Women's Suffrage

Worldwide Alliances and Influences

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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.
     
  • The Case for Suffrage:  Reasons for granting female suffrage have varied.
     
  • Obstacles to Overcome:  Female suffrage was a divisive issue and perceived by some to be too revolutionary.
     
  • Beyond Suffrage:  Suffrage has not been an automatic stepping stone to full equality for women.


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Women in World History Curriculum