Teaching Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Women’s Suffrage:
A World Wide Movement

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com


Introduction: Today the world is enthralled with images of women lining up to vote for the first time, or for the first time in a long while. Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and South Africa, in recent decades have all held elections allowing women to vote.

In spite of this recognition of the fundamental importance of women achieving the vote, attention paid to the history of its long struggle has been marginalized. And, the reasons for the depth of its opposition ignored. Why, for example, did it take until May, 2005, for women in Kuwait to finally achieve their full voting rights in their national elections?

It is commonly believed that female suffrage was desired and fought for only in England and the United States. Yet dynamic struggles for women’s basic democratic right appeared in many countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Though these movements differed in their reasons and tactics, the fight for female suffrage, along with other women’s rights concerns, cut across many national boundaries. By exploring the following topics, this essay attempts to help rectify the narrow and unexamined view of female suffrage.


Worldwide Alliances and Influences:  

By the turn of the twentieth century women’s reform was truly an international movement, one in which ideas and tactics used in one country served as models for use in another.

The strength of the 19th/early 20th century struggle for women’s suffrage was its transnational nature. Cooperation between women of various nations gave each the resources they needed to overcome their marginalisation in the politics of their own nations. In the later decades of the 19th century, the expansion of the telegraph and growth of women’s press allowed the discussion about women's status and roles to be communicated from country to country. Improvements in transportation facilitated like-minded women and men to attend international gathering where they met and organized. The momentum of women’s suffrage was bolstered by such international movements as:

The International Woman Suffrage Association: The International Woman Suffrage Association, established between 1899 and 1902, held its first meeting in Berlin in 1904. A series of Congresses followed, each with the aim of improving women’s rights, and each providing a stimulus for similar transforming movements throughout the world. At the Alliances’ seventh meeting in Budapest in 1913, euphoria about success was in the air, causing American Carrie Chapman Catt to claim: “Our movement has reached the last stage....Parliaments have stopped laughing at woman suffrage, and politicians have begun to dodge!”

World-Wide Temperance Movement: Perhaps no other cause helped the women suffrage movement as much as temperance. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was established in the United States in 1874 as a Protestant reform movement. In 1884, its powerful, influential leader, Frances Willard, formed the World’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was spearheaded mostly by missionaries working in non-western and southern countries. When Willard saw the link between women voting and temperance, and encouraged her membership to work for the vote, the WCTU leadership skills and organizational resources everywhere provided an enormous boast to sometimes flagging suffrage causes.

International Socialism: In 1907 international socialism decided to support women’s suffrage. Socialists were bent on organizing working class women. Since bans against female party membership existed within most traditional political parties, Socialists, having to organize women separately from men, managed to create successful female oriented movements in some countries.

Most Socialists went beyond civic issues to link suffrage to a fundamental challenge to gender relations. German Socialists, for example, demanded sexual emancipation and more control for women within their families as well as the vote. Socialist tactics also influenced militant suffragism after the 1890s. Most effective was a section within the British movement, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which used aggressive tactics of political confrontation to bring attention to the suffrage cause. Groups in other nations imitated the British, such as the suffragettes in Argentina and the United States. And, in 1912 in Nanking, the Chinese Woman Suffrage Alliance broke windows and stormed the parliament building demanding equality of the sexes and women’s right to vote.

The League of Nations and United Nations: The establishment of these international bodies significantly forwarded the goal of universal female suffrage. In 1946 a Commission on Women was established, and the Convention of the Political Rights for Women was adopted in 1952.

Inter-regional and Pan-national Organizations: Region specific coalitions also strengthened individual movements. Although Latin American women participated in several inter-American and European conferences, they had more success when they formed supportive alliances within the South American continent. The first South American International Feminine Congress took place in Buenos Aires in 1910. And, although the 1928 founded Inter-American Commission of Women at first was driven by North American issues, it increasingly geared itself to the needs of Latin American women. By the 1940s, the Commission had become an almost exclusively Latin American organization.

Pan-Pacific women’s networks also became effective advocates of women’s political equality, as did those within countries with great regional diversity. As an example, women in India by the end of the nineteenth century were forming their own organizations. The first all-India organization, the Women’s Indian Association was established in 1917, and by 1918 was holding gatherings all over India in support of women’s franchise.


