Voting rights

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


This entry includes 5 subentries:
Exclusion from the Suffrage
Colonial Suffrage
African American Suffrage
Woman's Suffrage


Suffrage, the right to vote on public matters, predates American history by several thousand years. Since the founding of the American colonies, definition of the breadth of suffrage has reflected a tension between the desire to legitimize political authority by permitting expressions of consent through public acts of voting and the desires and demands of various groups and individuals for public recognition and the opportunity to participate in the selection of political representatives and governmental policies. No clearer and more distinctly American example of this tension can be offered than the election of the first legislative assembly in the colony of Virginia in 1619. Nine days before the scheduled election of this representative assembly, "the Polonians resident in Virginia" successfully protested their exclusion from the upcoming election until it was agreed "that they shall be enfranchised, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever."

Since 1776 the political definition of the right to vote has been contested principally over the conceptual boundary dividing eligible and ineligible voters. Until the twentieth century, state governments were largely responsible for the determination of this boundary, although local election officials participated in the enforcement and not uncommonly capricious interpretation of this legal definition. From the early national years to the Civil War, states were free to deny the right to vote with regard to a wide range of conditions, including gender, religion, race and ethnicity, citizenship, residency, tax status, wealth, literacy, mental competence, criminal conviction, and military service. States imposed and then abandoned many of these restrictions. Several states, however, never sanctioned religious or racial restrictions, and New Jersey granted women the right to vote from 1776 until 1807. Only three groups have consistently been deemed ineligible to vote: enslaved persons until 1865, and minors and nonresidents to the present.

The U.S. Constitution also has contributed to the definition of the right to vote. Article 1 requires that those deemed eligible to vote for members of a lower state legislative body are eligible to vote for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Seventeenth Amendment (1913) extends this requirement to U.S. Senate elections. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) offers an incentive for states to expand their voter rolls by promising to reduce a state's representation in the U.S. House and the Electoral College in proportion to the number of male citizens over twenty-one years whose voting rights are denied or abridged. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have never enforced this constitutional provision. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibits states from denying any citizen the right to vote "on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude." This provision, however, was not enforced nationally until Congress enacted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) prohibits the United States or the states from denying or abridging the privilege of voting "on account of sex." The Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) prohibits states from collecting poll taxes from voters in presidential elections, and the Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) lowers the minimum voting age to eighteen years.

Although great advances have been made to broaden the suffrage by expanding and enforcing the concept of voter eligibility, the history of voting in the United States still is overshadowed by the history of nonvoting. Indeed, whereas less than 20 percent of the population participated in national and state elections prior to 1920, the level of voter participation has exceeded 40 percent of the U.S. population only once, in 1992. Moreover, barely over half of all eligible voters vote in presidential election years and substantially less than this vote in nonpresidential election years.


Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Kromkowski, Charles. Recreating the American Republic: Rules of Apportionment, Constitutional Change, and American Political Development, 1700–1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Charles A.Kromkowski

See alsoVoting Rights Act of 1965 .

Exclusion from the Suffrage

It is generally estimated that because of state property and taxpaying qualifications, fewer than one-fourth of all white adult males were eligible to vote in 1787–1789, the time the U.S. Constitution was being ratified. The history of the suffrage in the United States since then has been one of steady expansion, partly through constitutional amendments and partly through legislation. The states largely abandoned the property qualifications for voting by 1850. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, forbade

denial of the right to vote "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The Nineteenth Amendment, which was adopted in 1920, prohibited denial of the right to vote on account of sex. The poll tax was outlawed for federal elections by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment and for state elections by the Supreme Court decision in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971, lowered the age limit for all federal and state voting to eighteen. Various obstacles to African American suffrage were progressively eliminated by Supreme Court decisions—for example, the white primary in 1944 (Smith v. Allwright) and the "reasonable interpretation" of the Constitution test in 1965 (Louisiana v. United States)—and by federal legislation, notably the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed literacy, educational, "good character," and voucher devices aimed at keeping black suffrage to a minimum. Thus, by 1972, all persons over eighteen, of whatever sex, color, or race, were legally entitled to vote. The remaining obstacles to voting were largely administrative in character and related to such matters as registration procedures and the times, places, and manner of holding elections.


Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Mann, Robert. The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

Phillips, Kevin, and Paul H. Blackman. Electoral Reform and Voter Participation: Federal Registration, a False Remedy for Voter Apathy. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1975.

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1990.

Williamson, Chilton. American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy, 1760–1860. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960.

DavidFellman/t. g.

See alsoBallot ; Literacy Test ; Massachusetts Ballot ; Preferential Voting ; Primary, White ; Suffrage: Colonial Suffrage ; Wade-Davis Bill .

Colonial Suffrage

Neither the extent nor the exercise of suffrage in colonial America can be described precisely. Voting qualifications were fixed by each colony, and in many, the requirements were changed during the colonial period. The generally accepted philosophy was the English concept that only those with "a stake in society" should vote. Each colony established some property qualification for voting for the lower house of the provincial legislature, and in each colony the upper house was almost always appointed.

The definition of freeholder in the colonies varied from colony to colony. In New York, a freehold was an estate worth forty British pounds or bearing forty shillings rent; other colonies fixed acreage rather than money definitions for the term "freehold": one hundred acres in New Jersey; fifty acres in the Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Many colonies had alternatives to landholding as a suffrage qualification, usually the possession of other property but sometimes mere taxpaying. An added complication was the numerous separate qualifications established for dwellers in towns and boroughs, usually lower and more liberal than the general provincial franchise. Virginia town dwellers could vote by virtue of possession of a house and lot, and in North Carolina, all taxpaying tenants and homeowners in towns and boroughs were voters. New England town qualifications were bewilderingly varied, the net effect being to admit virtually all the adult male inhabitants to the franchise.

