Women's suffrage

Women's suffrage

The term woman's suffrage refer to the economic and political reform movement aimed at extending suffrage — the right to vote — to women. The movement's modern origins lie in France in the 18th century. Of currently existing independent countries, New Zealand was the first to give women the vote. However when this happened in 1893 it was not a "country", in the sense of being an independent nation state, but a mostly self-governing colony. Places with similar status which granted women the vote before New Zealand include Wyoming (1869). Other possible contenders for first "country" to grant female suffrage include the Corsican Republic, the Isle of Man, the Pitcairn Islands, Franceville and Tavolara, but some of these had brief existences as independent states and others were not clearly independent.

Today women's suffrage is considered a right (under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the United Nations in 1979), although a few countries, mainly in the Middle East, continue to deny voting rights to women.


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 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. Women's suffrage was ended when France annexed the island in 1769. The origins of the modern movement for female suffrage are to be found in France in the 1780s and 1790s in the writings of Antoine Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges, who advocated this as a right in national elections.

In 1756, Lydia Chapin Taft, also known as Lydia Taft, became the first legal woman voter in America. 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. 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. However, in 1899 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; however, it soon came back under French and British colonial rule.

Unrestricted women's suffrage in terms of voting rights (women were not initially permitted to stand for election) in a self-governing colony was granted in New Zealand in the early 1890s. Following a movement led by Kate Sheppard, the women's suffrage bill was adopted mere weeks before the general election of 1893.

The self-governing colony of South Australia granted both universal suffrage and allowed women to stand for the colonial parliament in 1895. The Commonwealth of Australia provided this for women in Federal elections from 1902 (except Aboriginal women). The first European country to introduce women's suffrage was Finland, at the time a grand duchy of Russia. The administrative reforms following the 1905 uprising granted Finnish women 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 1918 (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.

Until 2008, Bhutan allowed one vote per property, a policy that many claimed in practice prevented many women from voting. However, inheritance in Bhutanese society is matrilinear, and since daughters inherit their parents' property and men are expected to make their own way in the world, Bhutanese women may potentially have had greater political power, although this was only theoretical. In July 2008, universal suffrage was introduced through the adoption of the new constitution, and all adult Bhutanese women will be able to vote in the next general elections.

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.

Women's suffrage by country


The first election for the Parliament of the newly-formed Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was based on the electoral provisions of the six states, so that women who had the vote and the right to stand for Parliament at state level (in South Australia and Western Australia) had the same rights for the 1901 Federal election. In 1902, the Commonwealth Parliament passed its own electoral act that extended these rights to women in all states on the same basis as men. However, the Commonwealth legislation excluded all Aboriginal men and women from the Commonwealth franchise, which in theory some of them had enjoyed in 1901 (state Parliaments generally had property qualifications for the franchise, which in practice few Aboriginals met). This was not corrected until 1962, through an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act (it was not an outcome of the 1967 referendum that gave the Commonwealth Parliament the power to legislate specifically on Aboriginal matters).


Widows and unmarried women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections in Ontario in 1884. Such limited franchises were extended in other provinces at the end of the 19th century, but bills to enfranchise women in provincial elections failed to pass in any province until Manitoba finally succeeded in 1916. Full enfranchisement was not to come until 1918, when the Dominion (federal) parliament passed an act giving women the vote. The remaining provinces quickly followed suit, except for Quebec, which did not do so until 1940. Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to the Dominion Parliament in 1921.

Cook Islands (protectorate)

Women in Rarotonga were given the right to vote in 1893, shortly after New Zealand.


Suffrage was extended to women in France by the 5 October 1944 Ordinance of the French Provisional government. The first elections with female participation were the municipal elections of 29 April 1945 and the parliamentary elections of 21 October 1945. Muslim women in French Algeria had to wait till a 3 July 1958 Decree.


The municipal elections of 11 February 1934 were the first held with women voting. However, the right to vote was granted only to women that were literate and aged 30 or older. It was not until 28 May 1952 that suffrage was unconditionally extended to all adult women in Greece, with them voting for the first time in the parliamentary elections of 19 February 1956.


