Women’s rocky road to suffrage

Norwegian women gained the right to vote at general elections in 1913. This marked the end of women’s struggle for suffrage, 99 years after Norway got its own constitution in 1814. From now on the nation was to be governed by the Norwegian people.

In a global context this resolution was radical, although three dependent states had already achieved universal suffrage; New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906. Norway, however, became the first sovereign state in the world to introduce universal suffrage for both women and men.

Synderegister

Women voting in 1909. Suffrage for women was gradually introduced in Norway. In 1901 the right to vote at local government elections was given to a limited amount of women based on their income. In 1907 women who paid a minimum tax amount were allowed to vote at general elections. But this applied only to a small group of wealthy women. Photo: Anders Beer Wilse / Norsk Folkemuseum.


There were some limitations to the universal suffrage which was introduced in 1913. People who received money from the Poor Relief Fund were not entitled to vote. This also affected housewives whose husbands were dependent on social security benefits. On the other hand, housewives married to husbands who were able to provide for their families were entitled to vote. Other groups affected by the limitations were criminals and people who were declared to be without legal capacity. Neither these groups were entitled to vote in 1913. In 1919, the Parliament declared that people dependent on social security benefits were entitled to vote as well. In 1954, the section which disenfranchised criminals and people declared to be without legal capacity was removed from the constitution.

The 1913 suffrage enabled women to contribute to the society’s decision making on an equal footing as men. A struggle rooted in the French revolution and the Age of Enlightenment had been won. During this struggle, women had gained political and organisational experience through their work in the women’s associations, the suffrage associations, the temperance movement, the trade union and the mission societies.

The road to universal suffrage was, however, long and winding. As early as the 1880s, the first demands for suffrage for women were being made in Norway and in 1885 the Women’s Suffrage Association was established. From the beginning their aim was to ensure women the same voting rights as men.

When men achieved universal suffrage in 1898 no women were entitled to vote. Women's right to vote was introduced in stages over the years to come.

  • In 1901 women gained limited suffrage at local elections. This included women with income taxable of 300 Norwegian kroner in rural areas and 400 Norwegian kroner in the city, and women who were married to a husband with the equivalent income. These rules applied to the local elections in 1901, 1904 and 1907. The right to vote also ensured the right to run for election in the City Council.

  • In 1907 women gained limited suffrage at general elections. The same rules concerning taxable income applied for general elections as for local elections.

  • In 1910 women gained universal suffrage at local elections.

  • In 1913 universal suffrage was introduced at general elections. From this year on women could also be elected to the Parliament (The Storting) and to the City Councils.

  • In 1916 women achieved the right to be appointed as cabinet ministers and to positions in the government.

Background

At the end of the 19th century the demand for suffrage for women was the main issue for the growing women’s association. This issue was important for various reasons.

Norwegian women experienced enormous changes during the 19th century. Increasingly, women started to work outside the home and women gradually gained more rights in society as a whole.

  • From the mid-19th century, women were given better opportunities to establish and run their own businesses. From 1863, all unmarried women above the age of 25 had the same rights as men in this field.

  • From 1863 all unmarried women were regarded as legally independent although they lost their independence once they married. A marriage act was passed in 1888 which declared that women would keep their independence in marriage.

  • From 1854 women were granted the same right to inheritance as their brothers, and they were gradually granted financial rights.

  • In 1882, Cecilie Thoresen Krog was the first woman in Norwegian history to gain access to the University of Oslo. A law passed in 1884 gave women full access to the university.

This extended access to work and education enhanced women’s knowledge and understanding of how politics worked and how political goals could be achieved. Women’s increased involvement in social work through various organisations provided useful training in political organisational work. Many of the women who were involved in the women’s association had previous experience from the temperance movement or religious organisations.

Organisation

The author Camilla Collett has been acclaimed for being the first Norwegian woman to promote feminist ideas in her novel The District Governor’s Daughters (Amtmandens Døttre) from 1854. However, none of her earliest writings directly encourage the struggle for suffrage. Collett was more preoccupied with women’s individual emancipation. For Collett this primarily involved women’s rights to express their feelings, but also their right to education and knowledge and to develop their talents and thus increase their self-respect.

