An International Record of Women’s Suffrage

Iceland Suffrage 1

International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March each year, took place yesterday. To mark its passing, I thought I would look at some of the dates and backgrounds pertaining to when women first attained the right to vote. I have touched briefly on this subject in a couple of previous pieces: depicting a cultural history of Crimea; and viewing a history of twentieth century Swedish general elections in the immediate context of the 2014 Swedish general election results. More, the subject was raised last weekend in a wonderfully engaging and informative piece written by Konul Khalilova for the BBC, on the Azerbaijan satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin.

As Khalilova’s piece indicates, the processes contributing to women’s suffrage were multifaceted and wide ranging, and led to women gaining the right to vote in specific countries at times which may eschew our expectations. For instance, while much of northern and central Europe saw women gain the right to vote between the middle of the 1910s and 1920s, in France and Italy women could not vote before, respectively, 1944 and 1946. In Greece suffrage was only legalised for women in 1954. In Switzerland, women were not afforded the right to vote until 1971; and in Liechtenstein, remarkably not until a referendum passed in 1984.

Small groups of women had gained the right to vote at moments before the turn of the twentieth century. During Sweden’s Age of Liberty, which lasted between 1718 and 1772 – as the Swedish monarch was reduced to serving as little more than a figurehead, with power vested in the Riksdag of the Estates – suffrage was extended to those peasants, including women, who possessed taxable property. This right allowing a small minority of Swedish women to vote was abolished when Gustav III restored an autocratic monarchy and produced the Constitution of 1772. In a similar vein, between 1776 and 1807, the constitution of New Jersey provided the vote to women owning a significant amount of property.

But the first country to grant women an unqualified right to vote in parliamentary elections was New Zealand. The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 made New Zealand a self-governing colony of the British Empire. Spurred by local campaigners, including Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – founded in Ohio at the end of 1873, and soon growing to incorporate state chapters throughout the United States, plus branches in Canada and Australia as well as New Zealand – from the late 1870s several proposed amendments and new bills endeavoured to extend suffrage to New Zealand’s women. Finally, after a successful petition earlier in the year, an electoral bill affording women the vote was narrowly passed on 19 September, 1893. All women over the legal age of twenty-one – including the Māori, the Polynesian people indigenous to New Zealand – were able to vote in the general election held towards the end of that year.

New Zealand Postcard
An Artists’ Suffrage League postcard of 1910 illustrating the example on women’s suffrage set by New Zealand – which in 1893 became the first country to afford women the right to vote.

On 1 January, 1901, the six self-governing British colonies of Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania came together – after years of preparation – to form the Commonwealth of Australia. New Zealand and Fiji had opted not to join the federation. In South Australia, women had been able to vote in local elections since 1861, and in parliamentary elections since 1894; and Western Australia followed this lead in 1899. Then in 1902, the Commonwealth Franchise Act extended the right to vote to women across the newly formed country. In one way, the act went further than the example set by New Zealand: women could not only vote, but also stand for election in parliament. In New Zealand, women could not seek election to the House of Representatives before 1919. However, the right to vote in Australia did not encompass indigenous people, with this restriction not fully lifted until 1962.

It was a similar scenario in Canada. Women’s voting rights in the country were advanced by the National Council of Women of Canada, founded in Toronto in 1893 with Lady Aberdeen its first president; and as in New Zealand, there was a strong link between the suffragist and temperance movements. In 1917, the Wartime Elections Act afforded the right to vote to spouses and female relatives of serving men. The following year, on 24 May, 1918, a bill extended the right to vote at the federal level to all Canadian women – provided they met property-holding requirements which persisted in some of the provinces. Voting rights at the provincial level extended across the country from Manitoba in 1916 to Newfoundland in 1925 and, finally, Quebec in 1940. But Aboriginal women were not given the vote until 1960.

In Europe, Finland was the first country to see women achieve the right to vote. At the time the country was the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. The region had been a full part of Sweden for around six-hundred years when – after more than a century of warfare between Sweden and Russia, and increasing aspirations among the nobility for an autonomous status – it switched hands in 1809 following the Finnish War. As a consequence of the war’s outcome, King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden was forced to abdicate, which restored power to the Riksdag. The Swedish Constitution of 1772 was replaced by the 1809 Instrument of Government – itself amended by the following year’s Act of Succession.

