After almost 30 years of campaigning Danish women got the vote in 1915.
By Jytte Nielsen
Danish women were granted the right to vote on June 5, 1915. Female enfranchisement was part and parcel of a major overhaul of the 1849 Danish Constitution. To mark the occasion, more than 12,000 women marched in procession to the square in front of the Amalienborg royal palaces. A declaration signed by 36 leading women from a wide range of women’s societies was handed in to the King and the leader of parliament. The declaration included the statement:
“On this for us so momentous a day, when Danish women’s right to vote in parliamentary elections has become an irreversible reality, we speak on behalf of thousands of women in expressing to the Danish Government and Parliament our delight at the full political rights of citizenship granted to women by the new Constitution.” Kvinden og Samfundet (Woman and Society), no. 12, 1915.
The women who formulated the declaration had deliberately not used the word ‘thank’. They wanted to emphasise that parliamentary enfranchisement was a civil right and not a charitable act necessitating gratitude.
Women from all strata of society and from every grouping within women’s associations took part in the procession, which was the largest manifestation of women’s political activism in Denmark at the time.
The march on June 5 1915 was the culmination of a long and persistent struggle, both in and outside parliament, for women’s enfranchisement.
29 years earlier
The demand for women’s suffrage had first been raised in the Danish parliament in 1886. Fredrik Bajer from the Venstre (Liberal) party (MP 1872-95) tabled a bill designed to give female taxpayers in Copenhagen the right to vote in elections to the Copenhagen City Council.
Fredrik Bajer had been active in support of women’s rights for many years. In 1871 he and his wife Matilde Bajer had established Denmark’s first women’s organisation, Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society). For many years the society concentrated its efforts on securing unmarried women access to education and employment and to changing the existing marriage legislation.
Bajer’s bill of 1886 met with a positive reception, but was criticised for including married women. The bill did not reach a final reading. Fredrik Bajer re-introduced the proposal in the 1887 session of parliament, this time taking account of the criticism. The bill now only applied to widows’ and unmarried women’s right to vote in local elections.
Parliament passed the bill with a healthy majority and it was sent to the upper chamber, Landsting, where it was thrown out. In the lower chamber, Folketing, the Liberal party held the majority, whereas the Højre (Right, renamed Conservative in 1915) party held the majority in Landsting. While the lower chamber was made up of elected members of parliament, Landsting was the result of indirect election and privileged franchise.
A lower chamber that supported women’s right to vote in local elections and an upper chamber that opposed this right was the political reality in Denmark of the 1880s and 1890s. The proposal to grant women the right to vote in local elections was tabled time after time and it was thrown out time and time again.
Opponents of women’s suffrage had three key arguments:
- Women were unfit for political work due to the female psyche. On the other hand, they had the capacity for providing care, empathy etc., which made them suitable to undertake their chief task as wives and mothers.
- Women already had political representation via their husbands.
- It was not in society’s interest to turn marriage into a political battlefield and thereby challenge the traditional division of work by gender.
The demand for the right to vote intensifies
Outside Parliament, the demand by the fledgling women’s movement for female enfranchisement intensified, but it also occasioned discord in, for example, the Danish Women’s Society. A proposal in 1884 to insert the enfranchisement demand in the Society’s articles of association was rejected by the members, but they did recommend the right to vote in local elections for self-supporting unmarried women and widows.
In 1886 the Danish Women’s Society’s cautious approach led a number of prominent members, including the founder Matilde Bajer, to leave the Society and set up Kvindelig Fremskridtsforening (Women’s Progress Association).
The Women’s Progress Association’s programme included issues pertaining to workers and peace alongside the women’s cause. In 1888 the Association arranged a major Scandinavian conference in Copenhagen, with parliamentary franchise for women as one of the dominant themes. The Women’s Progress Association’s journal “Hvad vi vil” [“What we Want”], edited by the chairperson Johanne Meyer, was a radical and liberal-minded mouthpiece for the new issues of the time: for example, the international peace movement and the initial stages of socialism.
A clergyman’s wife from Varde in Jutland became the leader of the first Danish association to have the issue of women’s enfranchisement as the sole point on its programme. Her name was Line Luplau and in 1889 she established Kvindevalgretsforeningen (Women’s Suffrage Association).
Line Luplau had already achieved national fame in 1887 when she had started a petition in West Jutland in support of Fredrik Bajer’s parliamentary bill proposing women’s right to vote in local elections. She collected 20,000 signatures, which created a commotion in parliament as it had not been anticipated that the suffrage campaign would have such massive support in one of the country’s most outlying regions.
