Women's Suffrage in Iceland

Icelandic women gained the parliamentary vote in 1915, but the right was, however, marred by the fact that only women over 40 years of age got the vote. Nowhere else in the world was women's’ suffrage restricted in this particular way. Certain circumstances in Iceland contributed to this unique decision, and we shall take a closer look at them here. (In 1920 the franchise limits on women were lifted in accordance with the agreement in 1918 between Denmark and Iceland when the latter became a sovereign state).

Iceland was settled in the 9th and 10th centuries, mainly from Norway. The inhabitants established a remarkable Commonwealth without a king, and the legislative and judicial power lay in the hands of a common meeting, called Alþingi. Lacking an executive body, the Commonwealth proved unstable, and in 1262 Icelanders agreed to take the Norwegian king as their king. With the breakup of the Kalmar Union in 1521, Norway came firmly under Danish rule, and with it Iceland.

In 1845 the Danish king re-established Alþingi as a consultative assembly until 1874 when it gained legislative and financial power in internal affairs. In 1904 Icelanders gained Home Rule, i.e. an office of the Minister of Iceland was established in Reykjavík which was responsible to Alþingi. All legislation now had to be approved by the assembly, which in turn meant a diminishing role of the Danish king and his ministers. Mass political parties slowly gained foothold as the Minister needed a parliamentarian majority for his legislation. In 1918, Iceland became a sovereign state, and in 1944 Iceland declared independence in all affairs, thus severing the centuries old ties to Denmark.

During this period of 100 years Iceland underwent economic, social, and political changes with remarkable speed. At the turn of the 19th century, Iceland was a sparsely populated country of farmers, their wives and offspring, and land-labourers and maids on farms. The middle-class ― the backbone of all social movements ― was all but absent until well into the 20th century. Reykjavík, the largest town and the capital, counted only about 5.000 people in 1900, or about 5 percent of the population of the island. By contrast, in 1920 about 20 percent of the population resided in the capital, which by that time could boast of banks and corporations, pressure groups and social movements, including a strong women’s movement.

Suffrage to parliament was limited to men of certain age, taxes and property from 1845. The restrictions on property and taxes were lifted gradually, so that in 1903 almost all men who were not farm-labourers could vote. Parliament discussed women’s suffrage more than once in the 19th century, and most parliamentarians supported that cause. Danish autorities vetoed all bills containing women’s suffrage because they all proposed changes in the relationship between the countries as well. Being Protestants and homogenous on all counts, Icelanders proved fairly liberal towards social changes.

Women’s organisations on the rise
The first women’s organisation in Iceland was founded in 1869 in the countryside. Its aim was to further the unity and cooperation of women in the region, and the organisation collected money to buy a knitting machine that all members could use. No reference was made to civil or political rights in the founding statement. On the other hand, the formation of the association is a sign of the awakening of a public spirit among women in the country. The next decades saw a proliferation of women’s organisations in Iceland, mainly in the capital, Reykjavík, that in 1907 could boast of six such organisations. Women’s associations were for the main part self-help associations in the sense that their task was to raise member’s level of house-keeping standards, acquire knowledge about new technology, and even buy new tools on a cooperative level, thus introducing the industrial revolution to the backward Ielandic households. Some were explicitly philantropic, especially in Reykjavík, where the first women’s association, founded in 1874, gave clothes and food to the poor. However, philantrophy also often played a big role in women’s self-help associations.

Only in 1894 was a true women’s rights organisation founded, the Icelandic Women’s Association, i.e. an organisation that had the purpose of fighting for women’s suffrage. The association arranged for petitions to parliament to grant suffrage to women and organised meetings with other women’s organisations with the object of obtaining the vote for women (Erlendsdóttir 1993: 26, 64). In 1895 the organisation gathered 2000 names for a petition to parliament to grant women the vote. In 1907 the organisation collected more than 11.000 women’s signatures on a petition for women’s suffrage — which was nearly the same number as that of enfranchised males in the country. The signatures came from all counties in the country and showed that the women’s suffrage movement was not confined to Reykjavík.

Most women’s organisations had the aim of helping the sick and the poor. In the total absence of national health care and very little social help from the municipalities, the women’s organisations played a significant role in shaping the welfare state. Their influence was particularly felt in the field of healthcare, such as providing home care for the sick and establishing a health care centre in Reykjavík. The women’s organisations redefined social politics and advocated active state involvement in this area (Jónsson 2001: 252).

