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Women's suffrage

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The term women's suffrage refers to the economic and political reform movement aimed at extending suffrage — the right to vote — to women. The movement's origins are usually traced to the United States in the 1820s although New Zealand was the first country to actually give women the right to vote, later being adopted by many countries in later years. In the following century it spread throughout the European and European-colonized world, being adopted in places which had undergone later colonization than that in Europe and the eastern United States. Today women's suffrage is considered an uncontroversial right, although a few countries, mainly in the Middle East, continue to deny the right of many women to vote.


Women's suffrage has been granted at various times in various countries throughout the world. In many countries women's suffrage was granted before universal suffrage, so women (and men) from certain races and social classes were still unable to vote.

In medieval France and several other European countries, voting for city and town assemblies and meetings was open to the heads of households, regardless of sex. Women's suffrage was granted by the Corsican Republic of 1755 whose Constitution stipulated a national representative assembly elected by all inhabitants over the age of 25, both women (if unmarried or widowed) and men. Suffrage was ended when France annexed the island in 1769. In 1756, Lydia Chapin Taft, also known as Lydia Taft, became the first legal woman voter in America.[1] She voted on at least three occasions in an open New England Town Meeting, at Uxbridge, Massachusetts, with the consent of the electorate. This was between 1756 and 1768, during America's colonial period.[2] New Jersey granted women the vote (with the same property qualifications as for men, although, since married women did not own property in their own right, only unmarried women and widows qualified) under the state constitution of 1776, where the word "inhabitants" was used without qualification of sex or race. New Jersey women, along with "aliens...persons of color, or negroes," lost the vote in 1807, when the franchise was restricted to white males, partly in order, ostensibly at least, to combat electoral fraud by simplifying the conditions for eligibility.

The Pitcairn Islands granted women's suffrage in 1838. Various countries, colonies and states granted restricted women's suffrage in the latter half of the nineteenth century, starting with South Australia in 1861. The 1871 Paris Commune granted voting rights to women, but they were taken away with the fall of the Commune and would only be granted again in July 1944 by Charles de Gaulle. In 1886 the small island kingdom of Tavolara became a republic and introduced women's suffrage.[3][4] However, by 1900 the monarchy was reinstated, and the kingdom was some years later on annexed by Italy. The Pacific colony of Franceville, declaring independence in 1889, became the first self-governing nation to practice universal suffrage without distinction of sex or color;[5] however, it soon came back under French and British colonial rule.

The first unrestricted women's suffrage in terms of voting rights (women were not initially permitted to stand for election) in a self-governing, still-independent country was granted in New Zealand. Following a movement led by Kate Sheppard, the women's suffrage bill was adopted mere weeks before the general election of 1893. The state of South Australia granted both universal suffrage and allowed women to stand for state parliament in 1895.[6] The Commonwealth of Australia provided this for women in Federal elections from 1902 (except Aboriginal women). The first major European country to introduce women's suffrage was Finland, where women were granted the right both to vote (universal and equal suffrage) and to stand for election in 1906. The world's first female members of parliament were also in Finland, when on 1907, 19 women took up their places in the Parliament of Finland as a result of the 1907 parliamentary elections.

In the years before the First World War, Norway (1913) and Denmark also gave women the vote, and it was extended throughout the remaining Australian states. Canada granted the right in 1917 (except in Quebec, where it was postponed until 1940), as did Soviet Russia. British women over 30 and all German and Polish women had the vote in 1918, Dutch women in 1919, and American women in states that had previously denied them suffrage were allowed the vote in 1920. Women in Turkey were granted voting rights in 1926. In 1928, suffrage was extended to all British women on the same terms as men i.e. over 21. One of the last jurisdictions to grant women equal voting rights was Liechtenstein in 1984. Since then only a handful of countries have not extended the franchise to women, usually on the basis of certain religious interpretations.