International Council of Women, Berlin, 1904


When and Where:  

Women’s struggle for suffrage was long and sometimes bitter. In most cases women won the right to vote in uneven stages.

Full suffrage occurs when all groups of women are included in national voting and can run for any political office. In most cases women won the right to vote in uneven stages. New Zealand in 1893 was first. Liberalism was a strong force in this pioneering land which increasingly rejected what it viewed as archaic attitudes from the “Old World.” The support of social reform issues, including temperance, gave New Zealand suffragists the edge they needed. The now famous “Women’s Suffrage Petition” is credited with being a major force for this success. Signed by close to one quarter of the female adult population, the petition was the largest of its kind in New Zealand and other western countries. It is comprised of 546 sheets of paper, all glued together to form one continuous roll 274 metres long, with the signatures of over 10,000 adult women. A few Maori women signed, but at this time they mainly were concerned with achieving political participation rights for the whole tribe.

The New Zealand breakthrough sent ripples throughout the world. New Zealand women suffrage supporters were invited to many countries to visit, lecture, and even join in demonstrations.


Contingent of New Zealanders
Supporting British Suffragists in a Parade

London, 1910

In Europe, Finland, Norway and Iceland were among the first to grant female suffrage. Most other western governments only extended suffrage to women during or just after WWI, even though women’s rights had been widely debated in their societies for many decades.

Even though suffrage movements in the United States were large and vigorous in the early twentieth century, it took women there seventy-two years from first claiming the franchise in 1848 to achieving it in 1920. It was an equally long process in Britain where women’s important work in WWI provided an opportunity for the government to act on suffrage without seeming to capitulate to the tactics of the more militant arm of England's “suffragette” movement. France was one of the last in Europe to enfranchise women, even though the demand for women’s rights was first voiced by Olympe de Gouge during the French Revolution, and it was in France that the most radical critique of women’s subordination was developed. French suffragists, however, throughout the early part of the 20th century faced opposition from politicians, many of whom were Socialists who feared women would support Catholicism and right-wing political conservatism. French women won the vote as late as 1944.

French women, nonetheless, fared better than the Swiss. It took efforts of the Swiss Federation for Women’s Suffrage from 1909 to 1971 before women in Switzerland were allowed to vote in national elections, and not until 1989 could women in the Appenzell Interiour Rhodes canton vote in their local elections.

In colonized countries, women demanded the right to vote not just from stable republics, but from colonial powers. Anti-colonial nationalist movements in some cases encompassed women’s suffrage. For example, in India in 1919, poet and political activist Sarojini Naidu headed a small deputation of women to England to present the case for female suffrage before a select committee set up to create a proposal for constitution reforms aimed at the inclusion of some Indians in government. Although the British committee found the proposition preposterous, they allowed future Indian provincial legislatures to grant or refuse the franchise to women. To the British surprise, many did, making it possible within a short span of time for women to be represented, however limited, on a par with men. Universal suffrage for all adults over 21 was not achieved, however, until it became part of India’s 1950 Constitution.

Women in newly independent states in Africa typically won the vote around the year 1960. On winning national independence, most of the ex-colonized countries created constitutions which guaranteed the franchise to both men and women. In other countries, like South Africa where only whites were allowed to vote for members of the central government, white women gained the right to vote for central government in 1930, while black and colored women voted for the first time in 1994.

Today only a few countries do not extend suffrage to women, or extend only limited suffrage. In Bhutan there is only one vote per family in village-level elections. In Lebanon women have to have proof of education before they vote. In Oman, only 175 people chosen by the government, mostly male, vote, and Kuwait only in 2005 granted women the right to vote in the 2007 elections. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, which have denied the vote to men as well as women, recently opened the vote in provisional elections to men.


Women in Bahrain Voting for the First Time
May 22, 2003


The Case for Suffrage:

Reasons for granting female suffrage have varied. Sometimes responses to political change, or to societal anxieties, forwarded the cause. In Sweden, for example, women’s suffrage seems to have been an attempt to ward off more radical changes. In Germany, the ending of imperial rule in 1918 opened the door for women to push for the vote. In Canada, the federal government used female suffrage as a political tool, enfranchising army nurses and female relatives of soldiers serving overseas in order to secure an election victory.

