Finnish women were the first in the world fully to exercise the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections a hundred years ago. With this came a reform of the parliamentary system.
Women in New Zealand and Australia won the right to vote before their Finnish counterparts. However, Finnish women were the first in Europe to win the right to vote and the first in the world to have their eligibility for office recognised, i.e. to be able stand as candidates at elections.
General strike paved the way for radical parliamentary reform
In 1906 the Diet of Finland, an assembly of representatives of the four estates dating from the time of Swedish rule, was replaced by a single-chamber parliament. Only a small fraction of the people had been able to vote in elections to the Diet – men who were not considered to belong to any of the four estates could not vote and women could not vote at all.
In 1906 Finland was part of Russia. When Swedish rule in Finland was replaced by Russian rule in 1809, Finland was granted broad political autonomy. Finland had its own parliament and constitution. The parliamentary system had been inherited from the time of Swedish rule, and the Swedish-speaking aristocracy and bourgeoisie held all the power, with voting rights being determined on the basis of land ownership. In the days of the Diet, it was not possible to extend voting rights to other groups, and an increasing number of Finns were being excluded from voting at elections. In Finland the whole issue of voting rights was more a political issue, the backdrop to which was social inequality between the classes, than it was a women’s issue.
Unrest broke out in 1905 in Russia and this spread to Finland, culminating in the general strike of October-November 1905, which was a protest against the repressive measures taken during the first so-called Period of Oppression. Frightened by this revolutionary movement, the Russian authorities considered it important to restore peace as quickly as possible. The Tsar of Russia himself signed the so-called November Manifesto, which met the demands of the Constitutionalists for parliamentary reform as well as the demands of the lower classes for universal and equal suffrage.
The first female members of parliament in world history were elected in Finland in 1907
In the first elections to the single-chamber parliament in March 1907, some 19 female members of parliament were elected. Among them was Lucina Hagman, who was the first chairwoman of Unioni, The League of Finnish Feminists, founded in 1892, and who was involved in setting up the Finnish Women's Union in 1907. As a member of parliament she championed such causes as temperance, allowing women to hold offices of state, reform of marriage legislation and projects to improve the position of children.
Also elected to parliament was Aleksandra Gripenberg, the famous women's rights campaigner and chairwoman of the Women's Society of Finland, which was founded in 1884. She was also one of the founding members of the International Alliance of Women.
Hilja Pärssinen, a leading light of the social-democrat women's movement, was elected to represent the social-democrat labour party. The issue of women's suffrage featured prominently in her writing. In parliament she fought for temperance, to improve the position of unmarried mothers and children and for reform of marriage legislation.
Women in the Finnish parliament have from the very outset worked to improve the position of women and the family and to achieve equal opportunities for all in education. Education and social affairs have been considered the preserve of women even when ministerial portfolios have been handed out. Finland's first female minister took office in 1926, when Miina Sillanpää was appointed assistant minister for social affairs. Sillanpää was a figurehead for all women in the labour movement and her parliamentary career began in 1907 and spanned 38 parliaments.
In 1975 the first woman was elected one of the speakers in parliament, with Anna-Liisa Linkola serving as second deputy speaker. Women's history was made in 1996, when the speaker and both deputy speakers in parliament were all women, with Riitta Uosukainen as speaker.
Centenary year to underscore importance of political rights
To mark this centenary year a website with events and background information entitled "100 years of full political rights for women" has been launched. The site provides basic information on the 100-year history of women's suffrage, political rights and on events being held to mark the anniversary.
The anniversary will address the achievement of political rights for women both in Finland and internationally. The basic idea is that political rights are basic rights enjoyed by all citizens, and from time to time it is important to remember just how significant those rights are and the history of how they were achieved. This centenary is a golden opportunity to do precisely that.
Centenary celebrations will be taking place in the Finnish parliament from spring 2006 to summer 2007. The theme for the centenary is "The right to vote - trust in the law. 100 years of Finnish democracy". As part of the anniversary celebrations the Finnish parliament will sit in two special sessions, on 1 June 2006 and 23 May 2007. 2007 will also see elections to the Finnish parliament, with polling day on 18 March. Advance voting outside of Finland will take place on 7-10 March 2007.
Ulla Suortti, Embassy of Finland, Brussels