Women's Suffrage

The Case for Suffrage

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com


Reasons for granting female suffrage have varied. Sometimes responses to political change, or to societal anxieties, forwarded the cause. In Sweden, for example, women’s suffrage seems to have been an attempt to ward off more radical changes. In Germany, the ending of imperial rule in 1918 opened the door for women to push for the vote. In Canada, the federal government used female suffrage as a political tool, enfranchising army nurses and female relatives of soldiers serving overseas in order to secure an election victory.

A “nativist” argument also influenced the opinion of some in Canada, and in other parts of the world with large non-Northern European immigrant ethnic and racial minorities. One pro-suffrage argument in Canada was that white British Canadian women deserved the vote because the franchise had already been entrusted to naturalized male immigrants from Central Europe. In the United States the same argument was used, as was the fact that African American males had already won the vote before white women. The same reasoning was used by some white settlers in New Zealand, anxious about indigenous peoples’ access to political rights when it was denied to white women.

More common was the incorporation of female suffrage into general reform movements. The push for female political power sometimes occurred when it was clear that without political power little would change for women, even with the passage of substantive reforms. Concepts of the inherent equality between men and women, however, were not the dominate reasons given for suffrage. Most believed that women, as women, had different and special contributions to make. Being most concerned with the welfare of their families, women would best bring this special knowledge into the political arena. A principle temperance argument was that women were more likely to vote for prohibition as a way to safeguard the family.

Economic reasons for female suffrage were utilized as well. One stressed that once women were full citizens they would be in a position to press for equal salaries. Also, women’s economic independence depended on their ability to have a say in laws regarding their right to work and improvement in their working conditions.

In the colonized states, the colonizers used the “woman question” to justify their dominance, claiming that women in their subject nations were “backward” and in need of “uplifting.” Ignoring the demands of women in their own countries, they were sometimes more willing to push for women’s reforms abroad. On the other hand, nationalistic movements in colonized and other non-western nations began to link attempts at modernization with an improvement in the status of women. In many instances, liberal nationalists, many of them male, needed the active support of women to help fulfill their dream of an independent, modern state.

Kimura Komako in New York City studying
methods of American women suffragists.
1917-1918


  • 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.
     
  • 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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©1996-2013
Women in World History Curriculum