The newly autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, however, despite being part of the Russian Empire, continued to be defined politically by the Constitution of 1772. This meant that the Finnish peasantry retained rights not enjoyed by the majority of their counterparts across the Russian Empire. The 1860s saw a burgeoning independence movement in the Grand Duchy, and women with a specified amount of property became entitled to vote at the municipal level. After the Revolution of 1905 – which in Russia led to the establishment of the State Duma, and expressed itself in Finland through a general strike and demands for reform – 1906 brought the new Parliament of Finland and universal suffrage. As women were also permitted to stand for election to parliament, and there were no restrictions on the basis of race or property, Finland was the first country in which women won full electoral rights. Some of this progress was challenged prior to 1917, as the Russian Empire increasingly sought the ‘Russification’ of Finland.

Thirteen of the nineteen women to be elected to the Finnish parliament in 1907: the first women MPs in the world.

Norway was next to extend suffrage to women, which it did in 1913 after a process driven significantly by Gina Krog and the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights. Similarly in Denmark, women first attained the right to vote in municipal elections in 1908, before acquiring the full right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1915. At this time, Iceland was still struggling towards independence from Denmark. It had been granted a constitution and limited home rule in 1874; before home rule was consolidated in 1904.

The campaign for women’s suffrage in Iceland centred upon Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir. Bríet published Kvennablaðið (‘The Women’s Magazine‘); and after attending a conference held by the International Woman Suffrage Alliance – a leading organisation in the suffrage movement, founded in Berlin in 1904 by feminists including Carrie Chapman Catt and Millicent Fawcett – in Copenhagen in 1906, she formed the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association in January of the following year. Like in New Zealand and Canada, suffrage and temperance movements coincided, with a referendum in 1908 – voted on only by men, but supported by many women – leading to a ban on all alcohol in Iceland from 1915. From 1911, bills were debated in the Icelandic parliament on extending the right to vote in parliamentary elections to women on a staggered basis. The bill which was ultimately passed in 1913, and was ratified in 1915 by Denmark, gave the vote to women over the age of forty. Iceland was unique in limiting suffrage by age in this way. The Act of Union signed on 1 December, 1918, made Iceland a fully sovereign state in a personal union with the Danish King; and as part of this agreement, in 1920 the franchise age limit was lifted.

Rounding out the picture across Scandinavia, in Sweden unmarried tax-paying women had been allowed to vote in municipal elections from 1862. In 1906 this right was extended to married women; and from 1909 women were eligible to stand for election to municipal councils. But full suffrage was repeatedly voted down in the Riksdag before being introduced prior to the general election of 1921. The election – called only a year after the previous general election, in order to recognise the introduction of universal suffrage – granted all men and women over the age of twenty-three the right to vote.

Aside from the International Women Suffrage Alliance (which changed its name to the International Alliance of Women in 1946) and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the cause of women’s suffrage was supported through the socialist movement which characterised the early years of the twentieth century. In fact, International Women’s Day started out as an explicitly socialist event. The first National Woman’s Day was observed on 28 February, 1909, in New York City, organised by the Socialist Party of America as a means of protesting women’s working conditions.

The period of the Socialist Second International (which dated from 1889 to 1916) saw several International Socialist Women’s Conferences. The conference held in Copenhagen in 1910 established, at the instigation of Clara Zetkin, a fixed International Women’s Day – although the date of its celebration fluctuated over the next few years between the end of February and the middle of March, until settling on 8 March. Then in 1917, as the Russian Empire disintegrated amid political breakdown hastened by World War I, the February Revolution emerged out of protests marking International Women’s Day. The February Revolution centred on Saint Petersburg – still the imperial capital, but rechristened Petrograd at the beginning of the war. As women protesting in the capital on International Women’s Day increasingly drew the support of other workers, then students and teachers, rioting broke out and by the end of a week of angry demonstrations, Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated.

Protests to mark International Women’s Day in Saint Petersburg in 1917 impelled the February Revolution, which brought about the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the fall of the Russian Empire.

Women had, for instance, played a prominent role throughout the Paris Commune, which governed Paris from 18 March to 28 May, 1871 – but the Paris Commune never afforded women the right to vote. The Provisional Government which formed in Russia under Alexander Kerensky, however, extended the vote to women in July 1917. Women also gained equality in the civil service; and they kept these rights once the Bolsheviks came to power, gaining marriage equality in October 1918 via the Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship.