Limitations of race, sex, age, and residence were more often the result of custom than of law. Generally, Jews and Roman Catholics were barred, usually by their inability to take the English test oaths with regard to the Anglican Church. Maryland and New York specifically barred Catholics by statute, and New York excluded Jews by law in 1737. These prohibitions were not always enforced. Jews appear on New York City voting lists in 1768 and 1769, and Catholics voted in Virginia in 1741 and 1751. Women were excluded by statute only in four colonies, but there is rare evidence that any ever voted anywhere. The age qualification was almost universally twenty-one, but in Massachusetts, suffrage was confined to twenty-four-year-olds in the seventeenth century and sometimes extended to nineteen-year-olds in the eighteenth century. Pennsylvania's two-year residence requirement was the most stringent; other colonies usually demanded six months or a year. Slaves and indentured servants were invariably denied the franchise, and in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia, freed blacks as well. Indians did vote at times in Massachusetts.

The number of adult males who qualified as voters under these requirements can only be estimated. Probably 50 to 75 percent of the adult male population could qualify as freeholders, and in some colonies up to 80 or 90 percent as freeholders or freemen. The relative ease of obtaining land in America and the high rate of wages opened the door fairly wide to those persons who sought the franchise. Suffrage limitations do not appear to have been a grievance in any of the popular protest movements that developed during the colonial period. On the other hand, this rather broadly based electorate usually voted into office a narrowly based leadership and deferred to its judgment in running the colonies' political affairs.


Bailyn, Bernard. The Origins of American Politics. New York: Knopf, 1968.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Williamson, Chilton. American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy, 1760–1860. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf. 1992.

Milton M.Klein/a. g.

See alsoBallot ; Literacy Test ; Massachusetts Ballot ; Preferential Voting ; Primary, White ; Suffrage: Exclusion from the Suffrage .

African American Suffrage

Throughout the American colonial era, racial distinctions were not the principal legal or conventional means employed to restrict the right to vote or to hold office. The concepts of "freeman" and "freeholder," as well as gender, age, religion, and wealth requirements, ensured that the number of individuals eligible to vote remained small relative to the population. Among those eligible, however, adult African American male propertyholders were permitted to and did cast ballots in at least South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. In the eighteenth century, a few colonies devised and adopted race-based restrictions, but the right to vote in other colonies remained free of similar limitations.

The American Revolution did not prompt a radical redefinition of the right to vote. In 1786, only two of the original thirteen states, Georgia and South Carolina, expressly restricted voting privileges to the eligible white population. The U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, recognized the authority of the states to define the right to vote. Between 1776 and 1860, about one-third of the states permitted voting by free African American adult males. Race-based voter eligibility restrictions became increasingly more common in the nineteenth century, especially among the states admitted into the Union after 1787. Among the twenty non-original states added before the American Civil War, only Vermont, Maine, and temporarily Kentucky (1792–1799) and Tennessee (1796–1834) did not explicitly limit voting rights to "free," "white" males.

Ironically, as states gradually broadened their electorates by abandoning their original property, tax payment, and religion requirements, many added explicitly racialist definitions of the right to vote into their state constitutions. The 1858 Oregon constitution, for example, expressly prescribed that "No Negro, Chinaman, or mulatto, shall have the right of suffrage." By 1860, free African American adult males were legally able to vote in only five states. A sixth state, New York, imposed racially based registration and property restrictions in 1811 and 1821, effectively curtailing African American voting. In 1849, Wisconsin voters approved a legislature-endorsed act extending the right to vote to African American males, but a state elections board refused to recognize the new eligibility standard; as a result, this statutory grant did not become effective until after the Civil War. Although formidable, constitutional, statutory, and administrative bars against voting were not always fully enforced, especially at the local level. Indeed African Americans voted in Maryland as late as 1810, although they were denied the right in a 1783 statute and again by an amendment in 1801 to the state constitution; and John Mercer Langston, though denied voting rights by Ohio's constitution, was elected a township clerk in 1855, thereby becoming the first African American elected official in the United States.


Neither the Civil War nor ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which banned slavery, altered the racially discriminatory prewar understanding of the right to vote. In the South, this recalcitrance was not surprising; until the federal government imposed military rule over the region in 1867, these states were governed by many of the proslavery state political elites who had engineered and supported secession in 1860 and 1861. Suffrage reform, it must be noted, also was not forthcoming in many Northern states. In the immediate wake of the Civil War, legislatures and voters in nine Northern states rejected state constitutional amendments that extended voting rights to African Americans. Abolitionist activists like Frederick Douglass and members of the Republican controlled U.S. Congress, however, continued to push for national suffrage reform, advocating and enacting numerous Reconstruction acts and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868). The latter constitutional amendment recognized African Americans as full citizens of the United States, guaranteed all persons equal protection of the law, and provided a mechanism for reducing a state's federal representation if it denied or abridged voting rights to any eligible male voters. Congress never used the latter mechanism, but it made ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment a precondition for readmission of each secessionist

state into Congress. Under the leadership of the Republicans, Congress additionally enacted the Fifteenth Amendment. Ratified in 1870, this amendment barred states from denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, and it empowered Congress with the legislative authority to enforce this amendment.

The federal government's Reconstruction program and commitment to African American voting rights supported dramatic changes in the states that had been placed under military rule. By 1868, more than 800,000 African Americans had registered to vote as did approximately 660,000 eligible white voters. In addition to exercising their newly acquired right to vote, African American males also participated in political party and state constitutional conventions, and as elected and appointed state and local government officials. Between 1869 and 1901, twenty African Americans also served as U.S. Representatives and Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram R. Revels represented Mississippi as the first and only African American U.S. senators until Edward Brooke represented Massachusetts in the Senate from 1967 until 1979.