Bhutan allows one vote per property, a policy that many claim in practice prevents women from voting. However, inheritance in Bhutanese society is matrilinear, and since daughters inherit their parent's property and men are expected to make their own way in the world, Bhutanese women may potentially have greater political power, although this is only theoretical. In any case, this one vote per property practice is planned to be changed once the newly proposed constitution is accepted before 2008.

Suffrage movements

The suffrage movement was a very broad one which encompassed women and men with a very broad range of views. One major division, especially in Britain, was between suffragists, who sought to create change constitutionally, and suffragettes, who were more militant. There was also a diversity of views on a 'woman's place'. Some who campaigned for women's suffrage felt that women were naturally kinder, gentler, and more concerned about weaker members of society, especially children. It was often assumed that women voters would have a civilising effect on politics and would tend to support controls on alcohol, for example. They believed that although a woman's place was in the home, she should be able to influence laws which impacted upon that home. Other campaigners felt that men and women should be equal in every way and that there was no such thing as a woman's 'natural role'. There were also differences in opinion about other voters. Some campaigners felt that all adults were entitled to a vote, whether rich or poor, male or female, and regardless of race. Others saw women's suffrage as a way of canceling out the votes of lower class or non-white men.

United States

See also: History of women's suffrage in the United States

Lydia Chapin Taft was an early forerunner in Colonial America who was allowed to vote in 3 New England town meetings, beginning in 1756. American women were the first to fight for women’s suffrage. Events such as the Civil War and World War I influenced women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to make the tough decision of starting fundraisers to support Union troops or to support women’s suffrage. It was during World War I when women finally started gaining momentum in their efforts. However, some early victories were won in the territories of Wyoming (1869) [12] and Utah (1870), although Utah women were disenfranchised by the U.S. Congress in 1887. The push to grant Utah women's suffrage was at least partially fueled by outsiders' belief that, given the right to vote, Utah women would dispose of polygamy. It was only after Utah women exercised their suffrage rights in favor of polygamy that the U.S. Congress disenfranchised Utah women.[13]

Other territories and states granted women the right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th century, but national women's suffrage did not come until the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1920. In 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, women activists began a seventy year struggle for what they felt was a natural right of all Americans (to be able to vote). Using tactics such as pointing out the similarities in slavery and the way women were being treated, women suffragists were really starting to get into the heads of American women nation-wide. However, the courts were another issue. Women were not included in the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments (which gave people the right to vote regardless of their race). By the end of the nineteenth century, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming had enfranchised women after an extreme amount of effort by the suffrage associations at the state level.

National women’s suffrage, however, did not exist until the twentieth century. When women became more and more aggressive with their beliefs, officials became embarressed and started arresting the suffragists and even in jail women were deprived of rights such as wearing uniforms and writing letters. Finally, under the pressure of all of the suffrage groups, President Woodrow Wilson urged a compliant Congress to pass what became, when it was ratified in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment. Today the Center for American Women and Politics keeps alive the push for more women to continue to participate in the government.

See also


  • Baker, Jean H. Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists. Hill and Wang, New York, 2005. ISBN 0-8090-9528-9.
  • "Woman suffrage" in Collier's New Encyclopedia, X (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1921), pp. 403-405.
  • Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (New York: Merriam Webster, 1983) ISBN 0-87779-511-8

Further reading

  • Ellen Carol DuBois, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997) ISBN 0-300-06562-0
  • Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, enlarged edition with Foreword by Ellen Fitzpatrick (1959, 1975; Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1996) ISBN 0-674-10653-9
  • Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, editor, One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement (Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995) ISBN 0-939165-26-0
  • Doris Stevens, edited by Carol O'Hare, Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote (1920; Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995). ISBN 0-939165-25-2
  • Midge Mackenzie, Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975). ISBN 0-394-73070-4
  • Trevor Lloyd, Suffragettes International: The World-wide Campaign for Women's Rights (New York: American Heritage Press, 1971).
  • Annie Kenney, Memories of a Militant' (London: Edwin Arnold, 1924)
  • Antonia Raeburn, Militant Suffragettes (London: New English Library, 1973)

External links