Finland Grants Women Suffrage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Finland’s franchise law of 1906, which made the small country the first European state to grant suffrage to women, was part of a reform effort by leaders of the Swede-Finn movement.

Summary of Event

It was against the background of increased Russification Russification of Finland Finland;Russification that Finnish nationalism developed dramatically after 1890 and led to the 1906 reforms that brought voting rights to women as well as several other liberating changes. Russia had acquired control of Finland in 1809 after a century of rivalry with Sweden over control of the country. From 1809 until the Russian Revolution of 1917, Finland remained under Russian control. Russification of Finnish culture characterized the entire period, but it intensified in the late nineteenth century under Czar Alexander III Alexander III (r. 1881-1894) and his successor Nicholas II. Russia’s efforts to impose its own language and culture stimulated Finland’s citizens’ interest in the Finnish and Swedish languages as a focus of resistance to Russification and otherwise stimulated national solidarity to preserve Finnish cultural identity and autonomy. With this came heightened interest in constitutional reforms aimed at broadening the rights of citizens, including women, in order to achieve the necessary unity to withstand pressures from Russia. Women;suffrage Finland;woman suffrage Woman suffrage;Finland Suffrage;Finland [kw]Finland Grants Women Suffrage (July 20, 1906) [kw]Women Suffrage, Finland Grants (July 20, 1906) [kw]Suffrage, Finland Grants Women (July 20, 1906) Women;suffrage Finland;woman suffrage Woman suffrage;Finland Suffrage;Finland [g]Finland;July 20, 1906: Finland Grants Women Suffrage[01680] [c]Women’s issues;July 20, 1906: Finland Grants Women Suffrage[01680] [c]Social issues and reform;July 20, 1906: Finland Grants Women Suffrage[01680] Nicholas II [p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];Russification of Finland Snellman, Johan Vilhelm Witte, Sergey Yulyevich Gripenberg, Alexandra

Throughout the century of Russian hegemony, Finland remained largely autonomous politically and managed to enter the industrial age with vigor. The rise of factories and enlargement of trade brought into the Finnish workforce increasing numbers of women who, in turn, sought better educational opportunities and certain social reforms that would protect their property and personal rights. They found sympathy among some national reform leaders who saw democracy as an essential prerequisite of national independence, because it would link divergent groups in a common front.

Language played a key role in the development of Finnish nationalism. One branch of the national movement promoted the Swedish language as the quintessential feature of Finland’s identity. Swedish was, and is, spoken by about 7.5 percent of Finland’s population. Known as the Swede-Finn or Svecoman movement, Swede-Finn movement[Swede Finn movement] this element of Finnish nationalism was fostered notably by Axel Olof Freudenthal, Freudenthal, Axel Olof a professor of language and literature at the University of Helsinki. The son of a Swede who had migrated to Finland in 1798, Freudenthal promoted language-related nationalism until his retirement in 1904, arguing that Swedish culture was superior to Finnish. An even more influential cultural nationalism known as the Fennoman movement Fennoman movement saw Finnish language and literature as the mark of Finland’s identity. The roots of this movement lay in the eighteenth century work of Professor Henrik Gabriel Porthan Porthan, Henrik Gabriel of the University of Turku (later moved to Helsinki). In the nineteenth century, its leading proponent was Johan Vilhelm Snellman. Both of these language-related national movements were important to the development of Finnish nationalism in the period of militant Russification and thus contributed to the setting of the 1906 constitutional reforms.

The 1905 revolution in Russia interrupted Russification, as Nicholas II’s government was forced to make major concessions. After months of strikes, Russian premier Sergey Yulyevich Witte urged the czar to issue the October Manifesto, October Manifesto which promised civil liberties and an elected legislative body, the Duma. Although the Duma would be increasingly restricted in later years, its establishment was a significant innovation. As these events unfolded in Russia, the crisis spread into Finland in the form of a new wave of labor unrest and popular resistance known as the Great Strike. All social classes were involved, heightening the sense of unified resistance. This united front depended ultimately on the maintenance of a solid coalition of various groups. A belief common to most of the resisting parties was that the Finnish Diet should be transformed into a highly democratic legislature based on broad popular support. Before the end of 1905, the four estates that constituted the Diet drew up a constitutional model that would extend the vote to all citizens, both male and female, over the age of twenty-four.

By early 1906, Nicholas II was ready to reverse the Russification policy, at least temporarily, and to urge the Finns to replace their outmoded legislative system with a more democratic unicameral parliament elected by universal suffrage. The fact that the czar was not so much interested in establishing democracy as in mitigating unrest did not detract from the importance of the constitutional reforms, which included not only a broader franchise but also a genuine legislative role for the new parliament, the Eduskunta.

That women were included in the larger electorate was a result both of the reformers’ need for mass support and of women’s own efforts to improve their condition. With increased industrialization of the economy after 1860, women had entered the workforce in greater numbers and were developing means to express their needs related to family life, property, and education. In 1884, the Finnish Women’s Association Finnish Women’s Association was founded; this organization provided a labor exchange, educational programs, and lobbying in behalf of women’s interests. One of its principal goals was greater access for women, including those in the poorer segments of the working class, to university education. Women had been admitted on a restricted basis as early as 1871, but by the 1890’s women held some instructorships not only in the university but also in certain normal schools. The Women’s Association also established international visibility when its principal leader, the Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg, attended the 1888 Women’s Congress in Washington, D.C., which founded the International Council of Women. Several other women’s advocacy organizations developed in Finland as well, especially during the decade preceding World War I.