These electoral reforms and political achievements, however, were repeatedly resisted, tempered, and eventually overcome by the organized violence, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud tactics employed by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and their various political supporters. In Louisiana alone, more than 2,000 were killed or injured before the 1868 presidential election. The same year in Georgia, white legislators gained control over the state legislature by fraudulently expelling thirty legally elected African American state legislators. Congress responded to these and similar events, compiling testimony from the individuals affected, proposing the Fifteenth Amendment, and enacting additional enforcement legislation in 1870, 1871, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Resistance to African American suffrage continued in the South, becoming politically acceptable and increasingly invidious with each success. The federal government's role in the Reconstruction of the South also decreased after the contested 1876 presidential election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and the subsequent withdrawal of federal supervision and military protection of the right to vote. Over the next four decades, southern state legislatures, governors, judiciaries, and numerous local governments systematically enacted and supported segregationist policies and electoral devices designed to accomplish under the cover of law what the Fifteenth Amendment expressly prohibited. These devices included locally administered registration laws; literacy, understanding of the Constitution, and character tests; cumulative poll taxes; criminal disenfranchisements; white party primary elections; closed political party membership rules; racially skewed redistricting plans; and so-called grandfather clauses, which effectively exempted some white voters from state voter restrictions. As a result of these exclusionary devices and practices, the number and political weight of African American voters declined substantially in every Southern state and the region fell under the one-party political domination of the Democratic Party. As Figure 1 reveals, the exclusion of African Americans from the electorate and the concomitant loss of party competition throughout the South depressed voter turnout from the 1870s to 1919.

The Twentieth Century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, civil rights activists like W. E. B. Du Bois and civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established in 1909, initiated and sustained more organized private efforts to protect and to restore African American civil rights. Many of the initial successes of these efforts were achieved in litigation that challenged the constitutionality of state voting restrictions. In Guinn and Beal v. United States (1915), for example, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma literacy tests but found the state's grandfather clause to be an unconstitutional attempt to evade the Fifteenth Amendment. In Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932), the Court determined that all-white primary systems were unconstitutional if they were authorized by state action. Subsequently, in U.S. v. Classic (1941) and Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Supreme Court ruled against the constitutionality of all-white primary elections. In Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), the Court furthered the dismantling of state-supported disfranchisement schemes when it struck down a local Alabama redistricting plan that intentionally discriminated against African Americans.

Many factors, including long-term emigration patterns and the immediate need to desegregate the U.S. military during World War II, renewed congressional interest in civil and voting rights reform in the 1940s. In 1942, Congress exempted U.S. soldiers from state voter poll taxes, but state senators in the South repeatedly rejected or filibustered legislative efforts to broaden civil rights guarantees over the next two decades. Despite the setbacks in Congress, civil rights and voting rights reformers pursued their goals by mobilizing and orchestrating public protests and demonstrations throughout the South. Finally, in 1957 and 1960, Congress managed to enact two new Civil Rights Acts. The legislation created the United States Civil Rights Commission and authorized litigation by the U.S. Attorney General against voting rights violations. The Commission proved especially useful because it gathered and reported statistics that detailed the extent to which African Americans remained excluded from participating in U.S. elections. In 1962, Congress responded by endorsing the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which, when ratified two years later, banned state poll taxes required for voting in federal elections. Civil rights demonstrations and voter registration drives continued throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, although they often were met with local and sometimes lethal levels of violence. In 1964, Congress enacted a more expansive and enforceable Civil Rights Act, and in the aftermath of nationally televised attacks against a peaceful civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress approved the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The act banned literacy tests and other racially discriminatory devices, and it guaranteed direct federal supervision of voter registration, voting procedures, and elections in seven southern states and several non-southern states as well. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act and extended the ban on poll taxes to state elections.

Congress amended and extended the protections of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, 1975, and 1982. In the states and jurisdictions covered by the act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its amendments had immediate and lasting effects upon African American voter registration, electoral participation, and political office holding. In Mississippi, for example, the voting age percentage of the nonwhite population registered to vote increased from 6.7 to 59.8 percent between 1965 and 1967. Today African Americans register and vote at rates approximately similar to other ethnic groups. Federal protection of African American voting rights also has supported increases in the number of African American elected officials. In 1967, more than 200 African Americans were elected to state and local offices in southern states—twice the number elected before the act. Today, there are thirty-eight African American members of Congress, almost 600 African American state legislators, and more than 8,400 locally elected officials.


Davidson, Chandler, and Bernard Grofman, eds. Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965–1990. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Goldman, Robert M. Reconstruction and Black Suffrage: Losing the Vote in Reese and Cruikshank. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Kousser, J. Morgan. Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Kromkowski, Charles. Recreating the American Republic: Rules of Apportionment, Constitutional Change, and American Political Development, 1700–1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Charles A.Kromkowski

See alsoCivil Rights Act of 1957 ; Civil Rights Act of 1964 ; Civil Rights Movement ; Reconstruction ; Voting Rights Act of 1965 andvol. 9:An Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer .

Woman's Suffrage

The history of woman's suffrage in America begins with a seventeenth-century businesswoman, Margaret Brent. Brent, a Catholic immigrant to the colony of Maryland, was a property owner and the executrix and attorney of the estate of the Maryland governor Leonard Calvert. In 1648, Brent demanded the right to two votes in the Maryland General Assembly. The first vote she claimed for herself, the second as the legal representative of the extensive Calvert estate. At the time, the colony faced political uncertainty caused by financial problems and a considerable amount of religious strife, and the General Assembly denied her claim to both votes. Brent protested her exclusion and the subsequent proceedings of the assembly, and she soon moved and settled permanently in Virginia. Although Brent's original bid for voting rights failed, women voted in several eighteenth-century colonial elections. The available evidence suggests that all of these women were widowed property owners.