A “nativist” argument also influenced the opinion of some in Canada, and in other parts of the world with large non-Northern European immigrant ethnic and racial minorities. One pro-suffrage argument in Canada was that white British Canadian women deserved the vote because the franchise had already been entrusted to naturalized male immigrants from Central Europe. In the United States the same argument was used, as was the fact that African American males had already won the vote before white women. The same reasoning was used by some white settlers in New Zealand, anxious about indigenous peoples’ access to political rights when it was denied to white women.

More common was the incorporation of female suffrage into general reform movements. The push for female political power sometimes occurred when it was clear that without political power little would change for women, even with the passage of substantive reforms. Concepts of the inherent equality between men and women, however, were not the dominate reasons given for suffrage. Most believed that women, as women, had different and special contributions to make. Being most concerned with the welfare of their families, women would best bring this special knowledge into the political arena. A principle temperance argument was that women were more likely to vote for prohibition as a way to safeguard the family.

Economic reasons for female suffrage were utilized as well. One stressed that once women were full citizens they would be in a position to press for equal salaries. Also, women’s economic independence depended on their ability to have a say in laws regarding their right to work and improvement in their working conditions.

In the colonized states, the colonizers used the “woman question” to justify their dominance, claiming that women in their subject nations were “backward” and in need of “uplifting.” Ignoring the demands of women in their own countries, they were sometimes more willing to push for women’s reforms abroad. On the other hand, nationalistic movements in colonized and other non-western nations began to link attempts at modernization with an improvement in the status of women. In many instances, liberal nationalists, many of them male, needed the active support of women to help fulfill their dream of an independent, modern state.

Kimura Komako in New York City studying
methods of American women suffragists.
1917-1918


Obstacles to Overcome:

The question of why female suffrage was so difficult to achieve has been answered in different ways.

•  Suffrage Challenged the Existing Order:  Custom and laws in many countries had placed men as supreme in public sphere and within the family. Deep cultural beliefs in male/female differences in altitudes and abilities supported this situation, and giving the women the vote posed a direct threat to male powers and privileges. Changes in women’s reforms, such as access to education or property rights, were justified because they were viewed as an improvement in women’s social position. Suffrage, on the other hand, challenged the existing order by threatening the basis of women’s subordination in society. Granting suffrage was a revolutionary act.

Conservative Kuwait lawmakers recently blocked women’s vote by arguing that giving women would essentially double women’s power. Citing claims that Islam and Kuwaiti custom bar women from holding office, the head of the Parliament’s human rights committee in May, 2005, said that men “are technically the head of the nation here.”

•  Many Women didn’t Want it. This rationale swayed many a male legislator. It is true that at times even well educated women in countries with high percentages of female illiteracy joined men who claimed that as long as the majority of women were still illiterate and ignorant, it would be dangerous to extend them the vote. The anti-suffrage groups in the U.S., for example, were mainly led by women.


New York City, 1920

•  Fear of a Lose of Female rights. Some women and men worried that if the concept of male “protection” of women were broken, women would be forced to compete with men in areas which they were not prepared to. Giving women political independence would even change male/female roles in the family structure, severely damaging it.

•  Women’s Essential Femininity would be Sacrificed. Most women did not want to give up what they saw as essential characteristics of their female nature if voting meant that they would have to enter the rough and disorderly realm of politics. There were fears that when women entered the public arena their “natural” roles of wife and mother would be undermined. In South America, feminists were most successful when they developed ideas for improving women’s condition that did not challenge some basic social values. Suffrage became only one part of the process of social change which recognized the need first to address women’s problems associated with their health and work.

Feminist and suffrage supporters in non-western regions tended to be accused of blindly imitating Western women, who were perceived as aggressive and shameless. Japanese women’s internationalism was attacked using this very argument. In the years leading up to World War II, members of the Japanese Diet increasingly portrayed women’s suffrage as immoral and as running counter to Japanese customs.

•  National Needs Come First: In countries fighting for their independence from colonial rule there was pressure on women to wait their turn. Even Gandhi, who had brought women into the public struggle for self sufficiency from Great Britain, stated that although he wanted women to take their proper place by the side of men, the timing was wrong for a “votes for women” campaign; women instead should use their energies “helping their men against the common foe.” Women suffrage supporters, too, tended to be more nationalistic than feminist, arguing that votes for women were necessary so that they could imbue their children with ideas of nationalism.

