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The campaign for women’s suffrage has been the most visible feature of that broader historical movement for ending women’s subordination to men that we now call feminism. Demands for women’s vote and full citizenship have arisen as part and parcel of efforts to democratize political participation, during the transition from absolutist monarchies to democratic republics. These efforts ﬁrst began in western Europe and North America where citizenship, including the right to vote, was accorded ﬁrst to adult men, initially as propertied heads of households and increasingly, from the mid-nineteenth century onward, as male individuals. Advocates of women’s suffrage demand that the franchise be accorded without distinction of sex, in parallel with other campaigns that argued for ending exclusions based on property qualiﬁcations (i.e., class) or race. They argued that women constitute half the human race and must not be excluded from political decision-making.
1. Women’s Suffrage And Democratization
In some European societies, critiques of women’s subordination—by women and men alike—antedated by several centuries the demands for women’s suffrage that erupted with the advent of the French revolution in 1789. From that time forth, however, voting quickly became a symbol of full citizenship and personal independence—for women as well as for men. Women’s suffrage advocates saw the vote not as a goal in itself but rather as the key to all other reforms, a means for women to acquire the political power necessary to improve or transform their disadvantaged situation in the short run (primarily through improved educational and economic opportunities), and, in the long run, of dismantling the laws, structures, attitudes, practices, and knowledge that undergirded male dominance. Women’s suffrage advocates argued that women’s participation in community decision-making could be effective at various levels: in school boards, in workers’ or business councils, in local, regional, or provincial affairs. But the most desirable and seriously contested form of voting in the newly emerging representative governments was at the national, federal, or parliamentary level. It was there that questions about the national budget and taxation, and about war, peace, and social and economic policy were being decided. It was also there—where power, authority, and control over collective resources were most concentrated—that the strongest resistance to woman suffrage would be found. The problem suffrage advocates faced in these new male-dominated regimes was to convince already established and exclusively male bodies to acknowledge women’s capabilities and equality and to admit them to full citizenship, not as a privilege but as a right. In virtually all countries women suffrage advocates included some sympathetic men. In some countries, however, anti-suffrage forces mobilized substantial numbers of supporters of both sexes on the grounds that women should not be permitted in, or were unsuited for, public affairs. In their view, public business was exclusively men’s business, and women, as legal dependents, should consider their interests represented by husbands, fathers, or guardians.
Despite very substantial resistance, the twentieth century ultimately witnessed the mass enfranchisement of women throughout the world, along with proclamations of (and sometimes even the granting of) their equal legal, educational, and economic rights. The United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952) ﬁrmly underscored women’s equal right to vote. Only in authoritarian societies where political representation and community decision-making have not been permitted has the demand for woman suffrage been muted. At the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst century, only a few sovereign states in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia (where no one votes) and Kuwait, have unconditionally refused to enfranchise women. What political power the vote actually provides to women or men in different countries, however, varies greatly, depending on the size and strength of political parties, the modes of election, and many other factors.
2. History Of Women’s Suffrage
The ﬁrst explicit arguments for women’s participation in political decision-making were expressed at the outset of the French Revolution, initially by the Marquis de Condorcet in 1787 and 1790, and in a number of anonymous pamphlets that turned these arguments into demands to be admitted to exercise the droit de cite, denouncing masculine aristocracy and challenging men’s right to make the rules for women. As revolutionary French assemblies proceeded to declare the Rights of Man, to draft constitutions and reshape old laws for a new society, individual women such as Olympe de Gouges and men such as Pierre Guyomar insisted on women’s full inclusion in the decision-making process. After four years of resisting eloquent arguments for women’s inclusion, revolutionary political leaders shut women out of political life on the grounds that women and government should not be mixed, an argument that had centuriesold roots. These demands were widely repeated in the 1830s and again, in early 1848, when leaders of the revolutionary Second Republic decreed universal (manhood) suffrage, and a group of Parisian women immediately organized to protest their exclusion. Deliberate choices of words from ‘male’ to the more subtle ‘en age viril’ signaled the exclusion of women from political affairs, and campaigns ensued to change the wording of electoral laws, as from ‘male’ to ‘person’ or to stipulate ‘and women’ following ‘men,’ or to add the term ‘of both sexes’ to qualify the masculine ‘Francais.’ Despite these early beginnings, however, French women only acquired the vote in 1944; the French campaign for woman suffrage began earlier than elsewhere and lasted far longer. Resistance to women in positions of authority was deeply embedded in France. There the ‘Rights of Man’ were constantly qualiﬁed on grounds of ‘public utility’ when it came to women’s rights.
