Women's Suffrage

When and Where

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com


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.

For a World’s Women Suffrage Timeline:  Click Here!


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


    • 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 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