Historically, the right of women to vote was limited by patriarchal systems that treated women as the property of their fathers or husbands. Without political voices, women remained dependent financially and socially on males, and issues deemed important to women were often ignored by male decision makers. Adult women in the developed world tend to take the right of suffrage for granted, but this basic right was won only through prolonged battles involving women who challenged the right of males to dominate the political world. In the developing world, many women are still fighting for the right to be recognized as political equals.
Even as eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought and classical liberalism, which introduced the notion of males as rational beings able to govern themselves, grew in popularity, women were generally perceived as too emotional and intellectually inferior to exercise the right of suffrage. The most notable exception to the denial of women as rational beings was found in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, the British author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), who contended that women were not inferior by nature but by socialization, which promoted perceptions of female irrationality.
The fight for women’s suffrage began in Great Britain, the leading industrial power of the day, in the mid-nineteenth century. Political philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, author of The Subjugation of Women (1869) and On Liberty (1859), was instrumental in a partial reevaluation of women’s roles. Mill argued that governments cheated themselves by denying half the population participation in the political process. The first women’s suffrage bill was introduced in the British Parliament in 1851.The movement gained momentum over several decades, but it was not until the early twentieth century that it became radical under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, who called attention to their cause by orating, marching, heckling, lobbying, burning, and bombing.
In the United States, the early women’s movement was strongly allied with the temperance and abolitionist movements. The first formal organization of women’s rights arose from the indignation of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, when women were not allowed to take an active role in the World Antislavery Convention in London in 1840. Their outrage led them to hold the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, where Stanton’s introduction of a women’s suffrage resolution was considered too controversial by many attendees. The American woman most closely associated with the suffrage movement is Susan B. Anthony, who devoted most of her life to this cause. Like their English counterpart, the American suffrage movement turned radical in the early twentieth century as younger women like Alice Paul took over the reins of leadership.
As European and American families established new colonies and states, they often challenged patriarchal notions of women’s roles. Consequently, women in these areas were the first to win political rights. New Zealand granted women’s suffrage in 1893, followed by Australia in 1902. The western part of the United States followed this same pattern. For instance, Wyoming, the Equality State, refused to be admitted to the Union if it entailed rescinding women’s right to vote.
Before World War I (1914–1918), the only European nations to grant female suffrage were Finland (1906) and Norway (1913).The war proved to be a turning point for women’s suffrage in both the United States and Europe as perceptions of women’s roles changed in response to participation in the war effort and in industries where women replaced men who had joined the military. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act granted limited female suffrage in Britain and Canada. In 1920, white women in America won the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. While black males had theoretically been granted suffrage in 1870 with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, black women and men did not gain the right to vote in much of the American South until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
In 1928, Ecuador became the first country on the South American continent to grant women the right to vote. Three years later, Senegal became the first African nation to grant women’s suffrage. The Philippines was the first Asian country to give women the right to vote, in 1937. World War II (1939–1945) served as a turning point for many non-Western nations. Japan and China granted female suffrage in 1945 and 1947 respectively. In colonized nations, independence often precipitated universal suffrage. By the twenty-first century, only Saudi Arabia and Kuwait continued to deny women the right to vote.
- Du Bois, Ellen Carol, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton–Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. Boston: Northwestern University Press, 1992.
- Gullace, Nicoletta F. The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
- Lee, Sue Heard, and Margery Elfin. The Cost of Being Female. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996.
- Neft, Naomi, and Ann D. Levine. Where Women Stand: An International Report on the Status of Women in 140 Countries, 1997–1998. New York: Random House, 1997.
- Stalcup, Brenda, ed. Women’s Suffrage. San Diego: Greenwood, 2000.
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