In the English-speaking world, governing elites began to re-examine their electoral laws in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Demands for women’s suffrage were strongly expressed during the 1820s. The Reform Act of 1832 in England added the word ‘male’ to qualify electors, even as it broadened the franchise greatly, and in the next few decades a number of other European countries moved to do the same. The campaign for a Second Reform Act in the late 1860s mobilized women to seek inclusion. John Stuart Mill brought their demands to change ‘male’ to ‘person’ to the ﬂoor of Parliament during his brief tenure as representative of Westminster; although parliamentary suffrage was not forthcoming, qualiﬁed women did obtain a local vote in 1869. The campaigns in England would continue into the twentieth century, when they rose to a new peak, thanks to the combined efforts of the National Union of Woman Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the more militant activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The spectacular and extensive campaigns of the WSPU from 1906 through 1913, featuring mass parades, public demonstrations, occasional incidents of violence against state property, and the imprisonment and force-feeding of suffrage militants by British authorities gained world media attention and set a benchmark by which all other campaigns were subsequently judged. The cause of woman suffrage became a decisive political issue for both England and Ireland, and Irish suffrage advocates did not soon forgive their parliamentary deputies, who in 1912 sacriﬁced the cause of British women’s suffrage in order to obtain Irish home-rule. Ironically, Irish women did receive the vote along with English women who met certain property or educational qualiﬁcations in 1918; ‘universal’ suffrage including all women did not become a reality in the United Kingdom until 1928.
In the United States, democracy without women began to emerge in the 1820s, as various states slowly lifted property qualiﬁcations on white male voters. The demand for the vote was a key feature of the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ issued by the ﬁrst women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Because US electoral laws were made at the state level, not at the federal level, suffrage advocates faced the challenge of organizing suffrage campaigns on a state-by-state basis, following their exclusion from the federal amendment that enfranchised black men after the Civil War. The territory of Wyoming enfranchised women in 1869, and Utah territory in 1870, but these proved exceptions until new western states granted votes to women in the 1890s. Resistance to woman suffrage remained strong in the eastern, central, and southern states. In the United States, racial and immigration issues complicated the problem still further and from the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, even black men’s vote in southern states was often qualiﬁed by literacy requirements, poll taxes, or threats of physical violence. Finally, in the early twentieth century, suffrage leaders decided to attempt the federal amendment approach again; following a huge prosuffrage campaign, reminiscent of the British suffrage movement, Congress passed the nineteenth amendment, which was successfully ratiﬁed by a majority of states and became law in 1920. Democracy, even without women, was not an unproblematic development, even in the US; indeed, few nation-states had wholeheartedly embraced the principle of full democratic participation in government by the end of the nineteenth century, even for all men.
The ﬁrst nation-states to enact full woman suffrage were New Zealand (1893) and two Australian states (1894, 1899). Originally British colonies, these South Paciﬁc outposts of the British Empire—like the western states of the USA—proved more favorable to women’s citizenship than the older, more settled, and more authoritarian societies of Europe and Asia.
In some twentieth-century continental European countries, where the demographic balance had tilted and adult women began to outnumber men signiﬁcantly, the prospect of convincing men in power to enfranchise women became even more complicated. This complication was compounded by concern among ruling elites over Marxist-socialist enthusiasm for enfranchising all women along with all men, irrespective of social class (endorsed by the Second International in the 1890s); the Socialist Women’s International endorsed unrestricted suffrage for women in 1907. It was further compounded by longstanding concerns among otherwise liberal, even progressive men that women would vote as the priests dictated, to the detriment of progressive (often anticlerical) secularizing regimes (especially after the Roman Catholic Church muted its earlier opposition to woman suffrage following World War I). Meanwhile, Finnish women obtained the vote alongside their menfolk in 1906, when Finland obtained a degree of independence from the Russian Empire; by 1913 Norwegian women were also fully enfranchised, followed by Danish women in 1915. Suffrage campaign strategies would differ markedly, depending on whether men had already been enfranchised in a particular setting, and to what degree.