The fall of the Russian Empire encouraged nationalist movements on the peripheries of the empire to declare independence. Azerbaijan joined with Armenia and Georgia to form the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, but this lasted for only three months, before in May 1918 Azerbaijan became independent as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. This was the first democratic, modern parliamentary and secular republic in the Muslim world. Developing a mindset which was shared by the writers of Molla Nasreddin, the leaders of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic founded Baku Statu University; and they extended suffrage to women, making Azerbaijan the first Muslim country to grant women equal political rights.

At the same time the political climate and the reformulation of states upon the end of World War I saw a majority of countries in central Europe embrace women’s suffrage. Women attained the right to vote in 1918 in Germany, Austria, and Hungary; in a reconstituted Poland – which before its final partition in 1795 had afforded some political rights to taxpaying women; in the Baltic States of Estonia and Latvia; and in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The Netherlands and Luxembourg followed a year later, as did Ukraine and Belarus – and women in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine, and later Estonia and Latvia, retained their voting rights when they came under Soviet control.

A 1909 cartoon from Azerbaijan’s Molla Nasreddin, critical of contemporary attitudes towards women. In the top panel, a father welcomes the birth of a son; while in the bottom panel, he responds to the birth of a girl.

In South America, while early suffrage movements formed especially in Argentina, but also in Uruguay and Chile – and the First International Feminine Congress was held in Buenos Aires in 1910 – Ecuador, in 1929, was the first country which afforded women the vote. This was followed by Uruguay and Brazil in 1932. In Asia, British Ceylon – today’s Sri Lanka – in 1931 was the first to give women the right to vote, followed by the Philippines in 1937, and all of Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, and briefly China, in 1947. Meanwhile in Africa, white women were entitled to vote in Southern Rhodesia – a self-governing British colony which preceded Zimbabwe – from 1919; while the Women’s Enfranchisement Act of 1930 in South Africa afforded the same opportunity to white South African women. In both cases these measures served equally to undermine the limited voting power afforded to a minority of blacks.

When women in the United Kingdom finally achieved the right to vote in 1918 – following decades of campaigning by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and crucially by Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, founded in 1903 and staging militant demonstrations throughout the early 1910s – the Representation of the People Act signed on 6 February only offered it to those over the age of thirty. It was ten years before a new act gave women full equality with men, extending the vote to all women over the age of twenty-one.

In the United States, women had been granted voting rights in Wyoming Territory in 1869; in Utah the following year; then in Colorado in 1893; and Idaho in 1896. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had helped to organise the Seneca Falls Convention, considered the first convention on women’s rights; and four years later she joined with Susan B. Anthony to initiate the New York Women’s State Temperance Society. Seventeen years later, in May 1869 – with the American Civil War having intervened – Stanton and Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Their explicit aim was to secure the vote for women; but they soon found themselves engaged in a sometimes bitter rivalry with Lucy Stone’s American Woman Suffrage Association, established that November.

Stone’s organisation was formed with the immediate intent to help secure the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which was to prohibit any person being denied the vote on the grounds of race, thereby extending suffrage to African Americans. In this context, for Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association, women’s suffrage took a temporary backseat. Any attempt to link racial and gender equality was perceived as a risk to securing, in principle, the right to vote across races. The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified on 3 February, 1870.

A group of Silent Sentinels, organised by Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, protesting for women’s suffrage outside the White House.

In May 1890 the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association joined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by Anthony. In 1900, she stepped down, and Carrie Chapman Catt took her place for four years before departing to help found the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. Catt would resume the leadership of the NAWSA in 1915; but the next year, Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party broke away and began taking more militant action in Washington, picketing outside the White House.

After such a long and hard-fought process, President Woodrow Wilson changed his stance on the issue and from the beginning of 1918 advocated strongly for women’s suffrage. The Nineteenth Amendment – prohibiting any person being denied the right to vote on the grounds of sex, therefore giving women the vote – passed in the House of Representatives on 21 May, 1919, and in the Senate on 4 June. Thirty-six Republican senators and twenty Democrats voted for the amendment, with eight Republicans and seventeen Democrats voting against. Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was completed on 18 August, 1920.