Women’s Suffrage Research Paper

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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.


  1. 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
  2. Bolt C 1993 The Women’s Movements in the United States and Britain  from  the  1790s to  the  University  of  Massachusetts Press, Amherst,  MA
  3. Bosch M, Kloosterman A (eds.) 1990 Politics and Friendship: Letters   from  the  International  Woman   Suffrage   Alliance, 1902–1942. Ohio State University  Press, Columbus, OH
  4. Capel R M 1992 El Sufragio femenino en la Segunda Republica. Comunidad de Madrid, Madrid
  5. Cohen Y, Thebaud F (eds.) 1998 Feminismes et identites nationales: Les Processus d’integration des femmes au politique. Centre Jacques Cartier,  Lyon, France
  6. Corbin A, Lalouette J, Riot-Sarcey  M (eds.) 1997 Les Femmes dans la cite. Creaphis,  Grane,  France
  7. 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
  8. DuBois E C 1997 Harriot  Stanton  Blatch and the Winning  of Woman Suffrage. Yale University  Press, New Haven, CT
  9. DuBois E C 1998 Woman Suffrage  and Women’s Rights.  New York University  Press, New York
  10. Fagoaga C 1985 La Voz y el voto de las mujeres: El sufragismo en Espana, 1877–1931. Icaria,  Barcelona,  Spain
  11. Faure C 1997 Encyclopedie politique et historique des femmes: Europe, Amerique de Nord. Presses Universitaires  de France, Paris
  12. Grimshaw P 1987 [orig. 1972] Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand. Auckland University   Press,  Auckland;   Oxford   University Press, Oxford,  UK
  13. Hardemeier S 1997 Fruhe Frauenstimmrechtsbewegung  in der Schweiz  (1890–1930): Argumente,  Strategien,  Netzwerk  und Gegenbewegung. Chronos, Zurich, Switzerland
  14. Hause S C,  Kenney  A R  1984 Women’s  Suffrage  and Social Politics  in the French Third    Princeton  University Press, Princeton,  NJ
  15. Holton S S 1986 Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900–1918. Cambridge  University Press, Cambridge,  UK
  16. Holton S S  1996  Suffrage  Days:  Stories  from  the  Women’s Suffrage Movement. Routledge, London
  17. Joannou M,   Purvis   J  (eds.)  1999  The   Women’s   Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK
  18. Lavrin A  1995  Women,   Feminism,   and  Social   Change  in Argentina,   Chile,  and  Uruguay,  1890–1940.  University   of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NB
  19. MacKenzie M 1988 Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. The Stirring History  of the Militant    Vintage Books, New York [Accompanies the documentary film]
  20. Miller F 1991 Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice. University   Press  of  New  England,   Hanover   and London
  21. Murphy C  1989 The  Women’s  Suffrage  Movement  and Irish Society  in the Early  Twentieth    Temple  University Press, Philadelphia
  22. Offen K M 2000 European Feminisms, 1700–1950: A  Political History. Stanford University  Press, Stanford, CA
  23. Oldfield A  1992  Woman  Suffrage  in  Australia:  a  Gift  or  a Struggle. Cambridge  University  Press, Cambridge,  UK
  24. Prentice A,  Bourne  P,  Brandt  G C,  Light  B, Mitchinson W, Black N 1988 Canadian Women:  A History.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  Toronto
  25. Rupp L J 1997 Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Princeton  University  Press,  Princeton, NJ
  26. Sepe C, Izzi Di Paolo P (eds.) 1997 Il voto alle donne cinquant’anni dopo. Ufficio Progretti Donna, Commune  di Roma
  27. Smith P  1996  Feminism  and  the  Third  Republic:  Women’s Political  and Civil Rights  in France, 1918–1945. Clarendon Press, Oxford,  UK
  28. Van Wingerden S A 1999 The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866–1928. Macmillan,  Houndmills, UK
  29. 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
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