In the first half of the twentieth century, Indonesia was one of the slowest moving countries to gain women’s suffrage. They began their fight in 1905 by introducing municipal councils that included some members elected by a restricted district. Voting rights only went to males that could read and write, which excluded many non-European males. At the time, the literacy rate for males was 11% and for females 2%. The main group who pressured the Indonesian government for women’s suffrage was the Dutch Vereeninging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (VVV-Women’s Suffrage Association) which was founded in Holland in 1894. They tried to attract Indonesian membership, but had very limited success because the leaders of the organization had little skill in relating to even the educated class of the Indonesians. When they eventually did connect somewhat with women, they failed to sympathize with them and thus ended up alienating many well-educated Indonesians. In 1918 the colony gained its first national representative body called the Volksraad, which still excluded women in voting. In 1935, the colonial administration used its power of nomination to appoint a European woman to the Volksraad. In 1938, the administration introduced the right of women to be elected to urban representative institution, which resulted in some Indonesian and European women entering municipal councils. Eventually, the law became that only European women and municipal councils could vote, which excluded all other women and local councils. September 1941 was when this law was amended and the law extended to women of all races by the Volksraad. Finally, in November 1941, the right to vote for municipal councils was granted to all women on a similar basis to men (with property and educational qualifications).

The Netherlands

The group who were working for women’s suffrage in Holland was the Dutch Vereeninging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (VVV-Women’s Suffrage Association) which was founded in 1894. In 1917 Dutch women became electable in national elections, this led to the election of Suze Groeneweg of the SDAP party in the general elections of 1918. On the 15th of May 1919 a new law was drafted to allow Women's suffrage without any limitations. The law was passed and the right to vote could be exercised for the first time in the general elections of 1922.

Voting was made mandatory from 1918, this was not lifted until 1970.

New Zealand

Women in New Zealand were inspired to fight for their voting rights by the equal-rights philosopher John Stuart Mill and the British feminists’ aggressiveness. In addition, the missionary efforts of the American-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union gave them the motivation to fight. There were, in fact, a few male politicians that supported women’s rights, such as John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, and William Fox. In 1878, 1879, and 1887 amendments extending the vote to women failed by a hair each time. In 1893 the reformers at last succeeded in extending the franchise to women.

Although the Liberal government which passed the bill generally advocated social and political reform, the electoral bill was only passed because of a combination of personality issues and political accident. The bill granted the vote to women of all races. New Zealand women were not given the right to stand for parliament, however, until 1919. In 2005, almost a third of the Members of Parliament elected were female. Women recently have also occupied powerful and symbolic offices such as those of Prime Minister, Governor-General, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Chief Justice.


Middle class women could vote for the first time in 1909 (i.e. women coming from families with a certain level of prosperity). Women in general were allowed to vote in local elections from 1910 on, and in 1913 a motion on general suffrage for women was carried unanimously in the Norwegian parliament (Stortinget).


Roza Pomerantz-Meltzer was the first woman elected to the Sejm in 1919 as a member of a Zionist party.


In the Basque provinces of Biscay and Guipúzcoa women who paid a special election tax were allowed to voted and get elected to office till the abolition of the Basque Fueros. Nonetheless the possibility of being elected without the right to vote persisted, hence María Isabel de Ayala was elected mayor in Ikastegieta in 1865. Woman suffrage was officially adopted in 1933 not without the opposition of Margairta Nelken and Victoria Kent, two female deputees, who argued that women in Spain and at that time, were far too immature and ignorant to vote responsibly, thus putting at risk the existence of the Second Republic. During the Franco regime only male heads of household were allowed to vote. From 1976, during the Spanish transition to democracy women regained the right to vote and be elected to office.


During the Swedish age of liberty (1718-1771), tax-paying female members of guilds, (most often widows), were allowed to vote, and stand for election, until 1771. Between 1726 and 1742, women took part in 30 percent of the elections. New regulations made the participation of women in the elections even more extensive in the period of 1743-58.

The vote was sometimes given through a male representative, which was a usual reason given by the opposition to female suffrage. In 1758, women were excluded from the mayor- and local elections, but continued to vote in the national elections. In 1771, this suffrage was abolished through the new constitution.

In 1862, tax-paying women of legal majority were again allowed to vote in the local elections. The right to vote in national elections was not returned to women until 1919, and was practiced again in the election of 1921, for the first time in 150 years.


The Swiss referendum on women's suffrage was held on 1 February 1959. The majority of Switzerland's men voted no, however in some cantons the vote was given to women. Switzerland was one of the last Western democracies (the other being Liechtenstein) to allow women to vote. Women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1973.

