Women's Suffrage

Obstacles to Overcome

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com


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


  • 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.
     
  • 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.
     
  • Beyond Suffrage:  Suffrage has not been an automatic stepping stone to full equality for women.


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Women in World History Curriculum