Finland celebrates centenary of women’s right to vote and stand in municipal elections

The extension of women’s suffrage and eligibility for election cannot be analysed separately from the fight for universal and equal suffrage in the Finnish national elections, for a unicameral Parliament and for Finland’s independence.

The Finnish Parliament adopted the municipal laws granting women voting rights and eligibility to stand for election equally with men on 16 November 1917. These laws were published in the Finnish Statute Book on 27 November of that year. Until then, women’s right to participate in municipal decision-making had been restricted by specific provisions.

Even a harmonisation of legislation did not make women equal with men. For long, women were notably under-represented in municipal executives, committees and other bodies elected by the municipal council.  The Act on Equality between Women and Men has gradually addressed this shortcoming.

A minority of women held a right to vote already in 1865

Both men and women had been granted, by a decree, the right to vote at the local level, first in rural communities in 1865, and then in towns in 1873. Women’s rights were not limited by a deprivation of voting rights, but by the fact that the right to vote was only granted to legally competent women — to widows and to unmarried and divorced women. 

The right to vote was not universal or equal in other respects, either. The number of votes depended on the amount of taxes paid to the municipality. Those with the smallest income were left completely without voting rights, whereas people with the highest income were allotted a maximum of 25 votes or 1/50 of all votes. The provisions on taxation and its impact on the right to vote were formulated broadly and thus open to interpretation, which meant that the practices in rural communities and towns differed sharply. Unlike today, legal persons that were members of the municipality (e.g. companies) had a right to vote.

Women did not have the right to stand for election

The right to vote did not make women eligible to stand for election or to become elected to a town council or a municipal council, in other words, to become councillors. Those seats were reserved for enfranchised men. Enfranchised women were accepted for rural municipal committees, but not for a town’s chamber of finance.

In the central administration, women fared even worse. In 1809, Finland had become part of the Russian Empire with the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy. In the spring of the same year, the representatives of Finland’s four estates convened in the Diet of Porvoo. The Diet consisted of representatives of the nobility, the clergy, burghers and (land-owning) peasants. For structural reasons alone, the noble and peasant estates were beyond women's influence. Therefore, the efforts to extend women’s suffrage were mainly focused on the estate of burghers.

Until 1879, the burgher estate represented tax-paying burghers and other privileged tradesmen in towns. After the abolishment of the old guild system, all tax-paying men who lived in towns and were not members of any other estates were, with some exceptions, entitled to vote in elections to the burgher estate. In these elections, the suffrage was tied to tax rate in the same way as in municipal elections. 

A universal and equal right to vote and stand in parliamentary elections granted in 1906

Already in the late 19th century, some organisations and political players put forward initiatives for extending women's suffrage. Women’s right to vote and be elected was also discussed by the 1904–05 Diet in the context of considering the extension of voting rights in national elections. Even the Constitutional Committee proposed an extension of women’s rights in its report, but the general strike and extraparliamentary pressure postponed the reform until the establishment of a unicameral Parliament.

In the 1906 parliamentary reform, a universal and equal suffrage was no longer challenged. Women’s full political rights were also approved without any major opposition. On 20 July 1906, Tsar Nicholas II ratified the bill for a parliamentary reform, which had been approved by the Diet earlier in the month. Now that big steps had been taken at the national level, there was mounting pressure to extend the full political rights to municipal elections.

In the party meetings held in 1906, almost all political parties discussed, though with differing emphases, a reform of municipal administration that would include universal and equal suffrage. The parties also approved programmes to this end. Thus in May 1907, after the election of the first unicameral Parliament in March, the Senate appointed a committee to draw up a proposal for reforming municipal laws. 

On the committee, the parties adhered to the principles laid down in their party programmes.  The Social Democrats were in favour of universal and equal suffrage without any restrictions. The Finnish nationalist movement was divided into moderate, conservative ‘Old Finns’ and progressive, bourgeois ‘Young Finns’. The Old Finns demanded that additional councillors be elected alongside the actual councillors, who would decide on tax increases and long-term loans. These additional councillors would have been elected by tax-paying citizens and their spouses. The Young Finns wanted to grant voting rights to tax-paying municipal residents alone. The Committee’s proposal as a whole met with the strongest opposition from the Swedish Party.