Voting Rights from the Revolution to Reconstruction

After 1776, a larger but still comparatively small number of women voted more regularly in New Jersey elections until 1807, when the state amended its constitution to expressly prohibit woman's suffrage. Thereafter and with few exceptions until 1869, American women were barred from voting in all federal, state, and local elections. One noteworthy local exception to this exclusionary past was Kentucky's 1838 grant permitting voting privileges in school board elections to all propertied widows with school-age children.

Efforts to gain the right to vote for American women advanced in 1848 with the calling of a convention to meet in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss the "social, civil and religious rights of women." Organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others, and inspired by the abolitionist movement and the ideals of Quakerism and the Declaration of Independence, more than three hundred women and men attended. The Seneca Falls Convention included numerous speeches and Stanton and Mott's famous "Declaration of Sentiments," which proclaimed "that all men and women are created equal." Participants also resolved "it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." Similar conventions were held in the 1850s, promoting greater public awareness and a network of suffrage advocates and supporters. Still women's suffragists had limited political success before the outbreak of the Civil War. In fact, only Michigan in 1855 and Kansas in 1861 extended school board election voting rights to women, and the Kansas Supreme Court voided the latter right in 1875.

The end of the war and the concomitant need for fundamental changes in the United States and many state

constitutions created opportunities for many types of social, economic, and political change. Woman's suffragists lobbied members of Congress, state legislators, Republican party leaders, and abolitionist groups with the hope of garnering support for their cause. Despite these efforts, neither Congress nor the others advocated extending voting rights to women in any of the Reconstruction amendments proposed and subsequently added to the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) explicitly recognizes the power of states to deny the right to vote to "male inhabitants," a gender-specific description of voting rights not found in the original Constitution that must have discouraged woman's suffragists and intensified their subsequent lobbying efforts in Congress. Interestingly, the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) employed gender-neutral language, barring state denial or abridgment of "the right of citizens of the United States to vote" based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude—thus leaving open the possibility for future state extensions of the right to vote to women.

Woman's Suffrage Organizations

Failure to achieve support in Congress for a constitutional right to vote divided woman's suffrage activists for the next twenty years. In 1869, Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others established the National Woman's Suffrage Association (NWSA). Unsatisfied with the results of their initial lobbying efforts, Stanton, Anthony, and the NWSA withheld support for the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, thereby severing themselves from other suffragists as well as many of their former abolitionist and Republican allies. Under the leadership of Stanton and Anthony, the NWSA continued to work for a national constitutional amendment, focusing most of the energies and talents of the organization upon lobbying the United States Congress. These organizational investments, however, yielded both mixed and modest results. For example, between 1869 and 1888 members of Congress submitted eighteen constitutional amendments designed to extend voting rights to women, yet most of these proposals received little consideration and none won legislative approval in either the House or the Senate.

Outside of Congress, the NWSA experimented with other tactics, including a reform strategy involving civil disobedience and the federal judiciary. In 1872, Anthony and others succeeded in their efforts to be arrested for attempting to vote in state elections. Their trials attracted a considerable amount of attention to the suffrage movement and, in one case, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Minor v. Happersett (1875). In Minor, however, the Court decisively rejected the claim that the term "citizens" in the Fourteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to women. The Court's decision was another setback for the NWSA, and it also signaled the Court's subsequent and similarly narrow reading of the individual rights protected by the Fifteenth Amendment.

Suffrage advocates not aligned with the NWSA pursued their reform agenda within other organizations, including the American Woman's Suffrage Association (AWSA). Established in 1869, the AWSA directed most of its efforts toward achieving state suffrage reforms. Like the NWSA, the AWSA achieved limited success in its first twenty years. By 1889, women could vote in school-related elections in about twenty states and territorial governments; in four territorial states—Wyoming (1969), Utah (1870), Washington (1883), and Montana (1887)—women possessed equivalent voting rights with men. Unification of the NWSA and AWSA in 1890 produced the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), but during the next two decades the new organization achieved limited success. Although additional states extended woman's suffrage in school, municipal, tax, or bond elections, by 1910 only five states—Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), and Washington (1910)—guaranteed women the right to vote in all elections.

Despite these limited results, the NAWSA and various state organizations persisted with their lobbying and grassroots efforts. The persistence paid greater dividends in the 1910s as other social, economic, and political conditions fortuitously converged to accelerate the progress of the woman's suffrage movement. An early indicator of this future was President William H. Taft's decision to speak at the NAWSA 1910 annual convention. Taft declined to offer an explicit endorsement of woman's suffrage, but his presence and speech sent a different message to both the public and NAWSA members. Another significant indicator was the Progressive party's public endorsement of woman's suffrage in 1912, for although it yielded limited immediate results, the endorsement underscored the long-term electoral and partisan stakes associated with the reform's enactment. Woman's suffragists, to be sure, also benefited greatly from the new environments created by industrialization and urbanization and from increased public interest in political reform and other social movements. By 1917, not only had the NAWSA membership increased to 2 million, twelve additional states had approved woman's suffrage since 1910, increasing the total to seventeen states and adding both legitimacy and electoral consequences to the suffrage reform.

