World History Project - 1750 to the Present
READ: A World Tour of Women’s Suffrage
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.
First read: preview and skimming for gist
Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.
Second read: key ideas and understanding content
Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What is suffrage, according to this article?
- What kind of reform movement helped to stimulate the development of a women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand, and how?
- Why did a government of men, in the United Kingdom, give women over 21 the right to vote in 1929?
- Why was women’s suffrage so slow to be granted in India, which was also ruled by the United Kingdom (Great Britain)?
- What groups of women were excluded from voting in North America before the 1960s?
- What arguments did women in Latin America use to get suffrage, according to the author?
- What important political change made universal women’s suffrage possible in most of Africa?
Third read: evaluating and corroborating
Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
- This article looks at women’s suffrage by region, but we know that women’s suffrage networks stretched across borders and around the world. What trends in women’s suffrage do you see that look similar across several different regions?
- Reflect on the last sentence of the article. How do you think achieving women’s suffrage changed political conversations and actions within nation-states?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.
A World Tour of Women’s Suffrage
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Voting rights are often taken for granted. Yet women had to fight hard for suffrage in a battle spread unevenly across decades and continents. One thing they ultimately had in common? Success.
Suffrage, meaning the right to vote in elections, is a hallmark of modern political systems. But most nation-states that emerged from the revolutions of the eighteenth century limited suffrage to small groups. Voting rights only expanded slowly over time. This is especially true for women, who usually had to fight hard for the right to vote.
The story of women's suffrage has an unusual chronology. Women gained voting rights in a series of small, irregular victories around the world long before most nations would permit it. Some states, provinces and local areas started allowing women to vote in state and local elections, giving the movement more strength. So before we can discuss how women successfully achieved the right to vote, we need to look at these more local triumphs. The fight in some areas lasted much longer than in others, so the movement can't be neatly outlined according to time and place. Factors such as race, class and age also make the history of this movement even more complex and interesting.
So maybe the best way to tell the story is to take a journey around the globe. We'll look at the when, where, who and how of suffrage movements in six different regions of the world.
Region 1: New Zealand and Australia
In 2018, New Zealand celebrated the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage. With the passage of the Electoral Act of 1893, New Zealand was the first self-governing nation to award women the right to vote in national elections. This achievement was largely due to the work of Kate Sheppard, an English woman who migrated to the city of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island. She became the head of a Presbyterian group called the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1887. The group's main focus was an end to the sale and consumption of alcohol. But Sheppard argued that women must first be allowed to vote if they were to have any effect on the alcohol issue. She traveled across the country gathering women's signatures on a petition she presented to the New Zealand Parliament. They rejected her first request, but then in 1893, with the signatures of almost 32,000 women unveiled on her now massive petition, the men in Parliament passed the resolution. Even though New Zealand granted all women suffrage, they would have to wait until 1919 before women could run for elected offices.
While this national achievement was remarkable, there were other state and local areas that had given women the right to vote prior to 1893. But New Zealand was the first to give all women the right to vote at the national level. Neighboring Australia would also grant women the right to vote, first at the provincial and then at the national level in 1902. However, in Australia only white women were given this right while Aboriginal women would have to wait another 60 years before suffrage was granted to them.
Region 2: Europe
The next stop on our world tour is Europe. The publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792) was a game changer. Many historians see this lengthy essay as the starting point for women's calls for equality. Her work was inspired by Enlightenment ideas of equality and natural rights. Wollstonecraft advocated for the education of women and wrote that the sexes were not naturally unequal, but that society placed unequal burdens on them. The main burden for women was the lack of educational opportunities that kept them subservient (obedient) to men. (Fun fact: Wollstonecraft's daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein.)
Women's suffrage in Europe began at the local level in 1862 when Sweden granted voting rights to rural widows and spinsters, but not to married women. Finland followed suit in 1872 by allowing taxpaying women to vote. Other nations also allowed certain classes of women the right to vote in local elections including England, Wales and Scotland. However, women would have to wait until the early twentieth century before securing full voting rights throughout Europe.
One of the most well-known efforts during the suffrage movement was in the United Kingdom, where violent tactics were sometimes used to bring attention to the cause. In May 1929 after a century of organization, protests, petitions and arrests, Parliament voted to allow all women over the age of 21 the right to vote in general elections. This afforded women the same voting rights as men.
In France and Italy, women had to wait until the end of World War II for full suffrage. The women of Spain and Switzerland did not get the right to vote until 1971. Women in Liechtenstein had to wait even longer, with full voting rights secured in 1984. If you do the math, that's 91 years later than New Zealand. We weren't kidding when we said women's suffrage has an unusual chronology.
Region 3: Asia
The massive continent of Asia holds a wide variety of cultures. To understand the history of women's suffrage in an area so large, let's break it up geographically into three parts: Central Asia, East and Southeast Asia, and West Asia (also called the Middle East, from a European perspective).
Many Marxists believed that women's suffrage was needed in a socialist state, and indeed this right was granted toward the end of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Central Asian nations with ties to Russia did the same. Over the next 20 years other areas, even those Central Asian nations without ties to Russia, followed suit.
East and Southeast Asia
Nations in East and Southeast Asia gave women the right to vote at various times with Mongolia (1924) and then Thailand leading the way. The official year for universal suffrage in Thailand was 1932, but Thai women could vote in local elections as early as 1897. Women in China, Asia's largest and most populous nation, had to work to change the existing structures of government before the fight for suffrage could begin. When the new draft constitution for the Republic of China was written in 1936, it included universal suffrage. But then came Japan's 1937 invasion, World War II, and the Communist Revolution. Women would have to wait until 1947 to actually exercise their voting rights.