United Kingdom

The campaign for women's suffrage gained momentum throughout the early part of the nineteenth century as women became increasingly politically active, particularly during the campaigns to reform suffrage in the United Kingdom. John Stuart Mill, elected to Parliament in 1865 and an open advocate of female suffrage, campaigned for an amendment to the Reform Act to include female suffrage. Roundly defeated in an all male parliament under a Conservative government, the issue of women's suffrage came to the fore.

During the latter half of the 19th century, a number of campaign groups were formed in an attempt to lobby Members of Parliament and gain support. In 1897, seventeen of these groups came together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who held public meetings, wrote letters to politicians and published various texts. In 1907, the NUWSS organized its first large procession. This march became known as the Mud March as over 3000 women trudged through the cold and the rutty streets of London from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall to advocate for women’s suffrage.

In 1903, a number of members of the NUWSS broke away and, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). As the national media lost interest in the suffrage campaign, the WSPU decided it would use other methods to create publicity. This began in 1905 at a meeting where Sir Edward Grey, a member of the newly elected Liberal government, was speaking. As he was talking, two members of the WSPU constantly shouted out, 'Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?' When they refused to cease calling out, police were called to evict them and the two suffragettes (as members of the WSPU became known after this incident) were involved in a struggle which ended with them being arrested and charged for assault. When they refused to pay their fine, they were sent to prison. The British public were shocked and took notice at this use of violence to win the vote for women.

After this media success, the WSPU's tactics became increasingly violent. This included an attempt in 1908 to storm the House of Commons, the arson of David Lloyd George's country home (despite his support for women's suffrage) and an incident in 1913 in which Emily Davison, a suffragette, interfered with a horse owned by King George V during the running of the Epsom Derby and was trampled and died four days later. The WSPU ceased their militant activities during the First World War and agreed to assist with the war effort. Similarly, the NUWSS announced that they would cease political activity but continued to lobby discreetly throughout the First World War. In 1918, with the war over, Parliament agreed to enfranchise women who were over the age of 30. It was not until 1928 with the Representation of the People Act 1928 that women were granted the right to vote on the same terms as men.

United States

Lydia Chapin Taft was an early forerunner in Colonial America who was allowed to vote in three New England town meetings, beginning in 1756. American women were the first to fight for women’s suffrage.

In 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, activists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott began a seventy year struggle to secure the right to vote for women. Susan B. Anthony, a native of Rochester New York, joined the cause four years later at the Syracuse Convention. Women's suffrage activists pointed out that blacks had been granted the franchise and had not been included in the language of the United States Constitution's Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments (which gave people equal protection under the law and the right to vote regardless of their race, respectively). This, they contended, had been unjust. Early victories were won in the territories of Wyoming (1869) and Utah (1870), although Utah women were disenfranchised by provisions of the federal Edmunds-Tucker Act enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1887. The push to grant Utah women's suffrage was at least partially fueled by the 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. By the end of the nineteenth century, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming had enfranchised women after effort by the suffrage associations at the state level.

National women’s suffrage, however, did not exist until 1920. During the beginning of the twentieth century, as women's suffrage gained in popularity, suffragists were subject to arrests and many were jailed. Finally, President Woodrow Wilson urged Congress to pass what became, when it was ratified in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment. While the ability to vote was a national trend forming since the progressive years of Republican President William Taft, Woodrow's predecessor, Taft's appointment as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court in 1921 was seen as the watershed moment for equal-pay legislation. Taft's disenting opinion in Adkins v. Children's Hospital in 1923 was a progressive move and called out a maximum-hours law was equivalent to a minimal-wage. The Supreme Court overturned the decision, to agree with Taft, in 1934 permanently ruling separate hours/rates for women and men as unconstitutional.

Women's suffrage denied or conditioned

  • Brunei — Women (and men) have been denied the right to vote or to stand for election since 1962.
  • Lebanon — Partial suffrage. Proof of elementary education is required for women but not for men. Voting is compulsory for men but optional for women.
  • Saudi Arabia — No suffrage for women. The first local elections ever held in the country occurred in 2005. Women were not given the right to vote or to stand for election, although it may happen by 2009.
  • United Arab Emirates — Limited, but will be fully expanded by 2010.
  • Vatican City — No suffrage for women; while most men in the Holy See also lack the vote, all persons with suffrage in Papal conclaves (the Cardinals) are male.

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
  • Åsa Karlsson-Sjögren, "Männen, kvinnorna och rösträtten : medborgarskap och representation 1723-1866". ("Men, Women and the vote; Citizenship and representation 1723-1866")

Further reading

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

External links

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