When the Norwegian photographer Marie Høeg (1866-1949) took this daring self-portrait around 1903, shocking many of her counterparts, she had little in mind on how her audacity would lead to better Norway for women.
Today, Høeg is considered a hero of women’s liberation movement in her country. Embarking upon the difficult journey to gender equality, she was, among others, at the forefront calling for women’s suffrage.
On the 11th of June, Norway celebrated the 100th anniversary of true democracy in it, when women were first given the full right to vote.
This 23-years-long battle for universal suffrage was fought by thousands of women across the Scandinavian country, starting from the establishment of Norway’s first women’s suffrage association, up until women’s right to vote was legally recognized with a constitutional amendment,100 years ago.
Milestones on the long road
The Norwegian constitution of 1814 was one of the most democratic of its kind at that time. However, women were not considered citizens in that baby democracy. The right to vote was only given to men above the age of 25 who worked in official positions or owned properties.
Norwegian women’s demand of suffrage did not gain momentum until the 1880’s when the Constitution Committee reviewed the first amendment draft on that regard, raising a heated debate in the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament) as well as society, before it was defeated by 70 to 44 votes.
In 1898, the right to vote was extended to all men above 25 regardless to position, while demands of votes for women received a deaf ear again. Seven years later, women’s voices would become too loud to ignore.
When the Storting decided to dissolve the union with Sweden in 1905, a referendum was to take place on the issue. The National Women’s Suffrage Association demanded the right to participate, receiving yet another no. But in less than a week’s time, the association gathered over a quarter of million yeses, with a petition signed across the country giving consent to the dissolution of the union.
This campaign -highly organized and executed in such short time- was an inspiration to more Norwegian women, and a proof of their entitlement and social engagement. Only two years later, the Storting approved limited suffrage for women, making it possible for them to vote and stand for election for the very first time.
When the Storting considered giving women the full right to vote five years later, all the political parties had already declared support of it. So on June 11, 1913, the Storting unanimously approved the amendment draft stating that “those entitled to vote are the Norwegian citizens, men and women, who have reached 25 years of age, and who have been settled in the country for 5 years and reside there.”
The fruits of the struggle
The Norwegian women of today have surely kept up the good work. With female participation in total labor force of 47%, having 75.7% of females between15 and 64 years old employed, no one can say that the Norwegian women were simply blessed with brave ancestors.
Now that 30.7% of women have higher education -about 5% more so than men- and with a10 years old legislation that requires that 40% of any state-owned company’s board members are women, the path to decision making vacancies has become more open to Norwegian women. This led them to a share of 31.5% of legislators, senior officials and managers in the country, putting Norway at the top of UN´s global gender equality index in 2013.
Such flourish in women’s economic and political rights would have definitely led to more social ones. For one thing, an abortion act passed in the Stroting in 1978 gave women the right to decide to abort pregnancy in the first 12 weeks. Parenting is no longer only a woman’s thing now that 64.4% of fathers taking all or most of the parental leave a couple receives mutually when having a baby.
To celebrate all this, along with the suffrage centenary, the Norwegian government appointed a special committee in 2009, chaired by Kirsti Kolle Grøndahl, Norway’s first female President of the Storting.
The committee has organized a series of events nation-wide, including an exhibition of historical documents related to women’s suffrage and an international conference on women’s empowerment and gender equality next November, in addition to fostering initiatives for raising women participation on the upcoming elections in September.
This sort of participation and continuous engagement is the basis of entitlement. That’s what Høeg tried to convey when she founded Norway’s first women political forum back in 1896, trying to host a live debate on the county’s current affairs, and prepare women for intense discussions once they reach the Storting.
Now that Høeg’s hopes are reality, her legacy lives today in the daily free practice of every Norwegian woman.