Speaking of Japan, Japanese women faced a similar fight. The country was ruled by an emperor until 1945, but the Meiji dynasty did allow for some reforms during their rule. When male suffrage became universal in 1925, Japanese women continued their fight to be included. However, in the following decades Japan's imperial conquests in Asia—and of course World War II—would overshadow the rights of women. Suffrage was finally granted to women at the end of 1945.
The last stop on the Southeast Asian leg of our tour is India. While women in the United Kingdom were granted full voting rights in 1928, British colonies such as India were another story. Indian men only had limited suffrage under British colonial rule, and a small percentage of women were allowed to vote in provincial regions. Opposition to women's suffrage came from both the British government and many Indian officials. These men argued that women did not have the knowledge to participate and that voting would erode traditional family values. But then India gained its independence from Britain, and the Constitution of India went into effect in 1950, with universal suffrage granted.
West Asia (also called the Middle East)
Women in the Middle East have fought the longest battle for suffrage and equal rights. Some majority Muslim nations extended suffrage rights from the 1950s to the 1970s including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen. However, other nations took much longer, and internal conflicts suspended the rights of many. For example, the Taliban eliminated women's suffrage in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Women in Iraq gained the right to vote in 1958, but could not exercise that right due to a sudden change of regime. Oman and Qatar allowed women to vote in 1997 and 1999, respectively, but in Bahrain it didn't happen until 2002. The last country to extend voting rights to women was Saudi Arabia, in December of 2015.
Region 4: North America
Now we journey to North America, where the suffrage movement began as part of a larger call for social justice reform led mostly by nineteenth-century women. In addition to voting rights, many women took to the streets for issues including religious reawakening; temperance (anti-alcohol); abolition of slavery; and educational, labor and legal reforms. As in the United Kingdom, the American suffrage movement was inspired by the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Enlightenment ideas of natural rights and equality.
Both American and Canadian women won the right to vote in 1920, although many women could already vote in state and provincial government elections. Only after World War I, when women's contributions to the war effort were recognized, did women gain voting rights. But it did not include all women. Indigenous American women were granted United States citizenship along with indigenous men in 1924, but restrictions at the state level meant that some men and women could not vote until 1948. In Canada, the indigenous population was excluded from full voting rights until 1960. While African American women legally won the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1920), many states restricted the voting rights of black men and women. The calculated use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses prevented most African Americans from even registering to vote. Those tactics were finally made illegal with the passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Sadly, as recently as the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, controversial policies have revived the argument that many minorities are still being denied full access to their voting rights.
Region 5: Latin America
Let's travel south. In Mexico, Central and South America, feminist and suffrage movements were part of a bigger story happening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The people in this region were fighting hard to form independent nation-states. Women in these areas first had to fight for freedom from colonial rule, and the right to even have national elections. That's why women's suffrage in this area came later than in others. (No spoilers, but this is going to sound familiar when we get to Africa.)
Uruguay (1927), Ecuador (1929), and Chile (1931) were among the first newly independent nations to grant women both access to higher education and suffrage. Brazil and Cuba (1943) followed with Guatemala and Venezuela (1946), Argentina (1947), and finally Chile and Costa Rica (1949) rounding out the first half of the twentieth century. Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay did not extend suffrage to women until the 1950s and early 1960s.
Many women who organized groups to fight for suffrage were from the upper classes of society and had often been educated abroad. But most women in Latin America also had to overcome discrimination based on the traditional roles they were expected to fulfill. Local culture and the Catholic Church made those traditional female roles difficult to change. As a result, women made the case for how suffrage would improve family life and strengthen the government of their newly independent nations. They drew on examples set by European and North American women. But at the same time, Latin Americans fighting for suffrage were not crazy about copying the same countries that had colonized and repressed them. Consequently, many women in Latin America took a more nationalistic and socialist view of equality and rights. They focused on the rights of workers, the ills of capitalism, and the need for social reforms. This contrasted with the more individualistic, personal efforts of Western women.
Region 6: Africa
The final stop on our tour is where humanity began. Prior to the "scramble for Africa" by imperialist nations, indigenous African women often held positions of political and economic power. Their roles in society were often viewed as complementary to men's. They were also seen as spiritual leaders, but their political role was often restricted. Many communities also practiced matrilineal descent in much the same way as some areas of Southeast Asia did. But then European powers began carving up the continent, and it all changed. Men were given the power to act politically through indirect rule. In the early twentieth century, women joined the resistance and nationalist movements for independence. They protested colonial governments while also requesting more rights for women. They formed organizations, wrote articles and lobbied the government for reforms.
While African women did call for universal suffrage, they first had to fight to establish independent states. Once colonialism was ended, the new right to vote was almost always extended to women at the same time as to men. In South Africa, white women were given the right to vote much sooner than black women due to the policy of apartheid in this country. Black women, therefore, did not achieve full suffrage until the end of apartheid in 1994. Even in the two countries that retained their independence in the "scramble for Africa"—Liberia and Ethiopia—women were not allowed to vote in elections until the mid-1950s.
There is no part of the world where the fight for women's suffrage could be called easy. Across societies, differences in culture as well as views of class and race gave an advantage to some women, and a disadvantage to others. In most nations, upper-class, educated women organized for voting rights first. They had time and resources that working-class women did not. Yes, the history of women's suffrage can seem pretty disjointed when you attempt to lay it out chronologically and geographically. But the goal was the same: women must be allowed to participate in their governments if they are to achieve equality. The social justice struggles that continue into the twenty-first century including equal pay, health rights, and access to education could only be fought once women gained the right to vote.
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.
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