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suffrage in europe in 1789
john stuart mill's speech to the house of commons on behalf of women's suffrage, 20 may 1867
suffrage expansion in britain
suffrage expansion in france
suffrage variations across nineteenth-century europe
women's suffrage
suffragists and suffragettes
the success of women's suffrage to 1914

Suffragism is the advocacy of extending the right to vote to a larger portion of the population. The term most often refers to the advocacy of women's right to vote.

suffrage in europe in 1789

The word suffrage was used to mean "the right to vote" in both English and French by the late Middle Ages, and variants such as "universal suffrage" appeared in Enlightenment tracts at least as early as 1765, but the term suffragism to describe the advocacy of spreading the right to vote did not appear in English until 1888, long after the first campaigns that it described.

john stuart mill's speech to the house of commons on behalf of women's suffrage, 20 may 1867

Mr. J. Stuart Mill: I rise, Sir, to propose an extension of the suffrage which can excite no party or class feeling in this House; which can give no umbrage to the keenest asserter of the claims of property or of members; an extension which has not the smallest tendency to disturb what we have heard so much about lately, the balance of political power, which cannot afflict the most timid alarmist with revolutionary terrors, or offend the most jealous democrat as an infringement of popular rights. There is nothing to distract our attention from the simple, whether there is any adequate justification for continuing to exclude an entire half of the community, not only from admission, but from the capability of being ever admitted within the pale of the Constitution, though they may fulfill all the conditions legally and constitutionally sufficient in every case but theirs. Sir, within the limits of our Constitution this is a solitary case. There is no other example of an exclusion which is absolute. If the law denied a vote to all but the possessors of £5,000 a year, the poorest man in the nation might—and now and then would—acquire the suffrage; but neither birth, nor fortune, nor merit, nor exertion, nor intellect, nor even that great disposer of human affairs, accident, can ever enable any woman to have her voice counted in those national affairs which touch her and hers as nearly as any other person in the nation….

Source: Hansard, British Parliamentary Debates, 20 May 1867 (vol. 187, pp. 817–818).

Although studies of the suffrage could cover such special instances as the electors of the Holy Roman Empire, the College of Cardinals, or diets in several states (the Icelandic Althing was founded in 960), the most noted instances of expansion of the right to vote in 1789 were in Great Britain (for the House of Commons) and in France (for the Estates General).

suffrage expansion in britain

In Britain the suffrage was restricted to men and was limited, on the basis of taxes paid, chiefly to freeholders (landowners), who paid forty shillings per year in taxes; in Ireland Catholics were excluded from voting. This limited the British franchise to fewer than 250,000 voters, or approximately 3 percent of the population. In France, voting for the Estates General in 1789 approached universal manhood suffrage, but most of the electorate (the 97 percent of the population in the Third Estate) voted indirectly, for representatives who later assembled to elect the delegates to the Estates General.

William Pitt the Elder (Lord Chatham) and his son, William Pitt the Younger, both called for electoral reform in the 1780s, and Charles Grey (later Earl Grey) spoke out vigorously in 1793, but anxieties of the revolutionary age delayed serious consideration for a generation.

Suffrage reforms that slowly expanded the right to vote became one of the dominant characteristics of British history in the nineteenth century. The Reform Act of 1832 expanded the franchise from an electorate of 435,000 to 653,000 by giving the ballot to householders with an annual lease of £10. The Reform Act of 1867 (also known as the Representation of the People Act) broadened the range of tax payments that earned a ballot, resulting in an electorate of nearly two million. A third Reform Act in 1884 brought the total number of eligible voters to 4.4 million in the general elections of 1886, in a total population of 27 million. Age, gender, tax payments, and status (especially for felons and the insane) still limited the vote.

The gradual pace of suffrage reform in Britain led to some of the strongest suffrage movements of the century. The most ardent British suffragists of the early nineteenth century were the members of the Chartist movement, whose democratic demands included universal manhood suffrage. The landmark statement of this suffragism was the Peopl's Charter, drafted by Feargus O'Connor and the members of the Working Men's Association in 1838.

suffrage expansion in france

The Constituent Assembly of the French Revolution narrowed the franchise rather than maintaining the remarkable electorate that voted for the Estates General. The Constitution of 1791, the first in French history, established the category of "active citizens" entitled to vote. It limited the suffrage to men at age twenty-five if they paid a tax equal to three days' work, had a record of residency in the same place, swore loyalty to the constitution (the serment civique), and were not domestic servants.

This restricted franchise led to demands from radicals that France adopt a democratic franchise, and the revolutionary constitution of the French Republic in 1793 (also known as the "Constitution of the Year I") established the target of "universal suffrage." This constitution explicitly excluded women by using the term homme for voters, but it reduced the age qualification to twenty-one and the residency requirement to six months, and eliminated property and tax-paying qualifications. This essentially created universal manhood suffrage, although the constitution was suspended before it could establish this suffrage.

