Suffrage Movements

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Conservative governments had generally resisted universal manhood suffrage during the nineteenth century, and consequently many of those governments were still chosen by limited manhood suffrage in 1914. France and Germany both practiced forms of universal suffrage, but Britain retained some limits on manhood suffrage (such as a residency requirement that disfranchised migrant workers). Societies as diverse as Spain, Italy, Belgium, Norway, and Denmark also practiced limited suffrage in 1914. Denmark and Italy only allowed the franchise at age thirty; Italy added a disqualification of illiterates who had not performed military service. Norway and Belgium excluded men under twenty-five plus paupers and bankrupts. The trend, however, was toward universal suffrage. Such traditionally autocratic governments as the Russian and Austrian empires had granted forms of universal suffrage—Russia in elections for the Duma in 1906, Austria in an electoral reform of 1907.

Social conservatives more firmly resisted democratic reforms such as women's suffrage and proportional representation. Few states had accepted these reforms before World War I. In 1906 Finland, an autonomous province after the Russian Revolution of 1905, became the first European state to grant women's suffrage in national elections. Norway became the first independent country to do so, in 1913. When the war began in 1914 none of the Great Powers had extended the national vote to women. Britain had, however, allowed the right to vote in local elections in 1869.

Women's suffrage movements existed in virtually all of Europe in 1914, actively campaigning in many countries. In England, Ireland, and France, "suffragettes" (such as the Pankhursts [Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia] in England and Hubertine Auclert in France) used violent tactics in their campaign to overcome male single-sex political systems. Tens of thousands of women had signed petitions or marched in demonstrations by 1914, and most expected victory within the near future.

Systems of voting in which minorities received representation comparable to their share of the electorate—typically called "proportional representation"—had achieved slightly more success by 1914. Belgium became the first state to adopt this form of the suffrage in 1899, and before 1914 variants were being used in the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, and Bulgaria—but not in the Great Powers, although it was being seriously considered in France.


The beginning of World War I in 1914 led many suffrage movements to suspend activities, but a few suffrage reforms were introduced during the war. Denmark granted a greater degree of universal suffrage in 1915, including women's suffrage; the Netherlands introduced universal suffrage with proportional representation in 1917; the Russian Revolution of 1917 produced (at least on paper) universal suffrage including women.

By 1920 it appeared that democracy had triumphed in most of Europe. The breakup of empires produced new constitutions, most of them granting universal suffrage, women's suffrage, and proportional representation. The constitution of Weimar Germany granted women the vote on the same basis as men and allowed a generous degree of proportional representation, which encouraged minority parties. Women's suffrage similarly arrived in new constitutions in Austria, Hungary, Ireland, and Poland in 1918 and then in Czechoslovakia in 1920. Belgian electoral laws of 1919 granted full manhood suffrage at age twenty-one and partial women's suffrage; the Dutch granted full women's suffrage in parallel laws. Italy introduced universal manhood suffrage with proportional representation that same year. The Swiss adopted proportional representation in 1919 but denied women the vote until late in the twentieth century.

The postwar record of the western European democracies was less democratic than the achievements in the new constitutions adopted in central Europe. The British adopted a new Representation of the People Act in 1918, with a greater measure of manhood suffrage and a first attempt at women's suffrage, but not granting full democracy. Men still faced a residency requirement (reduced to six months) and women were enfranchised only at age thirty. The French adopted proportional representation but rejected women's suffrage in 1922 when traditionalists in the French Senate rejected the women's suffrage bill that had passed the French Chamber of Deputies in 1919.

Militant suffragists protested in both Britain and France, but the postwar mood in both countries was conservative. British women disbanded their suffrage union (National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies) and the most prominent suffragette organization (Women's Social and Political Union), but they witnessed the gradual success of women in politics (eight women members of Parliament were elected in 1924), which would culminate in the government of the first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979. In France the postwar conservative government felt so strongly that it denied suffragists the right to hold protest marches. Militant suffragism revived in France when a new generation of women's rights advocates led by Louise Weiss emerged in the 1930s, but the French Senate continued to block women's suffrage by large margins.


Great Britain adopted equal women's suffrage at age twenty-one in the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, but the 1930s saw democratic successes reversed in many countries. Truly universal suffrage, including women's suffrage, did not become the rule in Europe until after World War II. French women obtained the vote from Charles de Gaulle's government in exile in 1944; German and Italian women obtained it in postwar constitutions; Belgian women won equal suffrage in 1948. A few small states and autocracies remained bastions of masculine privilege into the late twentieth century. Monaco granted women the vote in 1962, Switzerland in 1971; Spain and Portugal democratized in the 1970s following the death of General Francisco Franco.

Proportional representation similarly became the standard of suffrage in Europe, encouraging the emergence of new political movements such as the Green Party and regional parties. By the start of the twenty-first century, proportional representation became the standard for the European Union's elections, and in national elections only England practiced universal suffrage in the American style (the Scots and the Welsh both adopted proportional representation for their assemblies). And, in a final victory of suffragism, most European states granted the vote at age eighteen, as Britain did in the Representation of the People Act of 1969.

See alsoCitizenship; Feminism; Minority Rights.


Daley, Caroline, and Melanie Nolan, eds. Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives. New York, 1994.

Joannou, Maraoula, and June Purvis, eds. The Women's Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives. Manchester, U.K., 1998.

Lijphart, Arend. Electoral Systems and Party Systems: A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945–1990. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

Pugh, Martin. Women and the Women's Movement in Britain, 1914–1959. London, 1994.

Smith, Paul. Feminism and the Third Republic: Women's Political and Civil Rights in France, 1918–1945. Oxford, U.K. 1996.

Steven C. Hause

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Suffrage Movements

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