First attempts to reform the municipal laws 1908–1914

In the second parliamentary session in 1908, the right to vote and stand in municipal elections was discussed in a municipal committee chaired by Eero Erkko. The committee’s proposal was in line with the Old Finns’ view: universal and equal suffrage, but additional councillors to deal with matters of financial consequence. On the last day of the Diet in 1908, Parliament passed the bill by a very large majority, 146–41, but the Tsar, as Emperor and Grand Duke of Finland, never approved the bill: a new era of Russification changed the course of events. The municipal laws were held as contrary to the equality legislation enacted in Russia, and thus the ruler should not approve them. Finally in May 1914, the Emperor-Grand Duke made the decision not to approve the municipal laws.

New municipal laws at the forefront of the fight for independence

It was not until in spring 1917, after the Tsar’s abdication and an establishment of a provisional government, that the drafting and enacting of municipal laws could be resumed. The Social Democrats won a majority, 103–97, in the Finnish parliament. By this majority, they decided to set up a municipal committee to prepare a proposal for municipal laws and later defined its contents. The main points of controversy included the lowering of the age for voting and for standing for election to 20, a municipal referendum and the matters voted on therein, and a transfer to a two-year council term with half of the councillors retiring. The bourgeois groups were in favour of the old system, in which the elections were held annually and one-third of the councillors retired.

The new municipal laws were unanimously adopted on 14 July 1917 after the Parliament had voted 169 to 24 to reject the proposal to leave the laws in abeyance. However, this did not guarantee that the laws would enter into force. On 18 July 1917, the Finnish Parliament had passed the so-called Power Act, which gave the legislative power, formerly vested with the Tsar, to Parliament. However, the Russian provisional government gave the order to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections. Finland’s state bodies consented to sending the laws to be approved by the Russian government.

This state of affairs changed after the October Revolution in Russia. On 15 November 1917, the Finnish Parliament declared that it would wield the supreme power itself. At the same plenary session, Parliament started debating the municipal bills that had been passed in the summer. Already on the following day, Parliament decided to approve the bill and publish the municipal laws, the Act on municipal elections and the Act on (municipal) referendum.

Under the laws, the councillors and deputy councillors of both rural municipalities and towns were elected for a three-year term. Each year, one-third of the councillors retired, and new councillors were elected in their place. This practice was given up in the mid-1920s, but the council term continued to be three years. It was not until the mid-1950s that the council term was extended to four years. 

The right to vote in municipal elections was granted to every member of the municipality, men and women alike, who had Finnish civil rights and who were at least 20 years old before the start of the election year. Under the law, people who were under guardianship, had lost civic confidence (that is, their civil rights) or had bought and sold votes in elections did not have the right to vote. There were no restrictions based on the payment of taxes or on wealth. Each person resident in the municipality who had the right to vote for councillors was also eligible for election to a municipal council or to other municipal positions of trust.

The municipal laws were signed by the Finnish Senate and published in the Finnish Statute Book on 27 November 1917. The day marked a major moment for women’s voting rights and their right to stand for election: these rights were now defined in law without discriminating between the genders.

Whereas the municipal laws entered into force at the beginning of 1918, the act on municipal elections came into force immediately. Under the new law, the municipal elections were scheduled to be held in spring 1918, but the eruption of the civil war disrupted these plans. In summer 1918, it was enacted that the representatives elected before the new municipal laws would continue to perform their duties until the end of 1918.    

The 1919 weakening and partial cancellation of municipal laws

The municipal laws of 1917 were short-lived. The Finnish Civil War was fought in 1918, and after the war in early 1919, the same Parliament that had adopted the laws had now been reduced to a "Rump" Parliament by the removal of the Social Democrats and decided to change some of the essential aspects of these laws.  Under the laws approved on 27 March 1919, the voting and candidacy age for municipal elections was raised to 24 years. This was a considerable setback. The voting age for men had been 21 (the age of majority) already since the early years of municipal administration and on certain conditions for women as well. The age of majority had been 21 for both genders since 1898.

With certain exceptions, voting rights were only given to municipal residents who paid municipal taxes. People who had not paid municipal taxes or charges over the preceding two years did not have the right to vote. The Act on municipal referendum was repealed, and it was not until the 1990s that it was entered into law.