Throughout the decade, and especially after 1915, leaders of national woman's suffrage organizations like Carrie Chapman Catt of the NAWSA and Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the Congressional Union, an organization established in 1913, began to focus their efforts upon winning congressional approval of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In addition to conducting a traditional lobbying campaign, the NAWSA and other organizations employed many of the tactics successfully used to achieve state constitutional reforms: authorizing and orchestrating mass marches, petition campaigns, and political candidate endorsements designed to exert electoral pressures upon the national political parties and members of Congress. In 1917, the National Women's Party, another new and decidedly more militant woman's suffrage organization, initiated a series of widely publicized protests and arrests at the White House. Many of the protesters chained themselves to the White House fence and some went on hunger strikes during their imprisonment. By January 1918, the combination of these various efforts with others associated with the United States involvement in World War I set the conditions within which President Woodrow Wilson issued his endorsement of a national constitutional amendment. The U.S. House of Representatives quickly followed the president, agreeing by the required two-thirds majority to send the woman's suffrage amendment on to the states for ratification. The Senate, however, balked initially, stalling the amendment in Congress until June 1919, when it, too, finally endorsed the Nineteenth Amendment. Slightly more than a year later the thirty-sixth state, or the three-quarters of the states required by the U.S. Constitution, ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. The amendment, in part, provides 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."

Ironically, ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment did not produce dramatic national- or state-level changes in policies or party affiliation. The Nineteenth Amendment, however, did have immediate and permanent effects upon the American political landscape, bolstering its democratic characteristics and tendencies by nearly doubling the number of voters in almost every election except those occurring in southern states.


Andersen, Kristi. After Suffrage: Women in Partisan and Electoral Politics before the New Deal. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.

Dinkin, Robert J. Voting in Provincial America: A Study of Elections in the Thirteen Colonies, 1689–1776. Westport, Conn.: Westview, 1977.

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Harvey, Anna L. Votes Without Leverage: Women in American Electoral Politics, 1920–1970. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Kromkowski, Charles. Recreating the American Republic: Rules of Apportionment, Constitutional Change and American Political Development, 1700–1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Charles A.Kromkowski

See alsovol. 9:Path Breaking ; The Seneca Falls Declaration of Rights and Sentiments .

views updated


Suffrage is the right to vote in an election. An important type of suffrage is universal suffrage, when all adults in a country have the right to vote without distinction by race, sex, belief, or wealth. Although it has not always been viewed as important to democracy, in the early twenty-first century many regard universal suffrage as an essential component of democracy. In fact, suffrage may be viewed as a minimum standard for democracy since the right of individuals to vote is presupposed in a requirement of competitive elections. Some of the largest social movements in history have centered on extending suffrage to disenfranchised groups (e.g., the international women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement in the United States). Even countries that do not have other features of democracy tend to hold elections in which all or most citizens can vote. Universal suffrage has become the global ideal if not completely the norm.

suffrage over time and across countries

Many individuals may take the right to vote for granted. But the right to vote was denied to many people in the past, and continues to be denied to groups of people in some countries. Sometimes, the exclusion of groups of individuals is written explicitly into electoral laws. For example, in Belgium from 1893 to 1948, the vote was restricted to men (universal manhood suffrage). In Italy between 1861 and 1912, the vote was restricted to those who were male, property owners, and literate. Andrew Carstairs in A Short History of Electoral Systems in Western Europe explains that these restrictions kept the extent of suffrage to under 2 percent of the population. Indeed, early in their history, many Western democracies had property requirements for the vote (e.g., Britain, Denmark, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands). This meant that only the wealthy who could afford property were allowed to vote, and such a requirement often reduced the extent of the franchise to less than 10 percent of the population.

At other times the exclusion of groups of individuals from voting occurs only in practice, through the use of mechanisms such as poll taxes or literacy requirements. A poll tax can refer to either a tax levied on all adults in a community, or a fixed amount to be paid before a citizen is allowed to vote. When poll taxes are used as a prerequisite for voting, it can disenfranchise the poor. Poll taxes were most famously used to disenfranchise blacks in the American South before the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since most former slaves were very poor, they were unable to pay the poll tax and therefore could not vote. The poll tax was circumvented for poor white men by using grandfather clauses, which held that if an individual's ancestors (grandfathers) had voted, he was exempt from poll taxes or literacy requirements.

Further restrictions on suffrage occur if equal suffrage is not guaranteed. Equal suffrage occurs when every vote is counted equally, rather than being graded by income, wealth, occupation, or education. In the past, the wealthy were sometimes allowed to cast multiple votes, in proportion to their income or wealth. For example, in Sweden from the 1860s until its final abolishment in 1921, the rich were permitted to cast thousands of votes (limited to 5,000 votes in 1900). At the end of the nineteenth century in Belgium, Carstairs explains, an extra vote was given to married or widowed taxpayers and two extra votes to those with a higher education or membership in certain professions. Equal suffrage, like universal suffrage, was the norm across the world in the early

twenty-first century. Unequal, graded voting is most visible during general meetings of shareholders, where individuals vote in proportion to their amount of stock holdings.

The U.S. system of electing presidents through the electoral college is a graded or unequal voting system because individuals in less populous states have "more votes" than individuals in more populous states. How does this happen? Every state has a number of electoral college votes equal to their number of representatives in Congress (based on population) plus their two senators (not based on population). Thus, a very lightly populated state will always have a minimum of three electoral college votes, even if it would get only one electoral college vote based on population. Consider that Wyoming, with a votingage population (in 2000) of 358,000 and three electoral college votes, has 8.3 votes per million people. In contrast, Florida, with 11.8 million people and twenty-five electoral college votes, has 2.1 votes per million people. This means that a citizen in Wyoming has almost four votes for every citizen's vote in Florida. Furthermore, because minority voters are disproportionately found in more populous states, they are disproportionately disenfranchised. This system does not meet the requirements of equal suffrage: "one person, one vote."