•  Resistance of Liberal/Left Politicians:  Some supporters of progressive legislation worried that acts by women’s militant suffrage would harm the “larger” cause of progressive politics. There further was concern that once given the vote, women might all vote for conservative parties. Women in Mexico sadly missed the chance to gain suffrage in 1930s because of these fears. In 1934, General Lázaro Cárdenas drafted a bill to implement female suffrage, which was passed by both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, was ratified by the states, and only needed formal declaration to be made into law. That declaration never came. The presence of a number of street demonstrations, a threatened hunger strikes by feminists, and fears that women would be unduly influenced by the clerical vote, unnerved Cárdenas at the last moment. Since the suffrage campaign was not a mass movement, it was easy to let the needed declaration slip away. Mexican women did not receive federal vote until 1958.

•  Suffrage Granted and the Denied: Suffrage, or its promise, has been granted and then retracted at various times. During the liberalization phase of Japan’s Meiji government in the 1880s, it seemed that Japan’s “first feminists” were going to achieve their goal of political participation. But all was ended in 1889 with the passing of laws which not only denied women voting rights, but even the right to join political parties. In the 1920s, Japanese feminists campaigned again, but the growing imperialism of the Meiji state and rising tide of Japanese militarism in the early 1930s turned Japanese suffragists back. When the Japanese military took control of the country in the 1930s, all democratizing movements were suppressed. It took people like Ichikawa Fusae decades of arguing that women’s suffrage was a fundamental human right before it was enshrined in the new Japanese constitution of 1945.

In 1956 in Egypt, thirty-three years after feminists had first demanded suffrage, the revolutionary government granted women the right to vote. But from the start, the state and official Islam obstructed women’s political rights by banning feminist organizations and suppressing the public expression of their views. Thus the same year that the state granted women the right to vote, women were suppressed as independent political actors.

Similarly Iran, which had granted women suffrage in 1963 and passed numerous women’s equal rights legislation in the 70s, repealed all these gains when the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. Women were eliminated from all decision-making positions within the government, dress requirements were enforced, and women’s organizations were declared corrupt and disbanded. The future looks brighter today. A growing urban, middle class is making some progress by situating women’s rights within the cultural framework of Iran, and noting that in order to modernize, Iran must improve the status of women.


Irish Cartoon, 1913


Beyond Suffrage:

Suffrage has not been an automatic stepping stone to full equality for women. One problem was that once suffrage was achieved, the common ground among women fighting for it was lost. Fears that participation in politics was “unladylike” remained, as did the old resistance and hostile attitudes against it.

This means that major changes in women’s political activities, other than exercising their right to vote, have been long in coming. Today, women are struggling to gain equal participation in political office alongside men. Of interest is the use in over 41 countries of parity quotas and quota laws to achieve political gender balance. Responding to strong pressure by women’s organizations, gender quotas have appeared in many new constitutions, like the one of Rwanda, and recently in the constitution of Iraq. This means that a certain number of parliamentary seats are reserved for women. The seats are distributed among the political parties in proportion to the number of seats awarded in parliament. In South Africa, a municipal law stipulates that 50 percent of all candidates for the local office have to be women. India in 1992 enacted a 33 percent policy to reserve seats for women in Parliament and throughout the State Government. The final effectiveness of this policy is unknown, but so far, as many as one million women have gotten an opportunity to enter institutions as members and office bearers; many more have participated in elections and as campaigners for state legislatures. Most dramatic has been the change in the landscape of local politics. In some cases, women for the first time have sat with village leaders, and sometimes even had a turn heading village affairs.


Demonstration for parity in the Lower House of Parliament
France, 1993


Sources

Ellen Dubois, “Woman Suffrage: The View from the Pacific,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 69, No. 4,

Marlene Le Gates, “Making Waves: A History of Feminism in Western Society,” Copp Clark, Ltd., 1996.

Robin Morgan, editor, “Sisterhood is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology,” Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1984.

Karen Offen, “European Feminism: 1700-1950: A Political History,” Stanford University Press, 2000.

“Suffrage & Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives”ø, edited by Caroline Daley & Melanie Nolan, New York University Press, 1994.


| Home Page | Lessons | Thematic Units | Biographies | Essays |
Reviews: | Curriculum | Books | Historical Mysteries |
| Q & A | ONLINE STORE | PDF FILE STORE
| About Us |
©1996-2013
Women in World History Curriculum