For most of the nineteenth century France experienced a political battle over the suffrage. Conservative governments, such as the Directory in the constitution of 1795, restored property qualifications for the vote. The restored monarchy of the early nineteenth century imposed very severe restrictions. Louis XVIII's constitutional charter of 1814 granted the suffrage to men at age thirty if they paid 300 francs in taxes; it also restored the indirect franchise used for the Estates General by allowing people to vote for representatives in departmental electoral colleges that actually chose the deputies. King Charles X increased the tax payment required to vote. After the Revolution of 1830, King Louis-Philippe reduced both the tax payment and the age for voting (to twenty-five) but retained the principle of a severely restricted franchise.

The Constitution of the Second Republic, drafted by the revolutionary government of 1848, reiterated the principle of universal suffrage as a central doctrine of European republicanism, and France became the first European country to practice it. Article 24 of the constitution stated simply, "The suffrage is direct and universal. The ballot is secret." Article 25 defined its limits: "All Frenchmen in possession of their civil rights (i.e., excluding criminals) are electors, without any qualification of taxation, at age twenty-one."

Whereas the British Reform Act of 1832 had increased the franchise by 49 percent, the Constitution of the Second Republic increased it forty-fold. The Third Republic's constitutional laws of 1875 perpetuated this standard of universal manhood suffrage and the image of France as the leader in European democratization. The republic, whose two predecessors had fallen to military leaders, did introduce one noteworthy new restriction of the suffrage: noncommissioned officers and men were disenfranchised while serving in the army.

suffrage variations across nineteenth-century europe

The conflict between the doctrine of "universal" suffrage and the conservative principle of restricting the franchise characterized the battles of nineteenth-century suffragism. Although voting rights were expanded in many regions, conservatives typically prevented the adoption of effective universal suffrage. In Spain the century saw strife between a left that denounced monarchist absolutism and a right that feared republican anarchy; universal manhood suffrage was attempted only for the seven-year life of the Constitution of 1869. In the Netherlands, repeated demands for suffrage reform resulted in noteworthy reforms in 1887 and 1896, but these electoral laws fell far short of universal suffrage, allowing only seven hundred thousand to vote at the start of the twentieth century. The Danes promulgated a liberal constitution in 1849 and revised it in 1866, yet by 1914 still had not achieved universal manhood suffrage.

In Prussia conservatives developed a system, known as the "three-class suffrage," that promised universal suffrage yet subverted it. The Prussian electoral law of 1849 established universal manhood suffrage in elections to the Landtag, but it also divided voters into three classes, each class representing one-third of taxation of the total taxes collected. By this plutocratic version of universal suffrage, the few richest Prussians (who paid a third of the taxes) obtained an electoral weight far greater than the poorest (whose taxes totaled one-third); the weighted vote of the rich has been calculated at an electoral advantage of forty-one to two.

The Prussian response to suffragism was emulated by conservatives in other countries, often under the theory of "plural voting." Other German states directly copied the Prussian system (as Saxony did), but some countries developed elaborate variations. Belgium did not introduce universal manhood suffrage until 1893, and it came with a system of plural voting that gave multiple votes to some citizens on the basis of age, education, family size, and income. This idea of plural voting became the response of conservatives in some countries when women's suffrage became an issue: one conservative in France championed "familial suffrage," in which a husband or father would cast multiple votes for other members of his family.

Some conservative governments capitulated to the suffragist demand for universal suffrage by carefully limiting the effects of voting. Both Napoleon I and Napoleon III allowed universal suffrage in carefully controlled plebiscites that ratified government actions. The German chancellor Otto von Bismarck accepted universal manhood suffrage in elections for the lower house of both the North German Confederation (1867) and the German Empire (1871), but constructed a parliamentary system in which those elected could not control the government. Similar restraints limited the meaning of universal suffrage when adopted in Austria-Hungary (1907) and of the nearly universal suffrage employed to elect the First Duma in Russia (1906).

Universal suffrage was also criticized on the left for its failure to represent all opinions. The idea of a fairer franchise had been discussed as early as the debates in the French National Convention (1793), and it revived with a new respectability when John Stuart Mill advocated a system of proportional voting in which minorities would receive representation comparable to their share of the electorate. The utilitarianism system of proportional suffrage came to be known as "proportional representation" and it was championed by many democrats by the late nineteenth century. Forms of the proportional suffrage were adopted in several of the Swiss cantons in the second half of the century, then in elections at Hamburg in 1879, and for local contests in Serbia in 1888. 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.

women's suffrage

The widest use of the term suffragism in Europe before 1914 was to describe numerous movements for women's suffrage. The idea of the equal participation of women in civic affairs (droit de cité) had been proposed in 1787, on the eve of the French Revolution, by Marie-Jean de Caritat, marquis of Condorcet, but the male leaders of the revolutionary age showed no interest in the concept of women's suffrage. The revolution brought civil and political rights to Protestants (1791) and Jews (1791 and 1794), and to emancipated serfs and freed slaves (1789 and 1794), but explicitly denied equal rights to women, despite the active roles of women in the Revolution, from the cahiers de doléances through action in the streets.