The ideas of the Enlightenment were gradually manifested in Norway over time. The first Norwegian women’s organisation was not established until 1884. It was called Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights(Norsk Kvinnesaksforening).

Suffrage for women at general elections was the primary objective for the International Association for Women’s Rights, yet the Norwegian association was careful to further their demand for suffrage. Rather, they worked in order to recruit female members into school boards and the board at the poor house. Moreover, they worked for gradual voting rights for women at local elections.

However, not everybody was supportive of this moderate approach. One adversary was Gina Krogh, who was to become one of the most unyielding advocates for women’s suffrage in Norway. She was of the opinion that any woman who met the requirements for eligibility that was recorded for men in the constitution should be given the same opportunity to vote.

Although few women would have achieved suffrage even in this case, this view was regarded as radical. According to the constitution a citizen was required to have a relatively high amount of income and wealth in order to have the right to vote at political elections.

In order to avoid a divide in the newly established association, Gina Krogh and other women with her decided to establish Association for Women’s Suffrage (Kvinnestemmerettsforeningen). Their aim was to achieve suffrage for women on equal terms as men at both local and general elections.

However, the women’s movement was pervaded by strategic disagreements towards the end of the century. One part in the conflict wanted to demand equal rights for suffrage immediately whereas the other part claimed that the only realistic way towards suffrage was a step by step approach.

On the agenda

In order to achieve suffrage the suffragettes needed to convince the Parliament to amend the constitution. The first draft of the amendment was submitted to the Parliament in 1886. It was presented by Viggo Ullmann and Ole Anton Qvam from The Liberal Party (Venstre). In advance, The Association for Women’s Suffrage(Kvinnestemmerettsforeningen)had collected 4533 signatures in support of the amendment which was submitted to the parliament.

This draft was not considered until 1890. There were differing attitudes towards the suffragette movement at the Parliament. Many politicians belonging to The Conservative Party (Høyre) were of the opinion that the female nature itself hindered political participation.

The opponents of the amendment thought that each sex possessed their own natural field of work and hence equality between men and women was unfavourable. If the woman “left the home in order to engage in politics, the child in the crib would scream and the porridge would boil over.” They claimed that, as a worst case scenario, suffrage for women would lead to the dissolution of the Home as such.

Viggo Ullmann, on the other hand, thought it was an exaggeration to believe that women would neglect husband and child as a result of suffrage. No one made such generalisations on behalf of men! He claimed that it all boiled down to a question of power. The reason why men would deny women the right to vote was because those in power were afraid to lose it.

As a result of this two day long debate in Parliament in 1890 the draft concerning suffrage for women was rejected with 70 to 44 votes. Other drafts submitted to the parliament in the following years suffered the same fate. Either the drafts were not considered at all or they were rejected.

Divide

These continual defeats in Parliament resulted in differing opinions on what was the most sensible tactics in the further work for suffrage. One view was to work for the right to vote at local elections first and regard this as a launching pad to achieve full suffrage. Another view, which Gina Krog believed strongly in, was to continue the unyielding struggle for suffrage on equal terms as men.

In February 1897 at a meeting in The Association for Women’s Suffrageit was decided on a new strategy, namely to advocate suffrage for women at local elections only. When the struggle for universal suffrage on equal terms as men had failed, they had to settle for less.

A number of members left The Association for Women’s Suffragein protest following this decision and formed the National Association for Women’s Suffrage (Landskvinnestemmerettsforeningen). They continued their uncompromising struggle for universal suffrage. Fredrikke Marie Qvam, one of the most central figures in the first Norwegian feminist movement, became the association’s first leader.

Due to this divide the question of suffrage for women won new topicality and both The Association for Women’s Suffrageand National Association for Women’s Suffrage experienced new interest and involvement. The membership rose and the new association grew into a large national organisation, as the name indicated.

Local suffrage

The first breakthrough was won in 1901. From this year, women above the age of 25 were given the right to vote at local elections provided they had an income of at least 300 kroner if they lived in rural areas or at least 400 kroner if they lived in the city. The same right applied to married women whose husband had the equivalent income. They were also given the right to run for election at the local council.

