel general confusion over the history of women’s suffrage in these countries, I will briefly discuss the extent to which political citizenship was achieved in New Zealand and Australia and will compare the reforms made there with Finnish legislation on suffrage.

It should be kept in mind that approaching the suffrage issue from a wider perspective than that of Finland and the rest of Europe can lead to new insights. For example, according to the volume Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives (1993), Finland comes in at 13 th in the statistics on women’s suffrage around the world, behind New Zealand, Australia, the Fiji Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, all the Australian states apart from Victoria and a large group of North American states, among others. It should also be pointed out that in 1906 Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, not an independent state.

International Council of Women in Helsinki, 1954. Unioni, the League of Finnish Feminists, Photograph Archives.

International Council of Women in Helsinki, 1954. Unioni, the League of Finnish Feminists, Photograph Archives.

In New Zealand, universal suffrage for women was achieved in 1893. The parliamentary system in New Zealand, as well as in Australia, was bicameral. Was the voting reform in New Zealand a more or less fortuitous reward for the women who upheld the pioneer tradition, or was it a victory that women had actively fought for? This question is still being debated in the country today. Specialists in women's studies have analysed the action taken by women and have found that the mainstream of the suffrage movement was linked with the temperance movement. The latter also played an important role in the fight for suffrage in Finland and Australia.

In contrast with Finland, however, the temperance campaign that grew into a suffrage movement in the countries in the Pacific region was directed by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, known by its symbol of a white ribbon. As a result, the women’s movement in these countries established a direct cultural link with the British mother country and with the sister country, the United States. In Finland, this link between the women's movement and the temperance movement was exceptionally weak because the non-gendered Finnish temperance movement allied itself with the workers’ movement in the fight for universal and equal suffrage.

Continuing to examine the historical circumstances in New Zealand, it is important to remember that the Aboriginal women of that country were also granted the right to vote. Men had exercised this right since 1867. However, voting was segregated: the European (i.e., Pakeha) and the Maori population elected their own candidates.

What is unusual from the Finnish perspective is that the women in New Zealand were not granted, nor did they fight for, the right to stand for election in connection with the suffrage reform. This part of the reform was not approved until 1919 in the lower chamber and 1941 in the upper chamber. The first women Members of Parliament were not elected in New Zealand until 1933.

Because of the above circumstances, Australian scholars have been eager to emphasise the history of suffrage in their country. They have noted that Australia was the first country to achieve gender equality in State matters, starting with South Australia in 1894 and extending to the whole Commonwealth of Australia in 1902. But despite having the right to vote, Australian women, just as their counterparts in New Zealand, were not elected into Parliament for several decades. For example, in South Australia the first woman was elected into Parliament as late as 1959.

The status of Australia as a pioneer of women's suffrage has also been undermined by the country's racial policies. Political rights in the federal elections (but not in all state elections) were restricted to the white population only, while Aboriginal people were not granted the right to vote until 1962.

It has been easy to emphasise the universality of suffrage in Finland against the backdrop of the restrictions imposed in New Zealand and Australia. Some have thus argued that Finland was the first to achieve "genuine" democracy. After all, not only did Finnish men and women of all social classes become politically equal in 1906, but Finland also adopted a unicameral parliamentary system, which was exceptional in Europe at the time. Moreover, both men and women were granted the right to stand for election, and they actively exercised this right from the very first parliamentary elections.

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Ministry of Social Affairs and Health Tane Christina Institute Minna-portaali Statistics Finland Parliament of Finland Nytkis Local and Regional Government Finland Unioni, The league of Finnish feminists National Council of Women of Finland Utbildningstyrelsen Allianssi Valtikka.fi Gender equality in Finland Virtual Finland