Pioneering champions of women's rights in France (the term feminists was not coined until the end of the century) tried to convince the revolutionaries of 1848 to include women in "universal" suffrage. Leaders of women's clubs and press such as Eugénie Niboyet, Jeanne Deroin, and Pauline Roland tried tactics such as attempting to register to vote or running for office, to no avail. Deroin, who became the first French woman to run for office when she campaigned for the presidency of the Second Republic, wound up in jail, and the prominent male deputy who introduced women's suffrage in the revolutionary assembly, Victor Considerant, wound up in ridicule.

In Britain the Reform Act of 1832 expressly excluded women from voting. In 1866 Helen Taylor published an article calling for the enfranchisement of widows and spinsters, and British women soon petitioned Parliament to include equal rights in the coming reform of the suffrage. During the debate on the Reform Bill of 1867, John Stuart Mill asked the House of Commons to include women's suffrage on the same basis as men. Mill's amendment was defeated by a vote of 197–73 in a House of 658 members.

The refusal to grant women's suffrage in Britain and in France led to the growth of important suffragist movements in both countries in the late nineteenth century. Lydia Becker, Millicent Fawcett, and others soon created large and active suffrage movements in many of the cities of Britain, and in 1896 the seventeen largest of these societies agreed to join in forming a National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies under the leadership of Fawcett. By 1914 it had over five hundred member societies, and at one hundred thousand members it was by far the largest suffragist organization in Europe.

Suffragist societies were slower to develop in continental Europe, despite the historic role of France in proclaiming women's rights. Hubertine Auclert founded the first lasting women's suffrage organization in France, initially called Women's Rights and later called simply Women's Suffrage, in 1876. Despite her tireless campaigning, women's suffrage did not gain large-scale support until the founding of the French Union for Women's Suffrage (Union française pour le suffrage des femmes) by Jeanne Schmahl, Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger, and Cécile Brunschwicg in 1909; by 1914 it had

branches in seventy-five departments of France and twelve thousand members.

Other states were slow to develop suffragist campaigns. In Germany the women's rights movement preferred (as it had long done in France) to delay suffragism in order to concentrate on more moderate goals of civil rights, educational rights, and economic rights. Hedwig Dohm pressed for the vote, as Auclert had in France. Anita Augsburg, Marie Stritt, andother leaders agreed to join her in 1902 in founding the German Union for Women's Suffrage (Deutscher Verband für Frauenstimmrecht).

suffragists and suffragettes

In the early years of the twentieth century, suffragism turned toward greater militancy and even violence, especially in Britain. The foundation in 1903 of the Women's Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, provided the leadership for militant suffragists, who were soon branded "suffragettes" by the London press. The term was coined by the London Daily Mail, and it was intended to be a pejorative term, but militant suffragists embraced the name and applied it to one of their own publications. After 1905 some two thousand British suffragettes adopted a variety of violent tactics such as breaking shop windows, setting fire to (or flooding) postal boxes, tearing up the turf at golf courses, slashing famous paintings, and even arson. This did not win the vote, but as a consequence many women were imprisoned and treated to harsh forced feedings there when they attempted hunger strikes.

There were also suffragette demonstrations outside of England. In Ireland, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington led the Irish Women's Franchise League to emulate the WSPU after 1908; they broke windows in government buildings and set fire to the theater where the prime minister was scheduled to speak. In 1914 thirty-four Irish suffragettes were in prison. In France violence on behalf of women's suffrage was rarer. Auclert and Madeleine Pelletier both committed small acts of violence during the Parisian elections of 1908. Auclert broke into one poll and smashed the ballot box; Pelletier broke a window at another poll.

the success of women's suffrage to 1914

In 1906 Finland, which had won a large degree of autonomy from Russia after the Russian Revolution of 1905, became the first European state to grant women's suffrage in national elections. In 1913 Norway became the first independent country to do so. When World War I began in 1914, none of the Great Powers had extended the national vote to women. Britain had, however, extended the right to vote in local elections in 1869, and women won a number of notable victories there. Eleanor Rathbone was elected to the city council of Liverpool, where she pioneered the debate on welfare. And in 1912 a loophole in Austrian legislation (which explicitly denied women's right to vote but did not mention women's right to stand for office) allowed a Czech writer, Bozena Vikova-Kuneticka, to become the first woman elected to Parliament in one of the Great Powers.

See alsoAuclert, Hubertine; Chartism; Citizenship; Deroin, Jeanne; Fawcett, Millicent Garrett; Feminism; O'Connor, Feargus; Pankhurst, Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia; Pelletier, Madeleine; Roland, Pauline.


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Steven C. Hause