Revolutionary roots of women’s suffrage: Finland 1906 — an International Women’s Day tribute | Eric Blanc


A group of working women, 1914
The SDP’s women members of the Finnish parliament, 1914. From left: Aura Kiiskinen, Mimmi Haapasalo, Anna Karhinen, Sofia Hjulgren, Hilja Pärssinen, Hulda Salmi, Elvira Viihersalo, Alma Jokinen, Mimmi Kanervo, Anni Huotari, Miina Sillanpää, Ida Ahlstedt.

March 4, 2015 — This article was first published at Johnriddell.wordpress.com, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author — In 1906, Finland became the world’s first country to grant full female suffrage.[1] This watershed achievement for women was won by Finnish socialists during the revolutionary upheaval that swept the Czarist empire to which Finland belonged.

Yet this important history has been overlooked by both academics and activists. Abraham Ascher’s standard work on the 1905 revolution in Czarist Russia, for instance, completely omits any mention of Finnish suffrage and argues that “the efforts of women to achieve equality bore few concrete results during the revolution”.[2] In the few non-Finnish books that address the 1906 victory, the role of the socialist movement is generally marginalized: David Kirby writes that suffrage “was conceded virtually without a struggle” and Barbara Evans Clements portrays mainstream feminists like Alexandra Gripenberg as the suffrage battle’s main protagonists.[3]

The granting of universal suffrage owes far more to the class struggle than these works would suggest. Building off my recent research in Helsinki and new studies by Finnish feminists, in this article I trace the revolutionary roots of the suffrage victory, with a focus on the autonomous activities of the League of Working Women.[4]

A group of Finnish seamstresses, 1906

A group of Finnish seamstresses, 1906.

I show that full suffrage was won through a mass general strike and anti-imperial insurgency in Finland, combined with a revolution across the empire. Female socialists led the fight for women’s suffrage, while the mainstream women’s organizations supported wealth qualifications for the vote until the end of 1905. Contrary to the common claim that Marxism ignores issues of women’s oppression, Finnish socialists simultaneously fought gender, national and class domination, decades before the emergence of theorizations of “intersectionality”. Reclaiming this lost history is long overdue.

The buildup

The year 1899 marks a crucial turning point in Finnish history. Of all the dominions of the Czarist empire, Finland had throughout the 19th century been granted the most autonomy and political freedom. But in February 1899 the Czarist regime began eliminating Finland’s special autonomous status, sparking a national movement against this so-called “Russification”. In July 1899 the Finnish Workers Party was founded as an open, legal party, signaling the break of the working class from years of bourgeois tutelage. Whether to collaborate, and on what basis, with the nationalists against “Russification” became a major ongoing debate within the labor movement.[5]

One of the central points of contention between workers and nationalists was the issue of suffrage, from which all working people — both men and women — were excluded at that time. The nationalist Finnish Party, and the Finnish Women’s Association to which it was allied, called for the extension of the vote only to women who met the same wealth qualifications then in place for men.[6] In contrast, the Workers Party demanded full suffrage for all: the right to vote and to run for office for the whole population irrespective of wealth, gender or nationality.[7] In 1903 the party adopted a Marxist program, renamed itself the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and announced that if its suffrage demands were not met, it would resort to a general strike to win them.[8]

While the labor movement consistently fought for women’s suffrage and legal equality for all, it was not free from patriarchal practices and assumptions. A precedent for women’s participation in social movements had been established in the massive alcohol temperance struggle of the era, but the membership and decision-making structures of the SDP remained overwhelmingly male—in 1899 women made up only 10.7% of the party.[9] Some early workers’ associations even explicitly excluded women.[10] While there were committed feminists such as Matti Kurikka and Edvard Valpas in the party leadership, other male leaders such as Yrjö Makelin and Matti Turkia were initially opposed to female suffrage, arguing that women would vote for priests.[11] A belief in intrinsic and essential differences between men and women was hegemonic, and was expressed through the movement’s heavy emphasis on the role of women as mothers.[12]

