Norway was the first independent country in the world to introduce universal suffrage for both men and women. It is true that there were three states that introduced universal right to vote even earlier – New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906 – but these countries were not independent and the women could not be elected to political positions. As such, Norway was the first sovereign state in the world to introduce universal suffrage for both men and women. Once women had the right to vote, the formal foundation was in place for them to participate in democratic bodies, on an equal footing with men.
The struggle for women’s right to vote began in earnest in the 1880s. Women campaigners and their supporters in the Storting (Norwegian parliament) had to fight against traditional ideas about women and the fear that traditional home life would be destroyed. Opponents to women’s right to vote argued that it was unnatural for women to have the right to vote, and that it would lead to the disintegration of families and homes. They also expressed the view that “our women should be spared from one of the most difficult dilemmas in life”, since it was a man’s job to take part in politics. “We do not wish to place this burden on women”.
“Women’s Vote Would Benefit the Fatherland”
The women’s rights campaigners and their supporters in the Storting also saw women’s nature – and thereby their potential to participate in governing society – as significantly different to that of men. While opponents of women’s right to vote feared that women would neglect their duties in the family, those who fought for women’s suffrage considered women’s “motherly” nature to be an important asset in politics, particularly in relation to social issues. The fact that women were different from men was, in the feminist and activist Gina Krog’s view, yet another reason to give them political rights. The members of the Storting who supported the women’s rights campaigners also thought it would be easier to resolve some social issues if women participated in public life. According to this view, it was not the similarities between women and men, but rather the differences, that made women’s entry into the political arena particularly important. If women gained the right to vote, this would “benefit the fatherland”. Excluding them from politics was “damaging to the country’s development”.
Women’s Suffrage a Human Right!
Human rights principles were also an important element in the debate. For the most hard-line campaigners for women’s right to vote, this was a matter of “women as human individuals and their right to free personal development”, as the feminist Gina Krog put it when the fight for women’s right to vote began in earnest in 1885. The members of the Storting who supported women’s suffrage also argued that the demands for reform were a question of women’s human dignity. According to one of them, Viggo Ullmann, granting women the right to vote would be both an “act of justice” and “of benefit to society”.
Struggle Crowned With Success
Once universal suffrage for men was introduced in 1898, many people thought it was very unfair that women were still unable to vote. There were a growing number of proposals to amend the constitution so that all women would have the right to vote, not just those who had a certain economic position. Over time, as the idea of women’s right to vote became less alien to the members of the Storting, many of its advocates argued for the right to vote to be extended gradually, and this approach proved successful. In 1901, women gained limited rights to vote in local elections. Limited right to vote for women was introduced for the general election in 1907, followed by full suffrage in local elections in 1910, and finally universal right to vote in the 1913 general election.
The extension of suffrage to women in 1913 was a landmark in the struggle for gender equality in Norway, and today, Norway is one of the countries in the world with the smallest “gender gap”. In the The Global Gender Gap Index 2012, published by the World Economic Forum, Norway ranks third, just behind Iceland and Finland. The Index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education and health criteria, and provides country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across regions and income groups, and over time, according to the 2012 report. Since the first report was published in 2006, Norway has always been ranked within the top three, even topping it in 2008.
For more information about gender equality in Norway, please visit gender.no.