Women’s suffrage centenary
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Women, Power and Politics: The Road to Sustainable Democracy
International Conference: Women, Power and Politics – The Road to Sustainable Democracy, 14 - 15 November 2013, Oslo
In 2013 Norway is celebrating the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage. The anniversary will be celebrated throughout the year with a series of events nationwide. The final event will be a large international conference in Oslo, focusing on the importance of women’s political rights in relation to matters of international peace, security and sustainable development. The conference aims to look back in time as well as ahead to the future on how to involve new generations of women.
On 11 June 2013 it will be 100 years since Norwegian women gained the right to vote and Norway became a true democracy. Norway was the first independent country in the world to introduce universal suffrage, with women and men enjoying equal democratic rights. The Government wants Norway to celebrate this centenary locally, nationally and internationally, so the suffrage centenary committee was asked to organise large-scale national events as well as to facilitate local and international activities. The committee was appointed in 2009 and is chaired by Kirsti Kolle Grøndahl, Norway’s first female President of the Storting (1993–2001) and a former government minister. She is currently the Governor of Buskerud County.
A pioneering decision
In 1814, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Norway gained its own constitution and one of the most democratic electoral systems of the time. That year, the Danish-Norwegian union was dissolved after almost 400 years, and on 17 May 1814 a group of elected representatives gathered in Eidsvoll, not far from Oslo, to adopt a new constitution for the Norwegian state. The constituent assembly at Eidsvoll based this document on the principle of popular sovereignty, deciding that the country should be governed by representatives elected by the people. These founders of modern Norway were inspired by the French constitution of 1791 and the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and constitution (1787).
The Norwegian constitution was highly democratic by international standards. It granted the vote to men in official positions and to those with property, of which Norway had a great number due to its tradition of free landowning farmers. No women could vote; nor could the large numbers of men without property. When all adult men in Norway gained the right to vote in 1898, it was a major step in the country’s democratic evolution. But not until women received the vote in 1913 did Norway become a genuine democracy. Globally, Norway was a universal suffrage pioneer. It is true that three countries had already introduced universal suffrage – New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906 – but they were not independent states at the time. Norway was the first sovereign state to extend the vote to all adults. The right to vote gave women a formal foundation on which to participate in democratic bodies on an equal footing with men. A cause championed since the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment had finally been won.
A threat to traditional home life
Speaking after the vote in 1913, Norway’s most prominent voting rights activist, Gina Krog, commented that she and her fellow campaigners had never doubted they would win, but had never dreamt the victory would be so complete or perfect. It was then 28 years since Krog had launched the first association for women’s voting rights, and 23 years since members of the Storting had first considered a proposal to let women vote – a proposal rejected, 70 to 44.
At the time of that rejection, a number of Storting members held the view that women’s nature posed an obstacle to political participation. They argued that the two sexes each had their natural working domains, and that gender equality was therefore not desirable. The majority of the Storting’s constitution committee voted against women’s suffrage on grounds that it would damage family life and conflict with women’s natural calling. Ultimately, many committee members thought that giving women the right to vote would destroy traditional home life.
This argument was most common in church circles, and the most vociferous attacks on introducing the vote for women came from Bishop J. C. Heuch. “She can’t do the work of men, and she won’t do the work of women. What does that make her? It makes her a deformed monstrosity, a thing of no gender,” he argued.
By 1913, the mood had changed. When the issue arrived in the Storting, all political parties had suffrage for women on their agendas. No one spoke out against it in the debate, and all members voted in favour of the proposal. So women’s struggle to acquire the vote ended in victory 99 years after Norway had adopted a constitution establishing that the country should be ruled by its people.
It was not until 1922, however, that a woman was elected to the Storting. Her name was Karen Platou, a representative of the Conservative party, or Høyre. In 1981, the election of Norway’s first woman Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, was an equally momentous event. Brundtland represented the Labour party, Arbeiderpartiet, and later became known worldwide for her 1986 “women’s government”, in which eight of 18 ministers were women. In 1993, Kirsti Kolle Grøndahl became the first female President of the Storting, the highest position in Norway after that of the reigning monarch. Since Norway’s most recent general election, in 2009, women have held around 40 % of the Storting seats and half of the Government’s ministerial posts.
The suffrage centenary in 2013
The Government wishes to celebrate the suffrage centenary with events throughout the country. The centenary committee, which has met regularly since early 2010, is responsible for the Government’s official centenary celebration programme. One of the aims has been to encourage others – whether institutions, organisations, clubs, associations, local and national authorities, groups or individuals – to contribute to the forthcoming celebrations.
The committee’s goal is to ensure that the centenary is marked in a way that fosters engagement and generates support for important democratic principles, such as the right to vote, gender equality, participation and representation. The celebrations in 2013 will highlight the importance of 1913 in Norway’s history as well as democratic developments of the past century. The celebrations will also look to the future, examining what can be done to safeguard and enhance our democracy.
Events in 2013
The committee’s plans for the centenary are well under way, and some event dates have already been identified.
International Women’s Day 2013
The committee will arrange a large-scale national event, designed to have broad appeal, on 8 March. The committee hopes the day will be celebrated all over the country in many different ways, and that relevant topics will be spotlighted at the local, national and international levels. Local authorities are being asked to facilitate the centenary celebrations.
Women’s suffrage week in Norway, 11–20 June 2013
On 11 June 1913, the Storting voted unanimously in favour of universal suffrage. Gina Krog’s birthday was 20 June (see the Norwegian-language website on four key women singled out in connection with the women’s suffrage centenary). The committee hopes that local and regional actors will help organise events across the country. Themes may be historical or linked to important democratic principles such as the right to vote, gender equality, participation and representation.
Focus on democracy in the run-up to the 2013 general election
The suffrage centenary committee wishes to raise awareness and foster commitment to the right to vote, with a view to ensuring that as many people as possible go to the polls in the 2013 election – both first-time voters and all others who are entitled to vote. Election Day is 9 September.
International conference on women’s empowerment and gender equality, 14–15 November 2013 (Oslo)
The committee wishes to organise a major international conference with the aim of gathering political leaders and human rights defenders from all over the world. The intention is to put women’s political rights and international efforts to promote gender equality on the global agenda. The conference will have a clear international profile, and it is hoped that there will be participants from a wide range of countries.