Women also acquired organizational skills and established networks of relationships through their own organisations. Women’s schools also played a role. Barred from all but the most elementary education, women established four private schools between 1874 and 1879, the first in 1874 in Reykjavík. Here, young women came together for a year or two, formed friendships and made alliances that they carried with them out to the larger world. Many of them became leaders in women’s associations later on.

The struggle for suffrage begins
Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), contacted an Icelandic woman, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, in 1904 and asked her to found a suffrage society in Iceland (Styrkársdóttir, 1998: 53-66. On the history of the IWSA, see Rupp 1997). Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir had everything that was required to create a social movement. Being a widow she was financially independent as well as being her own master. She knew Danish and English which meant that international communication was possible. She was interested in women’s suffrage, and last, but not least, Bríet owned the woman’s magazine Kvennablaðið (The Women’s Magazine), which was popular among women all over Iceland.

Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir attended the IWSA congress in Copenhagen in 1906. There she was introduced to the various political work that women were engaged in, including running slates at local elections and school boards, e.g. in Norway, England and Australia (see Styrkársdóttir 1998: 59-62). She was also introduced to the suffragettes’ vision of a new world where women were seen to use their vote to change the legal and social positions of women and children in order to create a better world for all (see e.g. Hollis 1989; Skocpol 1992; Koven & Michel 1993). The goal of most socially engaged women in Europe and North America at that time was that women participate in politics and gain autonomy in issues concerning women and children. Many of them also believed that through the vote they would be able to construct politics for women and children, unhindered by male politicians and policy makers. Among the women Bríet met, and probably spoke to, — for she was anything but shy, — were Vida Goldstein from Australia, Louise Nørlund from Denmark, Anita Augsburg from Germany, Johanna Naber and Aletta Jacobs from the Netherlands, and Anna H. Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt from America, to name but af few of the leading feminists in the world.

When Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir returned to Iceland her magazine became the most ardent supporter of women’s rights Icelanders had seen. It brought news of the feminist struggle throughout the world and gave small biographies of leading feminists. Bríet also occasionally submitted news to Jus Suffragii, the IWSA’s magazine.

Bríet turned to the Icelandic Women’s Association and asked the president to renew the suffrage issue. When the president refused because of the unpopularity of the cause, Bríet started a new organisation, The Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, founded in January 1907. The association promptly joined the IWSA. Its purpose was to work for women’s rights with suffrage as the first and necessary means. As Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir put it in Kvennablaðið (January 21, 1907):

"The experience of the last fifty years or so has proven to women elsewhere in the world that in order to establish equality between men and women and gain full political citizenship for women, only one thing is essential, that thing being the cornerstone for all other women’s rights; that thing is political rights: women’s suffrage and women’s eligibility in politics. All other rights are derived from this".

Women’s political project: Women’s slates
Married women became voters at the local elections of the capital, Reykjavík, on January 1 1908 (unmarried women and widows who paid taxes but were not maids having gained that right in 1882). The idea of entering a separate women’s slate at the town council election in January that same year came naturally to Bríet who had heard of such actions through her contacts with the IWSA. Most of the members of the Women’s Rights Association were also members of other women’s organisations in Reykjavík, and all felt the need to put the vote to good use. The town council comprised of loosely-knit alliances that reflected differing views on the relationship between Iceland and Denmark, Iceland having gained Home Rule in 1904.

The women of Reykjavík stood for election in order to influence the town council on matters concerning women and children. Their entrance into the political arena marked the beginning of organized politics in municipal matters in Iceland. The women prepared for the election with astonishing degree of organizational skills, the like of which Icelanders had never seen; indeed it was the first modern political campaign in Iceland with organized meetings, personal visits to every registered woman, posters and leaflets and an election-office. It is likely that the women had obtained knowledge from the IWSA on election management.

The women’s slate was victorious at the polls, receiving 22 percent of valid votes cast and four of the 15 councillors. Women in Reykjavík entered a slate at every election until the election year of 1918, winning a seat on the council in most cases. At this time, considerable development was taking place in the town to cope with the increasing population. Gas and water supplies were installed, the first streets were paved, and a new harbour was built, to name but a few projects. The general view of the town authorities, however, was that providing care for the townspeople was a matter for motivated individuals and voluntary organisations. Thus, the town had no hospital on its own.

