A Hundred Years in the Voting Booth

At the Turn of the Century, Finland Radically Changed the Face of Politics by Giving Women the Right to Participate and Be Heard

News | Nayeli Urquiza | December 2006 / January 2007

Photo: US Government

A hundred years after getting the right to vote in 1906, women in Finland, as elsewhere, are still underrepresented in high-ranking positions. But through constant redrawing of gender equality policies, they are trying to do something about it.

It’s what Johanna Laakso, professor at the Finno-Hungarian Department at the University of Vienna calls "gender blindness," a failure to address the gender dimension so that women continue to be treated unequally. In an interview after the event Women and Nation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium to Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Women Suffrage celebrated on November 16 and 17, she described how gender blindness can handicap governments, becoming a roadblock for agendas like labor rights that need a woman’s perspective.

Finland was the first country in the world where women acquired full political rights in 1906. As a consequence, Finish people have made the task of overcoming gender inequality "a matter of national pride," said Laakso.

This pride is based on the development of Finland as an independent nation and the role women played in the creation of the Finish nation. But how did they get so far ahead of everyone back in 1906?

"Women were active everywhere in society," said Laakso. They were equal in practice even before the law was set in writing because they shared the burden of managing and harvesting the farm. Unlike the Victorian family, Finish women were not seen as trophies symbolizing men’s economic success.

At the beginning of the century, the majority of the population lived and worked in egalitarian farming communities, so when Russia faced internal pressures of resistance to the Tsarist government, it loosened its grip on Finland. An emancipation of the language and national social movements simultaneously pressured Moscow until it cracked and Finland became an independent nation in 1917.  Both women and men wrote the rules for the new country."Their word mattered," said Laakso, and "somehow it was simply natural for women to have suffrage – partly because of these traditions, and partly because of the great Finish [political and linguistic] project."

"The women were the educators of the nation," Laakso went on, "in charge of teaching the new Finish language to the whole country." Before the Finish romantic nationalist movement, Swedish had been the official language.

Suffragist movements in England and elsewhere took longer. Finland was a young, unfinished nation where women built up their political rights "from scratch," said Laakso. In Europe, women had to undo well-established political systems. "We didn’t have the historical burden as other European societies," said Laakso "we were free because the political structures had no precedence."

But the road for women’s equal representation in the Finish government is far from over as it has fallen behind its goals. According to the World Economic Forum 2006 Gender Gap Report, women’s representation in the Finish government remains at 0.79, where 1 represents full equality.

"A gender-neutral approach has been the dominating one in Finland," wrote Riitta Kangasharju, adviser for the Finish Ministry of Labor, in a 2006 document for the European Commission. This means that when gender is not taken into account, the search for giving the same rights and obligations to women and men might strengthen the existing inequalities instead of abolishing them.

"Despite all this legislation in the 1960’s, the average woman still earns 20 percent less than the average man. The difference is partly explained by the different type of jobs done by women and men. Women hold "typical women’s professions," said Laakso, such as teachers, doctors, nurses, and "nobody pays attention to the fact that they are less well paid."

The Finish government is trying to close the gap between men and women by launching the Action Plan for Gender Equality in 2004. Its goal is to mainstream "gender equality in state administration."

Despite there is no full gender equality in Finland, they are closing the gap in time. One sign that Finish people are proud of their inclusion of women in the government is president Tarja Halonen’s re-election this year.

Although women politicians are finally getting their collective foot into the door of parliaments and state houses in many countries, they are worldwide underrepresented. They make up only 16 percent of lawmakers, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s report on women’s political participation in 2005.

The gap is close to being bridged in countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland but other regions lag behind. At a high of 40 percent of the MP’s in Nordic countries, women in Latin America have advanced to nearly 22 percent. Women are worse off in the Arab region where they represent only 8 percent of the parliamentarians.

The question of how far women have advanced depends on how the level of water is seen inside the glass. Half-full or half-empty?

There are currently 24 women in the world who hold leading positions in their countries according to the Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership. This listing includes prime ministers, queens, presidents and governors of independent territories.

This year, women have also won high-ranking positions never held before by a female. In the US, Nancy Pelosi was chosen as the House of Common’s Speaker; Barbara Prammer became the first President of Austria’s National Parliament. Ségolene Royal could soon become the first woman President of France.

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