Already in the same year 1919, the municipal laws were once more amended. The parties that had formed a majority in the Rump Parliament had become a minority when the Social Democrats returned to Parliament and the Agrarian Party won substantially more seats. The voting age was lowered back to 21 years. The eligibility to candidacy was determined based on the right to vote. Suffrage was still denied to those who received poor relief regularly. Tax liability as a requirement for the right to vote was abolished and even non-payment of taxes did not result in losing the right of suffrage, if there was proof of poverty provided by the municipal executive. However, the non-payment of taxes remained grounds for deprivation of the right to vote and to stand for election until 1945.

Long electoral lists were initially in use in municipal elections. In the absence of a more specific regulation, parties or other organisations had the power to decide who to include in the lists and in which order. This may have been one of the reasons why the proportion of elected female councillors remained small for a long time.

Over the decades, the use of long lists was restricted by the Act on municipal elections, which defined the number of candidates allowed for one list. Finally in 1953, a decision was made to allow only one candidate on a constituency association’s list. This showed the way to the modern practice of voting for an individual candidate on a party list. In 1972, the law granted the political parties the right to nominate their candidates without establishing a constituency association.

Gradual lowering of the voting and candidacy age 

The age limit for voting in municipal elections was lowered to 20 in 1968, and to 18 in 1972. In 1976, the age limit for candidacy was also lowered to 18. Between 1907 and 2003, the relative share of eligible voters increased from 45 to 80.9 per cent of the population.

In 1976, the right to vote in municipal elections was extended to Nordic citizens who had lived in Finland for at least two years and in 1991 to all foreigners who had lived in the country for a minimum of four years. In 1995, citizens of all European Union Member States, Iceland and Norway who lived in Finland were granted the right to vote on the same terms as Finnish citizens.

Exercise of voting rights and membership in municipal council

For the achievement of gender equality, legislation is needed to guarantee both genders equal opportunities for exerting influence, but it is equally important that both women and men seize these opportunities. Between 1918 and 1936, the voter turnout in the annually held municipal elections was below 40 per cent, in some years even below 30 per cent. In the 1930s, after a move from annual municipal elections to a three-year cycle, the voter turnout rose to over 40 percent. Voting activity was lower in the rural communities than in towns and cities. The women voters' turnout was usually some percentage points lower than that of men.

The gap between men and women’s turnout remained until the latter half of the 1960s. In 1975, women's voting activity was already at the same level as that of men. Since the 1984 elections, women voters’ turnout has invariably exceeded that of men. However, during this time the overall voter turnout decreased from about 75 to 60 per cent.

The share of female councillors has not increased by the same proportion as women’s voting activity. In the 1945 elections, 4.4 per cent of elected councillors were women. In 1980, the proportion of female councillors was 22.2 per cent; however, in urban municipalities their share was substantially higher in places (for example 41.2 per cent in Helsinki in 1980). 

In 2004, 2008 and 2012, female councillors accounted for slightly over 36 per cent of all councillors. In the 2017 municipal elections their share increased to 39 per cent.

Act on Equality between Women and Men

Despite a substantial rise in women voters’ turnout, their participation in municipal decision-making remained low.  The percentage of women elected by the council to municipal and town executives, to committees and to other positions of trust was small.

In 1985, the Finnish Government submitted a proposal for the Act on Equality between Women and Men. The Act’s main emphasis was on eliminating inequalities in employment. The Government limited the application of gender quota provisions to government committees, advisory boards and to other corresponding bodies, which were to have both women and men, unless there were special reasons to the contrary. The Government stated that the quotas did not apply to municipal executives or local authority committees; however, the general obligation to promote gender equality required that both central and local government authorities take equality considerations into account when appointing such decision-making bodies. 

The parliamentary consideration of the bill concluded that the proposed general obligation of municipal decision-making bodies to promote gender equality was insufficient. The gender quota provisions were thus extended to local authority committees. This led to problems of interpretation: does the Act apply to municipal executives or the decision-making bodies of joint municipal authorities? The central organisations for municipalities recommended that the Act should be applied to local government decision-making bodies in general. Nevertheless, the representation of women in municipal executives remained low in the council term beginning in 1987. In 16 municipalities, the municipal executive had no female members, and in 63 municipal executives women only held deputy member positions. Yet, in some municipalities women filled almost half of the seats (Seinäjoki, 45% and Mikkeli, 44%). The Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Act did not apply to municipal executives.   