The founding of the League of Working Women in 1900 in some ways reflected the prevalent division of labor, with women’s organizing sphere often limited to specific “female activities.” On the other hand, many women were intimidated from participating in meetings with men present, and the existence of an autonomous organization provided an important vehicle for their self-development as leaders.[13] The League’s early efforts, however, were not particularly successful. The most common urban job for Finnish women was that of maid servant, whose isolated workplaces and long hours made collective action particularly difficult.[14] The League’s 1902 congress lamented a lack of membership growth and attributed the “indifference” of women workers to a lack of consciousness and a fear of being fired.[15] In this challenging context, League activists frequently called on party men to more pro-actively involve women. At the 1904 SDP congress, Sandra Reinholdsson criticized male comrades for discriminating against their female peers, rather than involving and politicizing them.[16]

Hilja Pärssinen

Hilja Pärssinen.

Among working women, as in the party more generally, there were major differences concerning collaboration with bourgeois political tendencies. Some of the most militant activists, such as Reinholdsson and Mimmi Kanervo, worked with the “constitutionalists” in illegal underground activity against the regime.[17] Others like Hilja Pärssinen, the movement’s main theoretician, advocated a strict class-against-class perspective along the lines set out by the German Marxists August Bebel and Clara Zetkin. Pärssinen’s 1903 pamphlet on women and the vote made the case for irreconcilable class conflict: bourgeois women wanted only equality with upper-class men, while women workers wanted the vote to pass laws, such as a prohibition bill, to improve their material conditions.[18]

In contrast, Miina Sillanpää, the influential leader of the maids’ association, favored close collaboration with the mainstream feminists.[19] This position, hegemonic in the early years of the movement, was steadily losing ground in the face of the elitism of the Association of Finnish Women, which continued to oppose universal suffrage. Led by the internationally famous feminist Alexandra Gripenberg, the Association argued that lower-class women were ignorant and prone to vice, therefore they had to be guided by their morally superior upper-class sisters.[20]

Cover of Palvejitarlehti (Maids' Journal)

Cover of Palvejitarlehti (Maids’ Journal).

By 1904, the initially close collaboration between labor women and the non-socialist feminists was breaking down in many regions. In the Fall, a mass strike of female workers at the Voikkaa paper mill demanding the firing of a sexually abusive supervisor sparked a polarizing debate between the socialist and nationalist press over whether working-class women were “moral” and “decent.”[21] At a November Helsinki women’s suffrage meeting of over 1000 people, women workers, who were not getting a chance to speak, began shouting down the bourgeois speakers and succeeded in having the meeting adopt their demand for universal suffrage.[22]

The Great Strike

The revolutionary wave that swept across the Czarist Empire after the January 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre in St. Petersburg arrived relatively late in Finland. Workers’ demonstrations and clashes with police in Helsinki took place early in the year, but the revolution proper began only with the “Great Strike” in the Fall.

Inspired by the general strike in Central Russia, Finnish railway workers walked off the job on October 29, setting into motion the single most important event for the Finnish workers’ movement before 1917. By the next day all of Finland was on strike, and effective power passed into the hands of strike committees and armed guards.[23]

This “festival of the oppressed” radically transformed the consciousness of urban and rural working people. And perhaps nowhere was this transformation more pronounced than among women workers.

Palvelijatarlehti, the maids’ journal, noted:

The strike week was a wake-up week for the rights of women. … As soon as the strike began, women started to hold special meetings in which they debated their economic position, and these meetings were flooded by people. It was as if it took the breakout of the general strike to make women realize that it would depend on them whether the status of women improved or not.[24]

Miina Sillanpää noted that the week of general strike accomplished among the maids “more than what could have been promoted in ten years of peaceful conditions.”[25] Bourgeois society was particularly scandalized by the participation of their servants in the strike, which shattered paternalistic notions of maids as members of the host family and represented the direct intrusion of the labor movement into their homes. In daily mass meetings in a Helsinki elementary school courtyard, thousands of servants came together to formulate their demands.[26]

