Early women MPs: New Zealand, Australia, Finland

In the UK women were allowed to become MPs in 1918, which was the same year some women got the vote. Curiously, this was not always the case elsewhere. During the debates on women MPs, the hostile Mr Peto MP argued that in New Zealand

for twenty-five years women had… been eligible to sit as Members there, and that so far not a single one had been elected.

This was factually wrong. New Zealand had been the first country in the world to give women the vote, way back in 1893; but they were not allowed to become MPs until 1919 (and the first, Elizabeth McCombs, was not elected until 1933). Peto should have cited Australia instead: the Commonwealth legislature in Australia allowed women to stand as candidates from its inception in 1902, but none were elected until 1943 despite the efforts of Vida Goldstein. Goldstein was a great campaigner for women’s rights in Australia and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament five times.

Vida Goldstein image from Wikipedia
Vida Goldstein

At state level, women were  allowed to vote in Australia from various dates between 1894 and 1908, although only South Australia allowed women to stand to be MPs before 1918 (none were actually elected there until 1959). The first Australian woman MP at state level was Edith Cowan in Western Australia in 1921.

A much better example of successful women MPs was Finland.  J D Rees, one of the Parliamentary Sampsons, spoke of how women had been not only MPs in Finland but ‘filled the most important offices, and I am bound to say they acquitted themselves right well’, adding outrageously, ‘a fact which I have hitherto concealed, until I knew that women got the vote in this country’. Finland was the first country in Europe to give women the vote and also allowed them to be MPs in 1906; this followed demands for universal suffrage from mass labour and temperance movements in which comparatively well-educated women were prominent.

Women_in_Finnish_Parliament_(1907) image from Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.
Finnish women MPs in 1907

The Eduskunta (the Finnish Parliament), had no fewer than 19 women MPs elected in 1907, out of a total of 200.  The UK would not reach the dizzy heights of 19 women MPs simultaneously until 1945! By the time the UK Parliament was debating these issues in 1918, there were 24 women in the Eduskunta, 12% of its members. Believe it or not, women didn’t make up as much as 12% of members of the UK House of Commons until 1997.

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