Celebrating Women Series: Julie K. Rose on Women’s Suffrage Movement in Norway

Welcome to the third article in the “Celebrating Women” for Women’s History Month! It’s my first author guest article series to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to Julie K. Rose for offering the third article in this series. the fourth article will be posted at noon today as well. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.

The History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Norway
by historical author Julie K. Rose

On June 11, 1913, Norway extended the right to vote in all elections local and national to women.

Norway wasn’t the first country to embrace women’s suffrage–that would be New Zealand in 1893 (or Sweden in 1718 for professional, taxpaying women”–a right which was taken away in 1771).  Norway wasn’t the first to embrace universal suffrage either–that honor goes to Finland, implemented in 1906.

But Norway’s women’s suffrage movement is important, because it was so deeply entwined with its independence. Though the fight for women’s suffrage began in the early 1880s, and was debated in the Storthing (Parliament) in 1890, its first real spotlight on the national stage was in 1905, when Norway held a national referendum: whether to break away from Sweden and become an independent nation again after hundreds of years.

While doing research for Oleanna, which is set against that incredible year, I was so pleased to find this book by Sylvia Paletschek and Bianka Pietrow-Ennker, Women’s Emancipation Movements in the Nineteenth Century: A European Perspective (Stanford University Press, 2004).

The women’s suffrage movement in Norway can be seen as a kind of natural extension of its largely agrarian society. From Patelschek and Pietrow-Ennker:

“The last few decades of the nineteenth century saw a growing protest against the strictly gender-divided society of the urban middle class. In agrarian and working-class life, women and men often worked side by side and took part in the same leisure activities.”

Oleanna and Elisabeth, I think unconsciously, assumed a kind of equality in their relationships with men–everyone has to work hard, everyone has to pull their weight. In fact, Oleanna was surprised by the gender divides she saw when she visited Bergen, both in her uncle’s house and in the city itself.


Harvesting oats in Jølster, 1890 (Photo: Axel Lindahl/Norwegian Museum of Cultural History)

The push for suffrage in Norway was driven by urban middle-class women, I suspect largely because they did not enjoy the same kinds of social freedoms that their more agrarian sisters did. Plus, as Oleanna says to Anders many times, the world of politics was so far removed from the reality of her daily life, it was difficult for her to really connect the dots between suffrage and her own life and well-being.


The way the dots were connected for rural women was the 1905 dissolution of the union of Norway and Sweden. But before that could happen, the suffrage movement had to begin in earnest.


Norwegian Women’s national council, 1904. From left to right: Karen Grude Koht, Fredrikke Marie Qvam, Gina Krog, Betzy Kjelsberg, and Katti Anker Møller.(Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket, the National Library of Norway)

“The fight for the vote owed a great deal of its success to a new organization, formed in 1896, Norske Kvinners Sanitetsfoering (the Norwegian Women’s Sanitary Association). It was meant to support national opposition to the political union with Sweden by educating nurses and preparing medical materials to be used in the case of a war between the two countries. The organization spread to all parts of the country and recruited from all social groups. It soon broadened its activities to health problems in general, especially the fight against tuberculosis.”

By 1901, female trade unions and the Labor Party had come together in the Labor Party’s Women’s Association. In that same year, women obtained limited suffrage in local elections.

“The National Association for Women’s Suffrage, headed by Frederikke Marie Qvam, who for some time was also leader of the Sanitary association and president of the Women’s Rights Association, quickly established local branches all over the country. It cooperated closely with the new Sanitary Association. By 1902 it had 1,566 members, and it concentrated on the struggle for general suffrage.”


Fredrikke Marie Qvam (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But the old divide between the urban middle class and the agrarian and working classes made it difficult to create a country-wide movement.

“Attempts were made to attract working-class women to middle-class organizations, but cooperation across class lines was rare. Even the fight for the vote was mainly fought as two parallel, but separate wars.”

When Oleanna eventually joins Katrine at a Labor Party meeting, it’s clear that there is tension between the upper and middle class women, and the working class women. They might have the same goals–suffrage and women’s rights–but they are coming from quite different places.

So, we’re back to the start: a major contributing factor to women gaining the vote in Norway was the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905. A coalition government was formed in 1905 to establish the separate Norwegian corps of consuls; the law was passed by the Storthing, but King Oscar II of Sweden refused to accept it, and the Norwegian coalition government resigned on June 7, 1905, declaring a dissolution of the union.

The Swedish government insisted on a Norwegian referendum to understand the citizen’s view. During the summer of 1905, a “vote yes” campaign spread throughout Norway, encouraging men to vote in the referendum on August 13. It was a landslide victory; 99.95% of (male) Norwegians voted in favor of dissolution (368,208 votes in favor, 184 opposed).


Yes, we love our country! Postcard in support of the Yes referendum campaign.

But the parallel women’s campaign, in which over 200,000 women signed a symbolic petition, was just as powerful a rhetorical statement.

“Limited national suffrage was not obtained until 1907. The women’s cause no doubt profited from the support given by the Sanitary Association to national policies in the dispute with Sweden over the political union. A cunning signature campaign in support of the dissolution of the union in 1905 also greatly enhanced the image of women as politically sensible and responsible individuals.”

I think the “cunning” signature campaign was a strong rhetorical statement, but I also think it was a true reflection of women’s stance on the matter of the dissolution and Norwegian nationalism and pride. Women of all social classes came together, worked together, and made their voices heard together. Norway gained its independence in August 1905; women fully gained theirs in 1913.

Author Julie Rose, Biography~

julie roseJulie K. Rose’s novels feature complicated, compelling characters seeking to overcome their pasts–and themselves. Her stories evoke a vivid sense of time and place through a keen ear for dialog and beautifully elegant prose.

A member of the Historical Novel Society, Julie earned a B.A. in Humanities and an M.A. in English. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and loves reading, following the San Francisco Giants, watching episodes of Doctor Who, and enjoying the amazing natural beauty of Northern California.

Oleanna, short-listed for finalists in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition, is her second novel. The Pilgrim Glass, a finalist in the 2005 Faulkner-Wisdom competition and semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, was published in 2010.

See more about Julie and her writing at www.juliekrose.com.

Oleanna, Synopsis~

oleanna_cover_web_smallOleanna, short-listed for finalists in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition, is her second novel. Set during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, Oleanna is a richly detailed novel of love and loss inspired by the life of my great-great-aunts.

Oleanna and her sister Elisabeth are the last of their family working their farm deep in the western fjordland. A new century has begun, and the world outside is changing, but in the Sunnfjord their world is as small and secluded as the verdant banks of a high mountain lake. With their parents dead and their brothers all gone to America, the sisters have resigned themselves to a simple life tied to the land and to the ghosts of those who have departed.

The arrival of Anders, a cotter living just across the farm’s border, unsettles Oleanna’s peaceful but isolated existence. Sharing a common bond of loneliness and grief, Anders stirs within her the wildness and wanderlust she has worked so hard to tame. When she is confronted with another crippling loss, Oleanna must decide once and for all how to face her past, claim her future, and find her place in a wide new world.


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