Women town councillors were quick to involve themselves in these issues. The first matter taken up by the women was that girls should, like boys, be taught to swin in the town swimming pool. They arranged for the primary school to provide free lunches for the poorest schoolchildren, and saw to it that the school hired a doctor to inspect all the schoolchildren. They also had the floor of the primary school cleaned daily, which was an important factor in hindering the spread of tuberculosis. The women town councillors influenced the school board so that women teachers were paid the same as their male counterparts. On the whole, the women were concerned with the most vulnerable groups in society: children, the sick, the poor and the aged.

In 1918 the women joined forces with the largest political group in the town and their representative was put in a secure seat on that parties’ slate at the election. By then, the political forces in Reykjavík had changed from loosely-knit alliances to class based parties, leaving little space to the sort of maternalistic politics that the women’s organisations of the town advocated. The town council addressed itself increasingly to the business community of the town, a fact that made the town council seat more lucrative. Labour unions were gaining foothold, and in 1916 their slate won a landslide victory on the town council. Maternalist politics were tolerated, even welcomed, in Reykjavík town council, as long as the political factions were weak and little to be gained from the council. As soon as the political landscape changed, maternalistic politics had no leverage (Styrkársdóttir 1998: 189-90). In 1922 when the woman’s term had come to an end, the party refused to take a women’s representative on its slate. The party officials accused the women’s representative of having been too independent in her decisions and that they did not want to take any further risks.

The development in Reykjavík greatly influenced the parliamentary debate and decisions on the suffrage question. As mentioned before, Icelanders proved fairly liberal in their views towards women’s suffrage. The strong women’s political movement in Reykjavík seems, however, to have put fear into the hearts of many parliamentarians. In 1913, parliament discussed a bill granting suffrage to women. Surprisingly, the bill restricted the suffrage by age (40) and social status (not servants). Except for Iceland, only in England was women’s suffrage limited by age (30) and that at a later date (1920). This merits some consideration.

Women on the defensive
A publication has survived called Kosningablað kvenna (Women’s Election Paper), published in Reykjavík in 1912. Among other things, this urges women to use their vote ― otherwise more people will say that women are not interested in gaining greater rights. Is is also pointed out that many of the matters dealt with by the town council are of such a nature that mature women can cope with them as well as men. It is necessary to work together to escape from beneath an old and heavy yoke — to overturn prejudices, and create a new comprehension of women’s place in society. For this reason, all women should vote for the women’s slate, whatever their views on other public issues. The paper also gives an account of women’s achievements on the town council over the preceding four years. Items mentioned include new regulations on the milk trade and the opening of three playgrounds for children. The paper then says:

Women! Let us spread the word of what they [i.e. women’s representatives] have achieved, and bear in mind that there is still plenty for women to do on the town council, especially in matters that men are less likely to notice ... And yet people say that they have done no good, and do no good. I know that women, mothers, must see and acknowledge the usefulness of all this.

It is clear that the women’s movement was on the defensive. In a debate on women’s suffrage in parliament in 1911 a bill was submitted by a private member which would have limited women’s suffrage for those over 40. The bill was not agreed on, but it seems to have kindled fires that were not put out. In the national newspapers, articles began to appear in 1911 which attacked women, on the grounds that they had nothing to contribute to the political arena. These same publications had previously supported women’s suffrage. They continued to publish articles which discussed the political work of women in Reykjavík in a positive vein, but there was a new editorial tone. The most ferocious, and most clearly-stated article appeared in one of the leading newspapers in early 1912 (Þjóðólfur 13 January 1912):

It is true that there are a handful of women’s rights campaigners among us, but there is considerable doubt whether the movement they have been trying to launch has taken root in the minds of Icelandic women. At any rate, it is difficult to detect much interest in politics among them. Everyone who is prepared to tell the truth, must admit that Icelandic women are outstandingly ignorant and apathetic about all public affairs. If a woman takes a strong interest in politics, is is practically always the case that a man closely related to her, husband, father, brother or sweetheart, has passed on his views to her.