The call for full suffrage was legitimized by this mass female participation in all arenas of the strike, including in its top leadership; the Tampere Strike Committee, initially composed only of men, was quickly reorganized to include 10 women and 12 men.[27]

“We live in a wonderful period of time,” wrote Alma Malander in the SDP newspaper Kansan Lehti:

Peoples who were humble and satisfied to bear the burden of slavery have suddenly thrown off their yoke. Groups who until now have been eating pine bark, now demand bread. The oppressed demand justice! … Women, who have always been subordinate, suddenly get the idea that they really are equal with the other sex.[28]

Faced with the imminent overthrow of the regime by a paralyzing labor strike, peasant rebellions, and army mutinies, the Czar was forced on October 30 to promise civil liberties and a Parliament for the whole empire. On November 4, the Czar’s “November Manifesto” repealed the “Russification” of Finland, reestablishing the pre-1899 status quo, without guaranteeing that the new Finnish Parliament would be elected by the whole population. The bourgeois “constitutionalists,” who had actively built and participated in the strike, now pushed for an end to the action. On November 6, the SDP leadership bent to this pressure and called off the strike, against the desires of the party’s increasingly radicalized membership to fight until victory.

This ambiguous end to the Great Strike exacerbated a highly unstable situation. Having felt their power to shut down society, Finnish workers were determined to continue mobilizing to impose their economic and political demands. Immediately following the Great Strike the SDP began organizing mass demonstrations and building for a new general strike to ensure the establishment of full suffrage and a Unicameral Parliament.[29]

British left newspaper features interview with Hilja Pärssinen.

British left newspaper features interview with Hilja Pärssinen.

The next half year witnessed an unprecedented number of strikes, the rapid spread of socialist influence among tenant farmers and farm workers in the countryside, the creation of a workers’ Red Guard, and the deepening of Finnish socialist collaboration with Russian revolutionaries. It was during this upsurge that the self-organization of working women and the campaign for women’s suffrage reached their highest peaks.

The suffrage struggle

The 1906 suffrage decision has often been portrayed as the result of longstanding egalitarian traditions in Finnish culture. But it is far from certain that universal suffrage would have passed without the pressure of proletarian struggle and the autonomous efforts of socialist women.

Following the Great Strike, there was considerable and justifiable concern that women would be excluded in the upcoming elections. During the April 1905 suffrage reform bill discussions in the Finnish Parliament, only the Peasants Estate had supported women’s suffrage, while other Estates and the various nationalist parties all favored giving the vote only to men.[30] The chair of the Parliamentary Reform Committee chosen in November 1905 to draft the new suffrage rules was professor Robert Hermanson, an outspoken opponent of women’s suffrage. Women, he felt, were by nature emotional creatures prone to extremism and ill-suited for politics and the vote.[31]

Palvejitarlehti explicitly addressed the danger that their male comrades might bend to the pressure to leave out women:

Ida Ahlstedt

Ida Ahlstedt.

The rumors persist that some of our male friends are very indifferent to the right of women to vote and run for election. It has been stated that if all the other demands are met, it is not at all realistic to make a General Strike for women’s sake, because they are not so developed that the benefits of having them stand for election are worth it.[32]

In this context, the journal argued that women had to take the initiative to ensure their demands were met:

We [women] have to shout to the world that we are demanding the right to vote and to stand for election, and that we are not going to settle for anything less. Now is not the time for compromises, because if we are excluded now, we can be sure that it will remain that way for a long time.[33]

This orientation was immediately put into practice. By the end of 1905, the League had organized 231 suffrage meetings across the nation with 41,333 participants.[34] The League called for a new general strike in the case that women were excluded from the vote, and it established a special women’s committee to start preparations.[35] When the local working women’s associations were polled on this issue, 82 pledged to support a new general strike, seven said they would support the majority decision, and only two voiced opposition.[36]

Mimmi Kanervo

Mimmi Kanervo.