Although Finnish women had become significant to the workforce and broader social life of Finland by 1906, enfranchisement was crucial to their further development. The fact that there was little resistance to enfranchising women in 1906 was a reflection of both women’s importance in the economy and the consensus supporting democratization. The greatest degree of sympathy for women’s rights came from the Finnish Social Democratic Party, known before 1903 as the Finnish Labour Party. Its reform program of 1906 included the vote for women as well as equal pay for equal work.

Two generations of steady advocacy by women’s rights groups had prepared the way for political equality. Without the right to vote, women’s gains since 1860 had remained limited. Women’s admission to university education and professorships, their right to divorce and parental rights, and their access to assistance with economic and other needs had depended on educating the public and lobbying legislatures. Finnish women’s inclusion in the 1906 franchise opened the door to their direct involvement in the political process on which further reforms depended.


The most immediate effect of the 1906 reforms was the increased presence of women in the political process. Nineteen women, mostly supporters of the Social Democrats’ program calling for extensive social reform, were elected in 1907 to the Eduskunta. The Social Democrats won approximately 40 percent of the legislative seats in 1907 and proceeded to advocate a wide range of reforms, many of them pertinent to the needs of women. Renewed Russification after 1908 limited the actual results, but Russian rule was entering its last decade. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Finland won its independence. Thereafter, women continued to be a significant part of Finnish political life, eventually accounting for about one-third of the lawmakers. Women served in the Finnish military during World War I and beyond in a special women’s auxiliary organization known as the Lotta Svard. They were ready to do their share in both politics and defense.

The 1906 enfranchisement was inspirational to both Finnish women and women of other countries. In a sense, Finnish women were in a privileged position as the first European women to gain the vote. At the same time, they faced new challenges. They entered into reform efforts vigorously, especially after Finland declared independence in 1917 and established itself as a republic.

The reforms most desired by Finnish women after enfranchisement included enhancement of their role in coeducational schools and universities, greater access to civil service jobs and the judicial bench, and rights of legal guardianship in divorce cases and for unmarried mothers, as well as several reforms related to economic security. Eventually, progress was made on all these fronts. A law enacted in 1924 required that either the principal or the assistant principal in every coeducational school be a woman, and in the period from 1922 to 1936 a series of laws provided for equal status for children born out of wedlock. By 1927, full professorships were opened to women, and in the same year women were permitted to become judges and to enter diplomatic and consular service on an equal basis with men. Finnish women also became as well educated as the country’s men and eventually slightly outnumbered men in higher education. Their legislative role contributed to the establishment of an extensive welfare program, including provisions for women’s and children’s rights and equal rights with men in determining children’s citizenship.

By the 1980’s, Finland was widely recognized as one of the best places in the world for women to live and work. A Population Crisis Committee report of 1988 cited Finland as second only to Sweden and slightly ahead of the United States. The major criteria were economic and legal conditions, health conditions, and educational opportunities. This exemplary status resulted from a number of factors, among them the fact that early in the twentieth century constitutional reforms that accompanied heightening nationalism in Finland brought women into the voting public several years, and in some cases decades, before women in most other countries. Women;suffrage Finland;woman suffrage Woman suffrage;Finland Suffrage;Finland

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Hampden J. Finland. New York: Macmillan, 1940. This older study of Finland is still valuable for its demonstration of the balance among social classes and the sexes in Finland. Finnish resistance to Russification by the regime of Nicholas II is given clear treatment, providing the reader with perspective on the sweeping reforms of 1906 that included the enfranchisement of women. Includes selected notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jutikkala, Eino. A History of Finland. New York: Praeger, 1962. A highly analytic history that provides strong coverage of continuity and discontinuity in Finnish society. One of the most essential studies available on Finland’s modern development. Several chapters focus on the modernization of Finland, particularly its quest for freedom and identity in the period of Russian domination. Women’s acquisition of the franchise is set in the context of that struggle. Includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lundin, C. Leonard. “Finland.” In Russification in the Baltic Provinces and Finland, 1855-1914, edited by Edward C. Thaden. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. A compact summary of Russia’s policy, especially during the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II, of imposing Russian culture in the Baltic region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Offen, Karen. European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. A comprehensive account of the development of feminism in European societies, including Portugal, Poland, Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Finland, and the growth of international and transnational feminist organizations. Aims to change readers’ perceptions by placing gender at the center of European history. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Senkkonen, Sirkka, and Elina Haavio-Mannila. “The Impact of the Women’s Movement and Legislative Activity of Women MPs on Social Development.” In Women, Power, and Political Systems, edited by Margherita Rendel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Shows the long-range results of women’s political and social liberation in Finland, demonstrating that progress was accompanied by continuing problems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wuorinen, John Henry. A History of Finland. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. A general history with an unusual grasp of the underlying social and economic driving forces of Finland’s modernization. Shows that the emancipation of women rested on more than two generations of concerted efforts. Includes selected notes and documents, select bibliography, and index.

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Categories: History