Monday, October 22, 2012

Women's Suffrage in Norway, 1905

While doing research for Oleanna, I was so pleased to find this book by Sylvia Paletschek and Bianka Pietrow-Ennker, Women's Emancipation Movements in the Nineteenth Century: A European Perspective (Stanford University Press, 2004).

The women's suffrage movement in Norway can be seen as a kind of natural extension of the largely agrarian society. From Patelschek and Pietrow-Ennker:
"The last few decades of the nineteenth century saw a growing protest against the strictly gender-divided society of the urban middle class. In agrarian and working-class life, women and men often worked side by side and took part in the same leisure activities."
Oleanna and Elisabeth, I think unconsciously, assumed a kind of equality in their relationships with men--everyone has to work hard, everyone has to pull their weight. Oleanna was surprised by the gender divides she saw when she visited Bergen.
"But in the urban middle classes, femininity was circumscribed by many taboos…For a woman to enter a restaurant, even a fashionable one, without male company, not to speak of smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, was deemed very dubious behavior."
That said, across the social strata, "...the younger generation wanted husbands who saw them as equal partners in marriage."

The push for suffrage in Norway was driven by urban middle-class women, I suspect largely because they did not enjoy the same kinds of social freedoms that their more agrarian sisters did. Plus, as Oleanna says to Anders many times, the world of politics was so far removed from the reality of her daily life, it was difficult for her to really connect the dots between suffrage and her own life and well-being.

The way the dots were connected for rural women was the 1905 dissolution of the union of Norway and Sweden. But before that could happen, the suffrage movement had to begin in earnest.

"The fight for the vote owed a great deal of its success to a new organization, formed in 1896, Norske Kvinners Sanitetsfoering (the Norwegian Women's Sanitary Association). It was meant to support national opposition to the political union with Sweden by educating nurses and preparing medical materials to be used in the case of a war between the two countries. The organization spread to all parts of the country and recruited from all social groups. It soon broadened its activities to health problems in general, especially the fight against tuberculosis…"

By 1901, female trade unions and the Labor Party had come together in the Labor Party's Women's Association. In that same year, women obtained limited suffrage in local elections.
"The National Association for Women's Suffrage, headed by Frederikke Marie Qvam, who for some time was also leader of the Sanitary association and president of the Women's Rights Association, quickly established local branches all over the country. It cooperated closely with the new Sanitary Association. By 1902 it had 1,566 members, and it concentrated on the struggle for general suffrage."
But the old divide between the urban middle class and the agrarian and working classes made it difficult to create a country-wide movement.
"Attempts were made to attract working-class women to middle-class organizations, but cooperation across class lines was rare. Even the fight for the vote was mainly fought as two parallel, but separate wars."

When Oleanna joins Katrine at a Labor Party meeting, it's clear that there is tension between the upper and middle class women and the working class women. They might have the same goal--suffrage and women's rights--but they are coming from quite different places.

Yes, we love our country! Postcard in support of the Yes referendum campaign.

A contributing factor to women gaining the vote in Norway was the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905. A coalition government was formed in 1905 to establish the separate Norwegian corps of consuls; the law was passed by the Storthing, but King Oscar II of Sweden refused to accept it, and the Norwegian coalition government resigned on June 7, 1905, declaring a dissolution of the union.

The Swedish government insisted on a Norwegian referendum to understand the citizen's view. During the summer of 1905, a "vote yes" campaign spread throughout Norway, encouraging men to vote in the referendum on August 13. It was a landslide victory; 99.95% of (male) Norwegians voted in favor of dissolution (368,208 votes in favor, 184 opposed).

But the parallel women's campaign, in which over 200,000 women signed a symbolic petition, was just as powerful a rhetorical statement.
"Limited national suffrage was not obtained until 1907. The women's cause no doubt profited from the support given by the Sanitary Association to national policies in the dispute with Sweden over the political union. A cunning signature campaign in support of the dissolution of the union in 1905 also greatly enhanced the image of women as politically sensible and responsible individuals."
I think the "cunning" signature campaign was a strong rhetorical statement, but I also think it was a true reflection of women's stance on the matter of the dissolution and Norwegian nationalism and pride. Full national suffrage was finally achieved in 1913.

My short Norwegian history primer can be found at the Reading the Past blog.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing to ponder upon how a woman's lifestyle and socio-economic status affected how she was treated as an indvidual. I was surprised that the agrarian women of Norway were given much more social freedoms than their counterparts in the middle-class society in the earlier years of the past century. But it was a good thing that the suffrage movement succeed much earlier there, although it too had it's various hindrances. It is also quite evident in this example that cooperation between classes can be difficult but very achievable, and can have an impacting result on the whole nation.

    Christian Pearson @