3. The International Woman Suffrage Alliance
The International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), founded in 1902, brought national organizations of European and North American women together to support each other’s campaigns in a more politically astute, systematic fashion. By 1913, the IWSA had affiliated societies from most European countries (including Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Russia, and Serbia), and from the far-ﬂung corners of the British Commonwealth—Australia, Canada, and South Africa. The 1920s would see a remarkable extension of IWSA’s network, to include delegations from Latin America, Egypt, China, and other non-Western countries. But the organization’s leadership became increasingly torn between the need to focus on suffrage in countries where women did not yet have the vote, and the need to advance progressive women’s agenda for change in the countries where they could already vote. Issues of married women’s nationality, combating state-regulated prostitution and the traffic in women and children, and fostering peace were the focus of considerable activity by IWSA’s board and member organizations. Controversy over protective legislation for women workers vs. absolute equality in the workplace led to schism in the organization in 1926, and to a reorientation of focus.
4. Women’s Suffrage From The 1920s To The 1950s
In some countries, women sometimes gained the vote with far less of a struggle than in France, England, or the United States. After World War I, for instance, new governments accorded woman suffrage as part of universal suffrage in a number of European countries, defeated during the war, that had acquired new, progressive regimes—Weimar Germany, the Austrian Republic, Hungary, etc. The Russian Revolution in 1917 brought women the vote, but the subsequent rule of the Communist Party ensured that they would have no choice in whom to vote for. Western and Central European political parties began to develop an interest in women voters, at the same time attempting to keep them at arm’s length from party decision-making positions or candidacy for office. The various socialist parties elected the most women to office, but even then their leadership was reluctant to allow women representatives much leeway in deviating from the party line, which continued to insist on noncooperation with ‘bourgeois’ feminists. Catholic political parties were equally reticent when it came to incorporating women into party leadership. In a time when adult women very often outnumbered men, all parties were understandably interested in whether or not women might vote as a bloc. Several initiatives to form women’s political parties and coalitions (e.g., England, Sweden, Austria) did not succeed, and overall it seems to be the case that during the early years, women’s voting patterns resembled those of men, and often they were somewhat more conservative. This did not deter fascist governments from striking out against elections in general, and in particular, against the ostensible threat of women’s active participation in political life.
In Latin American countries, where voting, even for men, was often restricted by birth, property, literacy, marital status, or racial qualiﬁcations, suffrage became a priority for women in some countries and not in others. Woman suffrage became an important issue in Cuba, Uruguay, and Brazil, and in Mexico during the late 1920s and early 1930s, but seemed less urgent in other Latin American states, where social justice issues were paramount concerns for political women. Miller (1991, p. 96) observes that ‘effective universal suffrage, male and female, did not exist anywhere until after World War II.’ But Lavrin (1995) emphasizes the breadth and importance of woman suffrage campaigns in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, accompanied by the emergence of women’s parties.
Only after 1945 did women’s suffrage ﬁnd a place in the political cultures of most Asian countries. Indonesia and Japan enfranchised women in 1945, while Chinese women gained the vote in 1947. India enfranchised women in 1949, following independence (though limited suffrage for some women had existed since 1919). Successful decolonization campaigns have led to women’s enfranchisement in many other countries. (A comprehensive chronology of women’s suffrage can be found in Daley and Nolan 1994).