Despite this victory the right to vote at general elections was still far ahead. The constitutional amendment drafts concerning universal suffrage for women were rejected by the Standing Committee on Constitutional Affairs at the Parliament in 1903 on the grounds that the committee wanted time to see the effects of the limited local suffrage for women first.

The same arguments were presented by the committee in 1904 after having considered a proposal from The Association for Women’s Suffrageon universal suffrage at local elections. This proposal suffered the same fate at Odelstinget[1] with 57 votes to 30.

Gina Krog regretted this: “When all women above the fixed taxation limit, and all men, whether above or below the fixed limit, are given the right to vote it seems as an attempt to construct a pariah caste consisting of the poorest women in the country.”[2]

Towards a breakthrough

The next major breakthrough came in 1905 when activist women organised a petition in support of the dissolution of the union with Sweden. This proved that women in Norway were able to take political responsibility. It had a positive effect on women’s own attitudes to feminism and the struggle for suffrage, but it also made men interested in the question of universal suffrage.

The issue of suffrage was again discussed in Parliament in February 1907. This time, a proposal concerning suffrage for women with income at general elections went through with 96 to 25 votes. Thus, more than 270 000 women achieved suffrage at general elections. Although the right to vote still didn’t include all women, this was regarded as a major victory. The barrier was broken and women could be elected in Parliament.

Universal suffrage for women at local elections was introduced in 1910. From The Conservative Party (Høyre), a minority of those who voted against this reform could come up with any reasonable arguments against it. But their strategic reason for voting against the reform was that an expansion of voters at local elections, which would include working women, could increase the tax load and municipal taxes as a result of an increasing participation from the socialists. The Conservative Party argued that the legislation from 1901 had strengthened the conservative side since only the well-off women had been entitled to vote. According to them this benefit would disappear if all women were given this right.

The introduction of universal local suffrage happened more peacefully than the previous debates on suffrage for women. Yet there were still some bitter adversaries of universal suffrage for women. One of these was Sofus Arctander, a cabinet minister from The Liberal Party (Venstre). He had previously supported income limited suffrage for women, but he now feared the consequences of female majority.

First woman in parliament

Arctander claimed that having a majority of female voters at elections was risky, as he regarded women in general to be less level-headed and clear-thinking than men. In many municipalities women were in majority. According to him, women would easily give in to pity and sympathy towards the poor and they would vote for funding for all different sorts of worthy causes without thinking about where they would take the money from. Moreover, he was afraid that “ruthless socialist leaders” would gain supporters among a large “uncritical crowd” of women, including women from the upper classes. Consequently, he resigned from his post as cabinet minister in protest when women achieved universal local suffrage – despite his warnings – on July 7th 1910.

In 1911 Norway got its first female representative in Parliament. This was educator Anna Rogstad, who represented The Conservative Party and The Liberal Left Party (Det Frisinnede Venstre). She was elected as vice representative for J. K. M. Bratlie.

The members of the suffragette movement were now highly impatient to achieve suffrage on equal terms as men at general elections. They emphasised the unfairness of excluding the less well-off women. While most women married to working class men were entitled to vote at this time, most daughters of farmers, female artisans, industrial workers, cleaning- and house maids and seamstresses were still excluded.

During the summer of 1912 it became clear that all the political parties included the issue of universal political suffrage in their party program. The following year the Norwegian government submitted a proposal concerning universal political suffrage for women on equal terms as men. The suffragettes knew then that victory was finally within reach.

The fact that the amendment to the constitution was passed unanimously without any debate on June 7th 1913 was, however, more than anyone had dared to hope for. Gina Krog triumphed: Our faith has moved mountains!

Suggested reading

Wealthy women voted first, Science Nordic



[1] one of two legislative chambers in the Parliament

[2] «Naar alle vi kvinder som er over den fastsatte skattegrænse, og saa alle mænd, baade over og længst muligt under, har stemmeret- saa ser det virkelig ud som man vil lave en pariaklasse af de fattigste kvinder i landet.»