This year, September is a month of celebration in Sweden. A hundred years ago women could finally vote in the Swedish election of 1921.
On the 17th of December 1918, the Swedish parliament decided in favour of voting rights for both men and women. This was the first procedural decision that paved the way for changing the constitution regarding voting rights. The next year – on the 24th of May, 1919 – the first of the two needed decisions to change the constitution was seen through. Thus, the election in autumn 1920 was the last one where only men could vote (not all men though, there were several obstacles for them as well at the time). On the 26th of January 1921 the parliament made the second and final decision to change the constitution in favour of women’s voting rights and therefore the election in September 1921 was the first election where women could cast their votes and get elected as well. Sweden was finally a democracy.
But this was not something uncontroversial. Many women were bullied on their way to the polls and had to walk together to safeguard eachother. It took courage to vote as a woman and even more courage to take place in the male-dominated parliament. Five women were actually elected to parliament in 1921 – Kerstin Hesselgren, Elisabeth Tamm, Nelly Thüring, Bertha Wallin and Agda Östlund. Brave women, indeed.
This month I am thinking a lot about those women pioneers. Pondering the hard work they did, that paved the way for generations to come. Women had been fighting for voting rights for decades before it finally came true, and the fact they did not give up is a true accomplishment. It really shows how persistence is key to change.
Our Swedish national archive has done a very big job in digitalising all the signatures of the women who wanted the right to vote. There is a very telling picture of the author, journalist and activist Elin Wägner, standing in front of a pile of binders, containing all the signatures the women collected from all over Sweden as they were fighting for this cause.
Searching for relatives
Of course, I was curious to see if I could find my relatives in the binders, and have tried to look through the signatures (you have to read the actual signatures on screen, and cannot put names into a search engine unfortunately), but so far, I have not found them.
I know that my missionary relatives could not have signed any petitions in Sweden at the time, as the four of them – Dagny, Robert, Nils and Olga – were then in China. In 1914 they all attended a missionary conference in Yuncheng. Of course, other relatives – like Robert’s, Nils’ or Olga’s siblings could have done so, but that will take time to find out. A project good for those autumn evenings that are fast approaching here in Sweden 🙂
Family time in Sweden
When female voting rights were finally a reality in 1921, Robert and Dagny had arrived home a year before with my, then 7-year old, grandfather Rudolf. At the time, China was very turbulent – especially for foreigners. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was founded in 1921 and the preceeding years were dangerous – not the least if you were a foreigner.
Dagny and Robert were relieved and happy to be able to join their children in Stockholm – but Morris, their eldest son, and his wife Carola were soon to also become accepted as missionary candidates. In 1921 they left for London and missionary introduction at the China Inland Mission.
Dagny and Robert were in Sweden and/or Norway enjoying family time as the election happened in 1921. They have not mentioned anything about it as far as my research goes, which makes me think it was not something they were engaged in.
Meanwhile in China
In China, Olga was at the same time pregnant with her third child. He was born in march 1921 and named Erik – possibly after Erik Folke, the founder of the Swedish Mission in China. Olga’s daughter Edna (my grandmother) was then boarding at the newly founded Swedish School on the Kikung mountain in China.
The turbulence was everywhere. Nils wrote home, telling about how even his Chinese colleagues were putting their life at risk, merely being associated with the missionaries. The mission also had severe trouble getting the donated money to last as exchange rates were soaring and one had to count the prices in China three times as high as in Sweden.
The next generation missionaries start out
In 1922, Dagny and Robert left for China again – this time together with three of their sons. Morris and Martin (who later also became accepted as a missionary) as well as little Rudolf, who was about to go join Edna at the Swedish School in China. Thus began a missionary tradition that would even go on to Robert’s and Dagny’s grandchildren.
That same year, the whole school had to flee the bandits who attacked the mountain and its inhabitants. Morris was then one of the teachers at the school. In that capacity, he was a very important person and stand-in parent for his 15 years younger brother Rudolf. It all went well, but the trauma of that escape never fully subsided. My grandmother retold the events of those days running from the Chinese bandits, over and over again throughout my childhood. It was also something that she and my grandfather shared – they had both had that scary experience as very young children.
(For those of you who have read this blog before, you know that my grandparents – Rudolf and Edna were born five days apart and first met when they were one year old, in China. They went to the same school and left for Sweden without their parents when they were 14. They married in 1939, when WWII broke out, 26 years old.)
My grandmother talked a lot about growing up in China, but she never put her experiences there in context with what was happening in Europe at the time. News took a long time to travel, and day-to-day life in China was probably hard enough. Perhaps they new very little about what was going on in the rest of the world. The attack on the school mountain was real to her though and as an adult I can appreciate the magnitude of it for her as a 9-year old, fleeing in the night to escape being killed or taken captive.
Pioneers bringing about change
The advocates for female voting rights were pioneers bringing about change in Sweden. And so were the missionaries fighting for their beliefs in China, introducing modern health care, schooling for both boys and girls and helping people get rid of heavy opium addiction.
Throughout time, people have fought for what they believe in, and the world slowly turns and makes room for a plurality of views, beliefs and ways of life. Even though less than 14% of the world’s countries are considered full democracies today, I strongly believe the need for humans to have freedom will prevale. Freedom of speech, thought, religion and so on, is inherent in us all, and quite unstoppable.
But of course, nothing is a given, and that’s why we have to keep vigilant about the freedoms we and our predecessors have accomplished and be aware that they can be taken away from us – quite quickly as well… It can take a long time to get them back, once they are lost. Keeping democracy and fighting to expand democracy calls for persistence – and when it comes to that – we can learn a lot from those pioneers of the early 1900’s.