Over time, it has become less and less acceptable to argue that certain groups do not have the right to vote. In 1906 Finland was the first country to introduce universal suffrage and many countries have since followed suit. Thus, during the twentieth century there was a general movement toward universal suffrage in many countries. This process is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows how suffrage has changed over time across almost 200 countries from 1950 to 2000. Time trends in suffrage follow a general U shape over the fifty-year

Countries Granting Suffrage to Women
source: Courtesy of author.
By date first granted.
New Zealand1893
United States1920
United Kingdom1928
Sri Lanka1931
Burma (Myanmar)1935
Dominican Republic1942
Trinidad and Tobago1945
North Korea1948
South Korea1948
Costa Rica1949
El Salvador1950
Central African Republic1956
Côte d'Ivoire1956
Upper Volta (Burkina Faso)1956
Sierra Leone1961
Yemen PDR1967

period. The average level of suffrage (measured as the percent of the population that can vote) was 69.8 in 1950 and drops to a low of 62.8 in 1976, when many democracies reverted to authoritarian regimes. From that point, the trend continues generally upward, reaching a high of 88.9 in 2000.

Another way to think about suffrage over time is to consider the percentage of countries that do not allow anyone to vote. Figure 2 shows the percent of countries with no suffrage from 1950 to 2000. Over time, there has been a generally increasing and then decreasing percentage of countries with no suffrage at all.

female suffrage

Women typically received the vote much later than men. For example, women received the right to vote 11 years after men in Austria, 104 years after men in Switzerland, 27 years after men in Italy, and 51 years after men in Germany.

Why were women not allowed to vote? Throughout history, philosophers such as Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georg Hegel, and Arthur Schopenhauer argued that women should be excluded from politics because they were nonrational, inferior in intellect and reasoning ability, and inferior in their sense of justice. Consider what the German philosopher Hegel had to say about women in his essay "The Philosophy of Right" in 1821: "If women were to control the government, the state would be in danger, for they do not act according to the dictates of universality, but are influenced by accidental inclinations and opinions." (p. 167). Opponents of women's suffrage argued that men were perfectly able to represent their wives and, in fact, could do a better job than their wives themselves.

In 1869 the Wyoming Territory (before it became a state) was the first government to extend equal suffrage to women and to allow women to run for political office. The earliest countries to extend the right to women were New Zealand in 1893 (although they could not run for office) and Australia in 1902 (except for Aboriginal women). Switzerland was one of the last countries to grant women the right to vote. Although considered to have a long history of democracy, until 1971 women could not vote in Swiss national elections. In a 1959 referendum in Switzerland, suffrage for women was rejected by the male electorate 95 percent to 5 percent. Even when women did receive the vote, there was debate and opposition: The vote granting women suffrage in 1971 was approximately 65 percent to 35 percent. In fact, the last hold-out Swiss state was forced to grant women the right to vote in local elections in 1990.

In 1999 a bill granting women full political rights in Kuwait was narrowly defeated, but passed in 2005. There are still a few restrictions on women in local elections around the world; for example, women were not allowed to vote in the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, first held in 2005. Table 1 includes a sampling of dates when women were granted the right to vote.

What does it mean for one's understanding of the history of suffrage if women's suffrage is explicitly considered? First, countries that are typically considered to have long traditions of democracy may not actually have achieved democracy by modern definitions until the middle of the twentieth century. Switzerland, discussed above, is an excellent example. Second, the dominant place of Western countries in early democratization weakens, since some Western industrialized nations did not become female-inclusive democracies until long after other less developed nations.

suffrage for racial or ethnic groups

Blacks and other ethnic groups also received suffrage later than whites in the United States and some other Western democracies. In the case of the United States, the vote was originally restricted to white males. The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1879, made it illegal to deny any citizen the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. In practice, however, the United States did not have universal suffrage on the basis of race until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed. Before that year, due to harassment, poll taxes, literacy requirements, and violence, few blacks in the South were registered to vote. For example, in Mississippi before the Voting Rights Act was passed, only 5 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, over 60 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote.

South Africa was an infamous Western holdout on the right to vote for nonwhites. The system of apartheid , in place until 1990, denied non-whites the right to vote in national elections. As universal suffrage became more closely equated with democracy throughout the twentieth century, South Africa became more and more of a pariah state because of its refusal to extend the franchise (among other restrictions). For example, the United Nations passed resolutions condemning South Africa, South Africa was barred from participation in some international sports events, and investors began to disinvest in South African companies. Voting restrictions ended on February 2, 1990, under President F. W. de Klerk (b. 1936).

current exclusions on suffrage

Even though universal suffrage is a global norm, in practice many countries have restrictions on the right to vote. In a 2002 article on democracy, Gerardo Munck and Jay Verkuilen explain: "Although de jure restrictions on the right to vote are not found in current democracies, a whole battery of other restrictions, usually informal ones, curb the effective use of the formal right to vote and significantly distort the value of votes" (Munck and Verkuilen 2002, p. 11).

Even when countries have ostensibly had universal suffrage, there were any number of minor restrictions on the right to vote across countries in the early twenty-first century. For example, many nations do not allow sentenced prisoners or criminals convicted of serious crimes to vote. In almost all U.S. states, voting privileges are denied to individuals convicted of felonies, even after they are released from prison. In other countries, such as France, disenfranchisement may be imposed by a court decision during sentencing. The right to vote is also often denied to the mentally ill or mentally incompetent.

