Universal Suffrage as Change Driven by Ideas: A Case Study of Sweden

By Marleen Bornat

Traditional theories of institutionalism (rational choice, historical and sociological) are often criticised for being unable to explain institutional change given their relatively static view of institutions (Freidenvall 2008). In recent years, discursive/constructivist institutionalism has consequently emerged to address some of these criticisms, specifically by adding ideas to the analytical framework. In the following, I will illustrate Blyth’s (2002) hypotheses about how ideas can lead to institutional change by applying it to the introduction of universal suffrage in Sweden. Although Blyth mainly focuses on the role of economic ideas, I argue that ideas also provide an interpretative framework in non-economic processes.

The introduction of women’s enfranchisement  occurred at different times in different countries, but it was usually driven or at least pushed for by women’s organisations (Janz and Schonpflug 2014). In the case of Sweden, this process already started in the late 1800s with municipality reforms but it only took off when the National Suffrage Society was formed in 1902 (Dahlerup and Leyenaar 2013). The society organised thousands of women across the country and thus provided a basis for collective action and coalition-building (ibid.). The women’s organisation clearly defined its common end, already evident in its name: the universal suffrage in Sweden. It campaigned for this goal by “writing petitions, arranging demonstrations, and summoning public hearings (ibid.)”. To give an example, they once collected 360,000 signatures in favour of universal suffrage which put societal pressure on the ruling parties (ibid.).

In 1921, a coalition of liberals and social democrats introduced the equal and universal suffrage reforms which meant that women could finally vote and run for office in parliamentary elections (ibid.). The ideas of the National Suffrage Society thus formed the blueprint for the new institution, that is universal suffrage. It also structured the expectations various actors had about the institution. However, universal suffrage by itself did not achieve actual gender equality in politics and arguably, still has not up to this day. For that, one would have to challenge the underlying gendered informal institutions, which shows that ideas may compete and prevent formal change from being fully successful.