5. Scholarship On The Women’s Suffrage Movement
Scholarship on the history of the women’s suffrage movement has expanded substantially since the 1960s, thanks in part to the development of social history and the inclusion of women’s movements in the study of political movements and collective action and also to the dramatic growth of women’s studies as an academic ﬁeld. Contextualization of the various national and local suffrage movements has been an important objective of recent studies, along with comparative studies of the international women’s movement (Rupp 1997). Scholars have also published comprehensive biographical studies of some of the internationally prominent suffrage movement leaders, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Carrie Chapman Catt, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Hubertine Auclert, and Aletta Jacobs, and have pressed for the recognition of women’s suffrage leaders in national and international biographical dictionaries. Others have begun to examine the cultural history (theatre, literature, arts, campaign propaganda, public manifestations, even trials) of the most expansive woman suffrage campaigns. The literature on the British and American suffrage movements is voluminous; only the most recent works will be listed below (bibliographies in these works will lead readers to the earlier and classic works; see also the bibliographies in Offen 2000 and Daley and Nolan 1994). Documentary ﬁlms have brought the British and American suffrage campaigns to the attention of English-speaking television audiences (MacKenzie 1988, Ward et al. 1999), and commemorative museum exhibits organized in London and various American states have attracted sizeable audiences. In other countries the movement for women’s suffrage has also begun to generate a growing historical literature, in a variety of languages, even as political scientists debate the results that woman suffrage has had in various political contexts. Comparative analyses of women’s suffrage movements are still in their early stages (see Bolt 1993 and Bader-Zaar 1994), and a global assessment of the long-term signiﬁcance and consequences of women’s suffrage remains to be undertaken.
- Bader-Zaar B 1994 Vergleichende Aspekte der Geschichte des Frauenstimmrechts in Grossbritannien, den Vereinigten Staaten von America, Osterreich, Deutschland und Belgien, 1860–1920. Ph.D. University of Vienna
- Bolt C 1993 The Women’s Movements in the United States and Britain from the 1790s to the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA
- Bosch M, Kloosterman A (eds.) 1990 Politics and Friendship: Letters from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, 1902–1942. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH
- Capel R M 1992 El Sufragio femenino en la Segunda Republica. Comunidad de Madrid, Madrid
- Cohen Y, Thebaud F (eds.) 1998 Feminismes et identites nationales: Les Processus d’integration des femmes au politique. Centre Jacques Cartier, Lyon, France
- Corbin A, Lalouette J, Riot-Sarcey M (eds.) 1997 Les Femmes dans la cite. Creaphis, Grane, France
- Daley C, Nolan M (eds.) 1994 Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives. Auckland University Press, Auckland; New York University Press, New York; Pluto Press, London
- DuBois E C 1997 Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
- DuBois E C 1998 Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights. New York University Press, New York
- Fagoaga C 1985 La Voz y el voto de las mujeres: El sufragismo en Espana, 1877–1931. Icaria, Barcelona, Spain
- Faure C 1997 Encyclopedie politique et historique des femmes: Europe, Amerique de Nord. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris
- Grimshaw P 1987 [orig. 1972] Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand. Auckland University Press, Auckland; Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
- Hardemeier S 1997 Fruhe Frauenstimmrechtsbewegung in der Schweiz (1890–1930): Argumente, Strategien, Netzwerk und Gegenbewegung. Chronos, Zurich, Switzerland
- Hause S C, Kenney A R 1984 Women’s Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
- Holton S S 1986 Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900–1918. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
- Holton S S 1996 Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Routledge, London
- Joannou M, Purvis J (eds.) 1999 The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK
- Lavrin A 1995 Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890–1940. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NB
- MacKenzie M 1988 Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. The Stirring History of the Militant Vintage Books, New York [Accompanies the documentary ﬁlm]
- Miller F 1991 Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice. University Press of New England, Hanover and London
- Murphy C 1989 The Women’s Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Temple University Press, Philadelphia
- Offen K M 2000 European Feminisms, 1700–1950: A Political History. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
- Oldﬁeld A 1992 Woman Suffrage in Australia: a Gift or a Struggle. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
- Prentice A, Bourne P, Brandt G C, Light B, Mitchinson W, Black N 1988 Canadian Women: A History. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Toronto
- Rupp L J 1997 Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
- Sepe C, Izzi Di Paolo P (eds.) 1997 Il voto alle donne cinquant’anni dopo. Ufficio Progretti Donna, Commune di Roma
- Smith P 1996 Feminism and the Third Republic: Women’s Political and Civil Rights in France, 1918–1945. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
- Van Wingerden S A 1999 The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866–1928. Macmillan, Houndmills, UK
- Ward G C, Saxton M, Gordon A D, Dubois E C, Burns K 1999 Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. An Illustrated History. Knopf, New York