Almost all countries deny the vote to noncitizens, a practice that does not reduce claims to universal suffrage. In a few cases, however, this restriction can be excessive. In Kuwait, for example, ethnic non-Kuwaitis (55% of the total population in 1999) are not enfranchised. In Monaco prior to 1993, the requirement of true-born Monegasques nationality effectively disenfranchised 82.5 percent of the total population. Citizenship by birth may also be required, as in the case of Thailand. Or, voters may be required to be physically present in the country on voting day (as in Slovakia, Tuvalu, and Samoa).

Other restrictions on suffrage include age, with most countries requiring that voters be at least 18 years of age. The minimum age for voting was steadily lowered throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Minimum voting ages of 25 or higher were common when universal manhood suffrage was instituted in many countries. As of 2004, the most common minimum age for voting was 18.

Certain countries deny the vote to members of particular political parties or to individuals who participated in previous undemocratic governments. For example, Portugal denies the vote to anyone who supported the regime in power prior to April 1974. This disenfranchises those who were part of the former authoritarian regime. Another example is Indonesia, which prohibits voting by anyone who at one time supported the now-forbidden Communist Party.

Below are some further examples of restrictions on the vote:

  1. In Thailand Buddhist priests, monks, or clergy are not allowed to vote.
  2. In Slovakia those who are seen as a threat to public health are not allowed to vote.
  3. In Niger undischarged bankruptcy results in disenfranchisement.
  4. In Mexico a citizen must have an "honest means of livelihood" to vote.

It is also worth noting that voting is mandatory in some countries such as Australia and Belgium. Individuals who do not vote are subject to fines or other sanctions .

suffrage and democracy

Suffrage is closely related to democracy. Samuel Huntington defines a government as "democratic to the extent that its most powerful collective decision-makers are selected through fair, honest and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes and in which virtually all the adult population is eligible to vote" (Huntington 1993, p. 7, emphasis added). Huntington continues, "To the extent, for instance, that a political system denies voting participation to part of its society—as the South African system did to the 70 percent of its population that was black, as Switzerland did to the 50 percent of its population that was female, or as the United States did to the 10 percent of its population that were southern blacks—it is undemocratic" (Huntington 1993, p. 7).

Suffrage and democracy are related, but not equivalent. It is difficult to argue that an election is fair, for example, if a third of the population does not have the right to vote. On the other hand, universal suffrage can exist but voters may be presented with only a single candidate for office. Suffrage is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition of democracy. In general, the fairness of elections should be viewed as separate from the percent of the population allowed to participate. Among countries with universal suffrage it is possible to have fair or unfair procedures. Rigged voting, ballot stuffing, and vote buying can occur at varying degrees of suffrage.

See also: Civil Rights Movement in the United States; Democracy; Finland; New Zealand; Voting Rights.


Carstairs, Andrew McLaren. A Short History of Electoral Systems in Western Europe. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980.

Hegel, Georg. 1977. "The Philosophy of Right." in Agonito, Rosemary. History of Ideas on Women: A Source Book. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Huntington, Samuel. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

International Parliamentary Union. <>.

The Library of Congress. Timeline of Women's Suffrage.<>.

Munck, Gerardo, and Jay Verkuilen. "Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: Evaluating Alternative Indices." Comparative Political Studies 35 (2002):5–34.

Parish, Gary. The Electoral College: Source of Inequality and Social Injustice in America.<>.

Paxton, Pamela, Kenneth A. Bollen, Deborah M. Lee, and Hyo Juong Kim. "A Half-Century of Suffrage: New Data and a Comparative Analysis." Studies in Comparative International Development 38 (2004):93–122.

Sivard, Ruth Leger. Women: A World Survey. Washington, DC: World Priorities, 1985.

Pamela Paxton

views updated


In almost all European and North American democracies, women obtained suffrage after men. In France the gap is considerable—almost a century. This denial of civil rights, justified for such a long time by the difference between the sexes and the complementarities of their roles (the public sphere reserved to men, the private one the realm of women) is no doubt the most eloquent example of the social inferiorization of women at the very moment when modern nation states were being constituted with democratic institutions.


During the French Revolution, some women did indeed vote at the Estates General of 1789 and a few lone voices—Condorcet ("Sur l'admission des femmes au droit de cité") in 1790, then Olympe de Gouges with her Déclaration des droits de la femme and de la citoyenne, in 1791, argued for women's suffrage. Endowed with reason, like men, and constituting half of the human race, women, they claimed, should enjoy natural rights. The Convention, which raised men to the level of citizens, nevertheless decided in 1792 the political exclusion of women. Assimilating women to the abuses of the Ancien Régime and to clerical conservatism was a convenient pretext. Yet such exclusion already contradicted social and political reality: the existence of female citizens passionately engaged in the battles of the French Revolution (1789–1799). In 1793 women's clubs were dissolved, and women were excluded from the army. Two years later their presence in political assemblies was banned, as well as assemblies of more than five women in the street. In 1804 Napoleon (1769–1821) imposed the civil inferiority of married women through the Civil Code, which became a model for the rest of Europe. This dependent status in the family made political emancipation even more difficult. It entrenched the idea that the male citizen represented his family, a notion in complete contradiction with the theory of natural individual right.

During the 1848 Revolution in France, proposals were made in favor of women's suffrage, in particular by Jeanne Deroin (1805–1894), but the press met them with guffaws, and politicians remained indifferent (Riot-Sarcey 1994). The Second Republic did not even bother to specify that universal suffrage was exclusively male. But electoral laws were more cautious in Great Britain (1832), in the Netherlands (1885) and in Italy (1888) and clearly indicated the exclusion of women (Rochefort 1998).