Women participate in election campaign meetings
The Women’s Suffrage Association’s key undertaking was to arrange public meetings to discuss women’s enfranchisement and to interrogate parliamentary candidates about their opinion on the voting issue at public campaign debates held prior to elections for the lower and upper chambers.
Members of the Women’s Suffrage Association took to the public stage for the first time, alongside the Danish Women’s Society, during the run-up to the 1890 election.
The women were, on the whole, cordially received and the candidates answered their questions politely. However, in a few towns the women were denied the right to speech, and in the conservative town of Fredericia in Jutland they were refused admission to campaign meetings.
The result of their questioning revealed that the Right candidates were predominantly against women’s parliamentary enfranchisement and right to vote at local elections, whereas the Liberal and Social Democratic parties were by and large in favour of the right to vote at local elections and were willing to press for an improvement in women’s judicial status. But none of the parties considered the time was ripe for a serious discussion of women’s right to vote in parliamentary elections.
Despite the response by candidates, the action taken in 1890 was considered to have been a success. Discussion of women’s voting rights had reached a wider audience via the publication of minutes in newspapers, and the Danish suffragettes had spoken publicly for the first time at parliamentary election campaign meetings.
From then on this form of activity continued with varying intensity at all the elections held until the right to vote was granted in 1915.
Women granted the right to vote at local elections
The election of 1901 delivered a new Liberal government, which started a programme of reform and set up a number of new councils under the local authorities: Menighedsråd (parochial church council), 1903, Værgeråd (taking care of the needs of children and young people), 1905, and Hjælpekasser (relief funds), 1907. All these councils were made up of members who had been selected by public election, with women eligible both to vote and to stand as candidates.
Even though the introduction of these councils was a positive step in women’s access to local politics, the issue of women voting at local elections dragged on.
In principle, both chambers now had a majority in support of tax-paying women being granted the right to vote at local elections, but this demand ran into new difficulties.
In 1903 parliament passed a bill granting married and unmarried women alike the right to vote at local elections. But the bill involved the abolition of privileged franchise and the extension of voting rights to men and women from the lowest social classes, including servants. The bill was therefore thrown out by the upper chamber.
In 1908, after the upper chamber had at long last given up the privileged franchise – i.e. the division of the population into two electorates with different rights – a bill granting all Danish women and men over the age of 25 the right to vote at local elections was eventually passed in both chambers of parliament.
After the local elections of 1909, all sides were satisfied. Proponents of the right to vote in local elections were relieved because women’s participation in the election had reached 50%, while their opponents were relieved because only 127 women – against 9,682 men – had been elected to the local councils.
The last obstacles are overcome
Women’s attainment of the right to vote in local elections was, as expected, a good platform from which to agitate for the right to vote in parliamentary elections. During the years that followed, the significant work undertaken by female local politicians was time and again cited in the case supporting women’s aptitude for political work.
Opposition to women’s suffrage slowly ebbed away. The thaw in the Right party was due to the belief that women were generally more conservative than men and that granting them the right to vote would therefore lead to an increase in the number of seats won by the party.
That another seven years were to pass before women gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections was due to renewed political turbulence concerning the Constitution.
In 1907 the demand for parliamentary franchise was raised in Folketing by the Social Democratic party – a year before the local election franchise bill was passed. The proposal was a form of warm-up to the coming major debates on a new Constitution.
The two main sticking points in connection with the adoption of a new Constitution were: 1) agreement on whether or not the voting age should be lowered, and 2) composition of the upper chamber. On the other hand, there was widespread support for women’s enfranchisement.
The Right party continued to be in the majority in the upper chamber and successive governments from 1909 and on to 1915 tabled a series of Constitution proposals, which were thrown out every time. It was not until 1915, after the Right party had suffered a crushing defeat in the 1914 election, that the new Constitution was carried in both chambers. The new Constitution included women’s right to vote in parliamentary elections.
The first women parliamentary politicians
Despite spirited efforts by a number of women’s organisations, at the elections in 1918 only nine women were voted to the two chambers of parliament. Four were elected to Folketing and five to Landsting.
The period 1918 to 1925 saw the passing of a number of wide-ranging bills dealing with equality for women, with women politicians such as Elna Munch, Mathilde Hauschultz, Inger Gautier Schmit and Nina Bang achieving a high profile in the debates: a revision of marriage legislation gave mothers custody of their children; female and male civil servants were ensured equal salary levels; women were granted access to all public offices except that of the clergy. But women politicians also made their mark in areas beyond traditional female political concerns.
The number of women politicians in the two chambers of parliament remained much the same until after the Second World War. Female representation then slowly increased until, with the mobilisation of women’s political issues in the 1970s, it reached approx. 25%. At the most recent parliamentary elections in 2005, 37% of parliamentary candidates elected were women.