Women’s Suffrage, the 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 by some thinkers 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 became a political issue. Conditions warranted organized women’s suffrage movements only after suffrage had been won by large, formerly disenfranchised groups of the male population as a consequence of the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.
II AMERICAN SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT
The modern women’s suffrage movement originated in post-revolutionary America. Even before the American War of Independence, American women participated in public life somewhat more freely than European women. In 1647 a wealthy Maryland landholder named Margaret Brent attempted, boldly but unsuccessfully, to secure “place and voice” in the legislature of the colony. In Massachusetts, women property holders voted from 1691 to 1780. The Continental Congress debated the women’s-suffrage question at length, deciding finally that the individual states should formulate voting rules.
Many groups, such as the American Quakers, and numerous individuals, notably the libertarian writer Thomas Paine, consistently advocated the enfranchisement of women.
During the first half of the 19th century, American suffragists worked mainly through the abolitionist and the temperance movements, but anti-feminist prejudices severely limited the role of woman members. After many rebuffs, they decided to create a separate movement dedicated to women’s rights. Prominent early in the movement were, besides Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the American feminists Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley Foster, and Ernestine Rose. American men active in support of women’s suffrage included the clergymen Henry Ward Beecher and Wendell Phillips, and the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
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. More than 100 people attended the convention, among them many male sympathizers. The delegates agreed that the primary goal should be the attainment of the franchise. The convention then adopted a Declaration of Sentiments patterned after the American Declaration of Independence. Despite the intimidation, the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements continued for some years to grow side by side. Bitter disagreements over strategy engendered a schism between the suffragist and abolitionist groups after the American Civil War. The issue came to a head in 1868, when the abolitionists pressed for a constitutional amendment enfranchising all Americans regardless of race, creed, or colour. 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, the 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 women’s-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 the gradual adoption of women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis. The territory of Wyoming gave women the vote in 1869.
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 women’s suffrage legislation. California granted women the vote in 1911; Kansas, Oregon, and Arizona followed in 1912; Nevada and Montana in 1914; and New York in 1917.
The American suffragist movement scored its climactic victory shortly after World War I. In 1919 Congress approved the 19th Amendment to the US 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.
III BRITISH SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT
In the United Kingdom the women’s 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 1840s British suffragism received notable aid and encouragement from the Chartists, who fought unsuccessfully for a sweeping programme of human rights. In subsequent years the women’s 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 women’s suffrage association. All efforts to secure the franchise for women were effectively opposed. Prominent among the opponents of women’s suffrage of the period were the reigning monarch Queen Victoria and the British prime ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
The British women’s 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 the colourful feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, established the Women’s Social and Political Union. Pankhurst’s suffragettes soon won a reputation for boldness and militancy. Tactics employed by the organization included boycotting, bombing, window-breaking, picketing, and harassment of anti-suffragist legislators. In 1913 one dedicated suffragette publicized the cause by deliberately hurling herself to her death under the hooves of horses racing in the Derby at Epsom Downs. Because of their forceful and provocative behaviour, the suffragettes were often handled roughly by the police and repeatedly jailed and fined under such special legislation as the Cat and Mouse Act.
During World War I the British suffragettes ceased agitation and made notable contributions to many aspects of the war effort, favourably 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. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom; she served three successive terms before leaving office in 1990.