Woman Suffrage, right of women to share on equal terms with men the political privileges afforded by representative government and, more particularly, to vote in elections and referendums and to hold public office. Equal political rights for women have been advocated since antiquity. Under the autocratic forms of government that prevailed in ancient times and under the feudal regimes of the Middle Ages, however, suffrage was so restricted, even among men, that enfranchisement of women never attained the status of a major political issue. Conditions warranted organized woman-suffrage movements only after suffrage had been won by large, formerly disfranchised groups of the male population as a consequence of the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.
|II||IN COLONIAL AMERICA|
The women’s suffrage movement originated in the United States during the 19th century. In colonial America, as elsewhere in the world, civil law did not recognize the equality of men and women. The perception of inequality, which included the belief that women lacked the capacity to reason as soundly as men, provided the basis for denying women the right to vote. Even before the American Revolution (1776-1783), however, American women participated in public life somewhat more freely than European women. In most colonies land ownership, not gender, determined the right to vote. Although females possessed only limited property rights, women from families that owned property could sometimes vote, particularly if the male head of household was for some reason incapacitated. In Massachusetts women property holders had voting privileges from 1691 to 1780. In this period, groups such as the American Quakers, and some individuals, notably the Anglo-American political philosopher Thomas Paine, also argued that women should possess the right to vote.
After the American Revolution, the framers of the Constitution of the United States reserved decisions about qualifications for voting to the individual states. By the early 19th century, most states had dropped the property qualification and extended voting rights to all adult males. Ironically, the extension of democracy to a broader base of men represented a double setback for women. By definition, laws giving only men the right to vote now excluded women solely on the basis of their gender. In addition, by eliminating property ownership as a requirement for voting, these laws deprived women of the only legal claim for a right to vote that they previously had.
|III||ABOLITIONISM AND TEMPERANCE|
During the first half of the 19th century American suffragists worked mainly through the abolitionist and the temperance movements, but antifeminist prejudices severely limited the role of woman members. A notable instance of such prejudice occurred at the London Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. For several days the convention debated bitterly the right of eight American women to take part in the proceedings. Internationally famous clergymen contended during the debate that equal status for women was contrary to the will of God. Eventually two of the women, the noted American feminists Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were seated behind a curtain, effectively shielded from view and denied the right to speak.
After many such rebuffs American suffragists decided to create a separate movement dedicated to women’s rights. Prominent early in the movement were, besides Mott and Stanton, the brilliant American feminists Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley Foster, and Ernestine Rose. American men active in support of woman suffrage included antislavery leader Frederick Douglass, clergymen Henry Ward Beecher and Wendell Phillips, and essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
|IV||THE SENECA FALLS CONVENTION|
In July 1848, on the initiative of Mott and Stanton, the first women’s rights convention met at a Wesleyan church chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. Between 100 and 300 people attended the convention, among them many male sympathizers. After serious discussion of proposed means to achieve their ends, the delegates finally agreed that the primary goal should be attainment of the franchise. The convention then adopted a Declaration of Sentiments patterned after the American Declaration of Independence.
Public reaction to the Seneca Falls convention presaged a stormy future for the new movement. Although many prominent Americans, including the famed editor Horace Greeley and the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, warmly supported it, many citizens and the great majority of newspapers responded with ridicule, fury, and vilification. Suffragists were called the shrieking sisterhood, branded as unfeminine, and accused of immorality and drunkenness. Later, when suffragist leaders undertook speaking tours in support of women’s rights, temperance, and abolition, they were often subjected to physical violence. Meetings repeatedly were stormed and disrupted by gangs of street bullies. On one occasion when Anthony spoke in Albany, New York, the city mayor sat on the rostrum brandishing a revolver to discourage possible attacks by hoodlums in the audience. Despite intimidation, the woman-suffrage and abolitionist movements continued for some years to grow side by side.
|V||AFTER THE CIVIL WAR|
Bitter disagreements over strategy engendered a schism between the suffragist and abolitionist groups after the American Civil War. Many male abolitionists voiced fears that the demands of women suffragists might impede the campaign to gain voting rights for male ex-slaves. The issue came to a head in 1868, when the abolitionists pressed for a constitutional amendment enfranchising all Americans regardless of race, creed, or color. Suffragists retorted that the proposed amendment made no mention of women. The abolitionists answered that the suffragists should defer their claims rather than endanger passage of the amendment. To many suffragists, notably Stanton and Anthony, postponement was unacceptable. In May 1869 the two feminist leaders created the independent National Woman Suffrage Association, with the objective of securing enactment of a federal woman-suffrage law. Another suffragist faction, led by Lucy Stone and Henry Ward Beecher, countered in November of the same year by founding the American Woman Suffrage Association. That group worked for gradual adoption of woman suffrage on a state-by-state basis. The territory of Wyoming gave women the vote in 1869.
