Centenary of women's political rights in Finland

Elections and women's participation

Villiina Hellsten, Statistics Finland

For a number of years after the end of the Winter War (1939–1940) and the Continuation War (1941–1944), Finnish women’s political participation lagged behind that of men in terms of both voter turnout and candidacy in elections. As voters, women caught up with men in the presidential elections of 1978 and in the subsequent municipal (1984) and parliamentary (1987) elections. In the parliamentary elections of 2003 and the municipal elections of 2004, voter turnout was about 4% higher among women than men.

Although traditionally rural women had voted more actively than urban women, voter turnout among women first surpassed men’s turnout in urban municipalities in the parliamentary elections of 1983. In rural municipalities, a similar shift did not take place until almost a decade later, in 1991.

Other important regional differences have also been noted. In southern Finnish constituencies, particularly in Helsinki and Uusimaa, voter turnout among women has increased more rapidly than in other parts of the country. In addition, the number of women running for office from these constituencies has been among the highest in the country both in the parliamentary elections of 2003 and in the municipal elections of 2004.

It has also become apparent that voter turnout among women varies according to the type of elections. Urban women have caught up with rural women as regards turnout in parliamentary elections. In fact, women living in Helsinki and Uusimaa were the most active voters in the parliamentary elections of 2003. A similar turn of events has occurred in the elections for the European Parliament: in the 1996 elections turnout was highest among women living in rural and densely populated municipalities, whereas in the 2004 elections turnout was highest among women living in the cities (4% higher than in the countryside). The biggest difference (5%) between voter turnout among men and women in the elections for the European Parliament was also recorded in the Helsinki constituency.

In the municipal elections of 2004, however, rural women were the most active voters, although the difference between the rate of participation in Helsinki and the average turnout rate for the country as a whole evened out almost completely, with voter turnout among women in Helsinki increasing by as much as 6%. On the other hand, women voters have caught up most, proportionately speaking, with male voters in the countryside in all elections.

Despite the increase in voter turnout among women, fewer female than male candidates have run for office in parliamentary, municipal and European Parliament elections throughout Finnish history. In the 21 st century, women candidates have accounted for slightly less than 40% of all the candidates in the above elections. In municipal elections, the share of women candidates has been somewhat higher in the cities (highest in Helsinki) than in the countryside. The share of women candidates has increased in all elections and almost all parties.

Despite the relative increase in voter turnout among women,¹ they still win significantly less seats than men, with some regional exceptions. Women candidates have fared better in urban and southern Finnish municipalities, whereas it seems that people in the countryside and in eastern and northern Finland are not as willing to vote for women. Accordingly, in the parliamentary elections of 2003, almost half the votes in Helsinki (49.3%) and Uusimaa (49.4%) went to women. Close to two-thirds (64.7%) of the MPs elected from the Helsinki constituency were women, whereas in the Pohjois-Savo province, the figure was less than one-sixth of that (10%) – regional differences are thus considerable.

These regional differences are not as striking in municipal elections, although in the municipal elections of 2004, women won more than half the seats only in Helsinki. The share of women winning seats has always been smaller than their share of the candidates and the votes in municipal elections, although there has been no such disparity in parliamentary elections. It is noteworthy that women candidates’ share of the votes has grown in line with the increase in the number of women candidates. In terms of “mirror-image representativeness”, it is thus important that both genders are represented as equally as possible on electoral lists.

Because of the personality-centred nature of the European Parliament elections and the direct electoral process now used to elect the Finnish president, the electoral lists play a major role in determining the results. As yet the share of votes gained by women candidates has not increased appreciably in these elections. The Finnish elections for the European Parliament in 1996, however, emerged as a historical occasion: the share of women who won seats in the European Parliament was exactly half of those elected. People living in cities again showed a greater willingness to vote for women.

Although young women, in particular, now participate in almost all aspects of political life more actively than men of their age, women do not trust in their own ability to influence society as implicitly as men do (Grönlund et al. 2005, 118). Despite its apparent paradoxicality, this situation may be attributed to the gendered structures of political representation. For example, different criteria are used to assess male and female candidates in elections, and these gender-specific criteria usually favour men (see, e.g., Hellsten 2000). Furthermore, the fact that only a small number of women hold national and political leadership positions may send the message that women do not have equal opportunities to exert an influence (see also Kantola 2005, 120). The democratic ideal requires that citizens have equal opportunities for representation in decision-making – not only by being able to vote and stand for election but also by holding the highest Government positions. Women’s appointment to leadership positions signals a more general tendency towards social equality and promotes trust in gender equality.

It has taken until the past decade for more women representatives to be appointed to municipal and provincial bodies in Finland. This recent development can be attributed in large part to the gender quotas required under the Act on Equality between Women and Men. Women still hold very few of the key non-elected positions in the Parliament or Government.

The equal representation of citizens naturally also requires that ethnic and other minorities have equal opportunities for representation in decision-making, and that the resources necessary for participating in decision-making are shared as equitably as possible across the country. Similarly, it is important that citizens are equally represented in sectors other than politics, for example in the leadership of central organisations, universities, other institutions of higher education, and listed and large companies.

1) It must be noted that while voter turnout among women is higher than among men in all general elections, turnout has declined for several years among both genders. The higher turnout among women is thus not so much a result of women voters becoming more active, but rather of the slower pace at which their enthusiasm for voting has waned compared to men.

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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