The term women's suffrage refers to an 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. In the following century, it spread throughout the European and European-colonized world, generally being adopted in places that 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 many women the right to vote.
Women's suffrage is the most widely applicable aspect of the broader issue of women's role in governance. With significant exceptions, women historically have been excluded or marginalized in political decision-making. Recent recognition of women's special concern for the welfare of children, experience in conflict resolution within the home, and collaborative community involvement have yielded increased opportunities for women in governance. Nordic countries, for example, have made long-standing efforts to increase the participation of women; Costa Rica, Belgium, and Argentina have mandated quotas for female representation in legislative bodies; and a number of post-conflict countries in Africa have implemented radical reforms that recognize the important perspective that women bring to both the issues and processes of governance.
Women's suffrage had been granted (and revoked) 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. The first women's suffrage was granted in New Jersey by 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 was the first country to introduce universal suffrage in its presidential elections. However, in 1905, the monarchy was reinstated, and the kingdom was some years later on annexed by Italy.
The first unrestricted women's suffrage in terms of voting rights in a self-governing, still-extant 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 first to grant universal suffrage and allow women to stand for parliament was South Australia, in 1894. 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 1905. The world's first female members of parliament were also in Finland, when on May 23, 1906, 19 women took up their places in the Parliament of Finland as a result of the 1905 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 the Soviet Union. British women over 30 and all German and Polish women had the vote in 1918, 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. 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 (although it is planned to be changed once the newly proposed constitution is accepted before 2008).
The suffrage movement encompassed women and men with an equally 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 civilizing 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 was an important political issue in New Zealand at the turn of the nineteenth century. Among self-governing countries still extant today, New Zealand was the first to give women the vote in national elections. The Electoral Bill granting women the franchise was given Royal Assent by Governor Lord Glasgow on September 19, 1893, and women voted for the first time in the 1893 election, on November 28 (Elections for the Māori seats were held on December 20).
Women's suffrage was granted after about two decades of campaigning by women such as Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller and organizations such as the New Zealand branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. They felt that female voting would increase the morality of politics; their opponents argued that politics was outside women's "natural sphere" of the home and family. Suffrage advocates countered that allowing women to vote would encourage policies which protected and nurtured families.
From 1887, various attempts were made to pass bills enabling female suffrage; each bill came close to passing but none succeeded until a government strategy to foil the 1893 bill backfired. By 1893, there was considerable popular support for women's suffrage, and the Electoral Bill passed through the Lower House with a large majority. The Legislative Council (upper house) was divided on the issue, but when Premier Richard Seddon ordered a Liberal Party councilor to change his vote, two other councilors were so annoyed by Seddon's interference that they changed sides and voted for the bill, allowing it to pass by 20 votes to 18. Both the Liberal government and the opposition subsequently claimed credit for the enfranchisement of women, and sought women's newly acquired votes on these grounds.
New Zealand women were not given the right to stand for parliament until 1919, with the Women's Parliamentary Rights Act. The first woman to become a New Zealand Member of Parliament was Elizabeth McCombs in 1933.
In Australia the first election for the Parliament of the newly-formed Commonwealth 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 would have 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).
In the United Kingdom, women were not formally prohibited from voting until the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. It was in 1832, that re-instating women's suffrage became on some level a political topic, although it would not be until 1872, that it would become a national movement with the formation of the National Society for Women's Suffrage and later the more influential National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Women had the franchise in local government, school boards, and health authorities from the late nineteenth century. Their successes in these areas contributed to their acquiring parliamentary suffrage, although little victory was achieved in this constitutional campaign in its earlier years up to around 1905. It was at this point that the militant campaign began with the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union.
The outbreak of the First World War led to a halting of almost all campaigning, but some argue that it was the competence of women war workers that led to the extension of the franchise to single women over the age of 30 in 1918. Universal suffrage for all adults over 21 years of age was not achieved until 1928.
American women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. During the early part of the century, agitation for equal suffrage was carried on by only a few individuals. The first of these was Frances Wright, a Scottish woman who came to the country in 1826, and advocated women's suffrage in an extensive series of lectures. In 1836, Ernestine Rose, a Polish woman, came to the country and carried on a similar campaign, so effectively that she obtained a personal hearing before the New York Legislature, though her petition bore only five signatures. At about the same time, in 1840, Lucretia Mott and Margaret Fuller became activists in Boston. Efforts to gain various women's rights were subsequently led by Susan B. Anthony, Virginia Minor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis among others.
On January 12, 1915, a suffrage bill was brought before the House of Representatives and was defeated by a vote of 174 to 204. When the bill returned for second time to the House, on January 10, 1918, it was passed with one more vote than was needed to make the necessary two-thirds majority. The bill was then carried into the Senate and on September 30, 1918, the question was put to the vote, but came up two votes shy of the two-thirds Senate majority. On February 10, 1919, the vote came up again, losing by by only one vote.
There was considerable anxiety among politicians of both parties to have the amendment passed and made effective before the general elections of 1920, so the President called a special session of Congress, and a bill, introducing the amendment, was brought before the House again. On May 21, 1919, it was passed, 42 votes more than necessary being obtained. On June 4, 1919, it was brought before the Senate, and after a long discussion it was passed, with 56 ayes and 25 nays. It only remained that the necessary number of states should ratify the action of Congress. Within a few days Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, their legislatures being then in session, passed the ratifications. Other states then followed their examples, and Tennessee was the last of the needed 36 states to ratify, in the summer of 1920. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was an accomplished fact, and the Presidential election of November 1920, was therefore the first occasion on which women in all of America were allowed to exercise their right of suffrage.
Women's suffrage today is widespread around the world and generally uncontroversial. Traditional attitudes toward women's roles delayed the adoption of voting rights for women in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and some European countries until the mid-twentieth century. For example, China granted voting rights in 1949 following the Chinese Revolution and India in 1950 after independence from Great Britain. Likewise, in Africa, most women gained the franchise as colonial control of the continent ended and modern African nations established their respective sovereignties.
In 1952 the United Nations enacted the Covenant on Political Rights of Women, the first international legal statement that affirmed that women right to the vote and hold political office. In recent years, women have been enfranchised in several Persian Gulf states, including Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, while women still remain disenfranchised in Saudi Arabia.
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