After the passage (1870) of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Anthony interpreted the law as enfranchising American women as well as male ex-slaves. She went to the polls in Rochester, New York, in 1872 and persuaded the election inspectors to let her and 12 other women register and vote. Two weeks after the election she, her 12 friends, and 3 of the election inspectors were arrested. Anthony received a grossly unfair trial, during which the judge repeatedly displayed antifeminist prejudices. At the height of the proceedings the judge, apparently anticipating a jury verdict in her favor, dismissed the jury and imposed on her a fine of $100. Anthony refused to pay the fine, whereupon the judge, apprehensive that she might appeal to higher courts, allowed her to go free. Her friends never were brought to trial. The election inspectors received heavy fines, which were paid by sympathetic spectators. The case aroused widespread interest, but the ban against woman suffrage remained.
Anthony’s ordeal had the effect, however, of lending impetus to the feminist movement. In 1890 the Stanton-Anthony group merged with the Stone-Beecher faction to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. For many years thereafter the association worked to advance women’s rights on both the state and federal levels. Besides Stone, Anthony, and Stanton, leaders and supporters of the association included the noted American feminists Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, Clara Barton, Jane Addams, and Carrie Chapman Catt. Largely as a result of agitation by the association, suffrage was granted in the states of Colorado (1893), Utah and Idaho (1896), and Washington (1910). In addition, the association in 1910 secured 500,000 signatures for a petition urging federal woman-suffrage legislation. California granted women full suffrage in 1911; Kansas, Oregon, and Arizona followed in 1912; Nevada and Montana in 1914; New York in 1917; and Michigan, Oklahoma and South Dakota in 1918.
The American suffragist movement scored its climactic victory shortly after World War I. In 1919 Congress approved the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment became the law of the land. See also League of Women Voters of the United States.
|VII||BRITISH SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT|
In Britain the woman-suffrage movement roughly paralleled that of the United States, but in the movement’s later stages more vigorous and violent tactics were often employed.
The great pioneer figure of British feminism was the writer Mary Wollstonecraft, her chief work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is one of the major feminist documents of the 18th century. During the 1830s and ‘40s British suffragism received notable aid and encouragement from the Chartists (see Chartism), who fought unsuccessfully for a sweeping program of human rights. In subsequent years the woman-suffrage issue was kept before the British public by a succession of liberal legislators, among them the statesmen and social philosophers John Stuart Mill, John Bright, and Richard Cobden. Mill helped to found in 1865 the first British woman-suffrage association. All efforts to secure the franchise for women were effectively opposed. Prominent among the antifeminists of the period were the reigning monarch Queen Victoria and the British prime ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
The British woman-suffrage movement acquired additional impetus when in 1897 various feminist groups merged to form the National Union of Woman Suffrage Societies. A section of the membership soon decided that its policies were timid and indecisive, and in 1903 the dissident and more militant faction, led by feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, established the Women’s Social and Political Union. Pankhurst’s suffragists soon won a reputation for boldness and militancy. Tactics employed by the organization included boycotting, bombing, window breaking, picketing, and harassment of antisuffragist legislators. In 1913 one dedicated suffragist publicized her cause by deliberately hurling herself to death under the hooves of horses racing in the derby at Epsom Downs. Because of their forceful and provocative behavior, the suffragists were often handled roughly by the police and repeatedly jailed and fined.
During World War I the British suffragists ceased agitation and made notable contributions to many aspects of the war effort, favorably influencing public opinion. In 1918 Parliament enfranchised all women householders, householders’ wives, and women university graduates over 30 years of age. Parliament lowered the voting age of women to 21 in 1928, giving them complete political equality with men. In 1929 British trade union leader Margaret G. Bondfield became the first woman cabinet member in British history. A major breakthrough occurred in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom; she served three successive terms before leaving office in 1990.
|VIII||SUFFRAGE IN OTHER COUNTRIES|
Meanwhile and subsequently most of the other nations of the world enacted woman-suffrage legislation. Among the first to do so were the following, each of which granted the franchise to women before the mid-20th century: New Zealand (1893); Australia (1902); Finland (1906); Norway (1913); Denmark (1915); the Netherlands and the Soviet Union (1917); Canada and Luxembourg (1918); Austria, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Germany, Poland, and Sweden (1919); Belgium (partial, 1919; full, 1948); Ecuador (1929); South Africa (1930); Brazil and Uruguay (1932); Turkey and Cuba (1934); France (1944); Italy and Japan (1946); China and Argentina (1947); South Korea and Israel (1948); Chile, India, and Indonesia (1949). Switzerland granted the franchise to women in 1971. By the 1980s, women could vote virtually everywhere in the world, except for a few Muslim countries. As of mid-2005, when women in Kuwait won suffrage, women could vote in all countries where men could vote except Saudi Arabia. Women who attained national leadership posts in modern times include prime ministers Golda Meir of Israel, Indira Gandhi of India, and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and presidents Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, Mary Robinson of Ireland, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro of Nicaragua, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia.
With the widespread extension of the franchise to women, the women’s rights movement broadened its scope during the 20th century. Among the rights sought currently by feminist groups throughout the world are the right to serve on juries, the right to retain earnings and property after marriage, the right to retain citizenship after marriage to an alien, and the right to equal pay and equal job opportunity. In the late 1960s so-called women’s liberation movements were organized and became active. See Women’s Rights.