During the winter of 1911, several pillars of Reykjavík community considered forming an alliance against women’s suffrage. Similar groups had been formed in the USA and in London, and in Germany a similar society was very active from early 1912 (see Fulford 1957: 215-16; Flexner 1975: 305-18; Evans 1976: 175-201; Marshall 1997). Although the idea was never put into practice in Iceland, it was intimidating for women’s rights campaigners. The largest political group in Reykjavík also turned against unlimited women’s suffrage for parliament in 1911.

Women in the town had shown remarkable political strength. The ability and activity shown by women seems to have aroused an uneasy feeling in the more conservative minds. In many respects, influential political leaders of the younger generation proved more conservative than the older generation. The competition of political factions and parties for women’s votes also grew more fierce, which meant that all possible competitors were treated with less civility than before.

Suffrage granted to women
In 1913, parliament agreed on a bill which was ratified as law by the Danish king in 1915. This bill contained changes to the franchise. A majority of a parliamentary committee produced the following declaration on the franchise (Alþingistíðindi 1913, A-hluti: 933):

The majority of the committee has agreed to adhere to the franchise articles of the bill of 1911, but with the alteration that the new voters are not all admitted at once, but gradually, so that after 15 years the franchise to the lower house will be as described in the bill. The majority of the committee regards it as hazardous to increase the numbers so greatly at a stroke, that the present electorate will lose practically all power over national affairs.

The vast majority of parliament was in agreement with this limitation on women’s suffrage, and male farm-labourers, who had not had the vote, were now lumped together with women. A number of members spoke in favour of women’s age limit, and the arguments were all similar in nature. In the first place, parliamentarians suddenly seemed to lose their nerve at the prospect of extending the franchise too much, all at once. The members of parliament made no specific reference to male land-labourers, who were only a quarter of the proposed new voters. It is therefore quite obvious that parliament was primarily afraid of women ― afraid that an extension of the franchise would lead to a radical re-shaping of the structures of power.

In the second place, parliamentarians expressed unusually great ‘care’ for women. For instance, one of them spoke of politics as ‘dirty work’ from which women should be shielded. Another argued that women needed time to make themselves better capable of using their vote and eligibility for office.

Last, but not least, there was some reference to the experience in Reykjavík. Women were accused of having made poor use of their vote in local government and parish elections, and, worse still — in Reykjavík they had established their own party. One member of the younger generation of political leaders, put it bluntly (Alþingistíðindi 1913, C-hluti: 1579):

There is a risk that women would, if they all received the vote at once, regard themselves as a separate party, who should elect only women to parliament. We in Reykjavík have that experience, at least.

These words reflect a fear of change. It was impossible to predict what changes might result from women’s suffrage. There were many women in Iceland; if they were to form a separate party, as they had done in Reykjavík, this would threaten the powerful position of the speaker and his parliamentary colleagues. Probably this argument appealed most strongly to other members of parliament. The bill was passed by a vast majority. The Danish king signed the bill on June 19th 1915, and Icelandic women 40 years and older became voters in Iceland. (In 1920 the franchise limits on women were lifted in accordance with the agreement in 1918 between Denmark and Iceland when the latter became a sovereign state).

Women’s slate in parliament
The women’s party did arise, but not for the reasons parliamentarians had feared. At the town council election in Reykjavík in 1922 the political parties refused to put women in safe seats. This so enraged women that they decided to enter a women’s slate in the parliamentary election later that year. The reasons they gave for this, apart from having being kicked out of the town council in Reykjavík, was to shoulder the responsibilities that the franchise put upon women. They maintained that women had more interest in social welfare issues than men, and that their voice was needed in parliament. They also wanted to ensure that parliament started building a national hospital for the considerable funds that women had raised to commemorate the suffrage.

The women’s slate received 22.4 percent of the vote and the first woman entered parliament, Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason She was elected for eight years. During her service as a parliamentarian she always supported the rights of women and initiated bills to that effect. One of the things she initiated was to get women elected on all boards and committees that the parliament or government established. She failed in that mission, but she managed to get enough support for a bill that eliminated all statues that stated that women could refuse to be elected, e.g. in municipal elections and on school boards. She also supported expanded education for women and campaigned for an increase in the salary of midwifes and teachers. Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason followed through the dream of women’s organisations of a national hospital. The hospital opened its doors to its first patients in 1930 in a beautiful building that is still one of the landmarks of Reykjavík ― and a commemoration to women’s suffrage.

By Auður Styrkársdóttir, 2006 
Director of the Women’s History Archives, Iceland from 2001-2016.

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