Already in 1987, the Government submitted a proposal for an amendment to Section 4(2) of the Act on Equality between Women and Men. According to the proposal, municipal decision-making bodies, including the municipal executive and the commissions its sets up, should have both female and male members, unless there are special reasons to the contrary.

This did not see an end to problems with the law’s interpretation. The Supreme Administrative Court had ruled that a municipal council’s decision to choose only one woman to some municipal decision-making bodies was not in breach of the Act on Equality between Women and Men. This reinforced the need to enact new, stricter legislation. The Supreme Administrative Court based its reasoning on the Finnish Constitution, which protects the right to local self-government.

The Government proposed to amend the law to ensure a ’balanced’ representation of both genders in the municipal decision-making bodies. This alone would have made the gender equality requirement more stringent, but Parliament did not find it sufficient. The Act that was adopted provided for a minimum proportion of 40 per cent of both women and men in the decision-making bodies of municipalities and joint municipal authorities, municipal councils excluded. This provision is still in force today.

In the last council term before the quota provision entered into force, starting in 1993, the percentage of women in municipal executives and local authority committees was 25 and 34, respectively. There was, however, great variation between municipalities, from 18 to 53 per cent in committee seats. Women’s representation in these bodies remained under 40 per cent until the introduction of the quota provision, which increased their proportion to close to 50 per cent.

Women account for 39 per cent of chairpersons of municipal councils elected after the 2017 municipal elections. Their proportion rose by 11 percentage points from the previous council term. The proportion of women of council chairpersons has been steadily increasing since 1993, when it stood at 16 per cent.

Women account for 31 per cent of municipal executive chairpersons. In the previous council term, the corresponding figure was 26 per cent.

Author:
Kari Prättälä, Licentiate of Laws

 

Sources:

Women’s suffrage and eligibility for election in the late 1900s has been dealt with by historians such as Matti Klinge in his book Keisarin Suomi (Finland under the Tsar’s rule). Helsinki 1997. See pp. 430–431.

This article’s main source of information on the development of municipal laws in the early decades of the 20th century has been Ilkka Hakalehto’s article ‘Kunnallisen kansanvallan kehitys, kunnallisvaltuustot ja kunnallisvaalit’ in Suomen kaupunkilaitoksen historia 3. Itsenäisyyden aika. (‘The development of municipal democracy, municipal councils and elections’ in The history of Finnish towns 3. Independent Finland). Vantaa 1984, pp. 107–212.

See also Women's suffrage 110 years, the Finnish Parliament’s information package at https://www.eduskunta.fi/EN/tietoaeduskunnasta/kirjasto/aineistot/yhteiskunta/womens-suffrage-110-years/Pages/default.aspx and the history of Finnish suffrage at https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suomen_äänioikeuden_historia

The development of rights to participation in the post-war decades is discussed extensively by Ari Manninen in Palveluja vai byrokratiaa? Suomen kunnallishallinto sotien jälkeen (Services or bureaucracy? Finnish post-war municipal administration), Porvoo 2010, pp. 226–248.

See also Turnout in Municipal elections 1950–2017 by gender (%) on Statistics Finland website at  http://www.stat.fi/til/kvaa/2017/03/kvaa_2017_03_2017-04-21_tau_002_en.html and Background analysis of candidates and elected councillors in Municipal elections 2017 at http://www.stat.fi/til/kvaa/2017/04/kvaa_2017_04_2017-04-27_kat_001_en.html.

Sari Pikkala, Marianne Pekola-Sjöblom and Sirkka-Liisa Piipponen: ‘Kuntademokratian tila ja trendit’ in Demokratia-indikaattorit 2013 (‘The state and trends of municipal democracy’ in Democracy indicators 2013). Ministry of Justice publication, reports and guidelines 52/2013, pp. 123–156.

Sirkka-Liisa Piipponen & Marianne Pekola-Sjöblom: Information on council and local executive chairpersons in mainland Finland during council term beginning on 1 June 2017 and benchmarking data from the previous council terms. (Slides) https://www.kuntaliitto.fi/sites/default/files/media/file/Tietoja%20valtuuston%20ja%20hallituksen%20puheenjohtajista.pdf

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