The right to vote only became compelling as a priority common to all feminist movements at the beginning of the twentieth century. Public figures and groups that defended the rights of women previously privileged access to education, the equality of civil rights, the struggle against government-controlled prostitution and bettering the conditions of working women. Suffragism affirmed itself at the very moment when political institutions were becoming more democratic (Klejman and Rochefort 1989). It symbolized the hope for emancipation in a society where socially privileged women were asserting themselves in the public sphere as students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, journalists, philanthropists, and athletes. From mostly economically comfortable classes, urban and educated, feminists did not represent the majority of women. The workers' movement challenged their right to speak for working women and suffrage as a bourgeois demand. In 1907 the Second International, while recognizing the political equality of the sexes as legitimate (including it in its program as early as 1893), insisted on the priority of class struggle and condemned autonomous action by feminists (Gruber 1998).

As with the workers' movement, the feminist movement organized on an international basis. The United States played a key role as the feminist movement—stimulated by the engagement of many women in the struggles for the abolition of slavery, in the Temperance Movement, in moral reform societies, and in philanthropic associations—became entrenched earlier than in Europe. It was in Washington DC in 1888 that the International Council of Women was created. The National Council of French Women was founded only in 1901, and the International Association for Women's Suffrage was founded in Berlin in 1904. English women, with unequaled boldness, called the most attention to themselves. They defied the authorities by practicing direct action and by taking over the streets through spectacular demonstrations. Galvanized by their mystical fervor, the suffragettes—a belittling label in contrast to suffragist—captivated public opinion, at first hostile then sympathetic when the conflict hardened and more than 1,000 women were jailed, went on hunger strike, and were fed by force.

Feminists demanded suffrage at once on the basis of the universalism of natural right and the recognition of feminine specificity. This polarity marked their demands since the Revolution and crossed all tendencies, from the most radical to the most moderate. Most suffragists inscribed themselves in the discourse of sexual difference, valorizing the natural qualities and the opinions attributed to women or the roles they played, drawing up an ideal of complementarity of the sexes in governing the public sphere. This latter argument became dominant over the years and was sometimes associated with a true mystique, idealizing the mothering, pacifist, and altruistic nature of women. In part it overlapped with the dominant discourse on gender. It was also typical of the suffragist associations that were the most influenced by religion, in particular in North America (Basch 1994). In the United States, where the echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) were not negligible, the morality of evangelical Protestantism also inspired the majority of activists who wanted to fight with modern means—citizenship—against sin (prostitution, slavery, alcoholism, male profligacy).

A third line of argumentation arose strongly during World War I (1914–1919) (Bard 1995). The majority of feminists, renouncing vague pacifism, joined the war effort, a reaction comparable to that of the workers' movement. In both cases only a minority resisted the lure of nationalism and the Sacred Union. As war heroines, nurses, godmothers, munitions workers, workers and volunteers of all types, wives, and mothers, women experienced an exceptional moment when their social usefulness and patriotic sentiments were being recognized. They were then clearly included in the nation. And feminists saw in this a decisive step towards suffrage. This female patriotism, expressing the desire of citizenship, endured between the two world wars (Thalmann 1990) and was exemplified by the natalist and familist engagement of many moderate feminists. Motherhood, the patriotism of women, was sometimes compared with military service: exercising citizens' duties, women deserved the rights of citizens. The presence of women in all political parties was also a manifestation of a push for political integration.

Women's suffrage tended to become a means of realizing a program at once specific (the extension of the rights of women) and general (social progress and the construction of a durable peace). In the 1930s the fight against fascism was added but did not necessarily imply renouncing pacifism. More than suffragist/feminist political action, it was women's involvement in political formations, from the left to the right, including the far right, that marked the period before World War II (1939–1945) (Kandel 1997) in those countries that had implemented universal suffrage, as well as in those that were delaying it, such as France.


At the end of the nineteenth century, antifeminist discourse masked the defense of masculine privileges by invoking the superior interests of the family, institutions, and the nation. It justified inequality in the name of nature, unequal herself, which has made women physically weak and psychologically fragile beings, yet protected by the existence of the patriarchal family and of a social order in which each must keep her or his place. To these arguments, imbued with a scientific weight, accrued fantasmic fears of the devirilisation of men and the excessive power of women, fantasies that were not the monopoly of any political camp (Bard 1999).

Although conjectures on the suffrage of future female voters diverged, with each camp foreseeing a risk of reinforcing the opposing one, both sides at least agreed on the fear of an irrational vote that would only benefit the political extremes. The lack of political maturity of women, often invoked, was one of the justifications for voting in stages, a learning process to begin at the municipal level. This conditional suffrage was thus adopted at first in Canada (1917), in Ireland (1918), in Great Britain (1918), in Georgia (1918), in Belgium (1919), in Rumania (1929), and in Turkey (1930), sometimes with a very long delay between this limited suffrage and civil equality, as in Portugal (1931–1976). In Belgium women participated in municipal elections as early as 1919 but had to wait until 1949 to cast their first legislative ballot.

Following World War I, proposals for the vote of the dead were glaring proof that women were still not recognized as individuals: In 1918 Belgium instituted, at the same time as male universal suffrage, voting rights for widows who had not remarried and for mothers of combatants killed by the enemy (as well as for war heroines). In several countries voting was at first restricted to certain categories of women. In the United Kingdom the 1918 law introduced an age differential (only women over 30 could vote) that allowed men to keep the majority of the voting body until 1929, when voting majority age became the same for both sexes. In Portugal, where Roman Catholic influence on the dictatorial regime established in 1926 was strong, voting rights were first given to graduates of secondary or higher education, then in 1946 to married women, and finally in 1968 to all women, except in municipal elections, which were reserved for male heads of families (Cova 1997).

Proposals for a familial vote, attributing one or several extra votes to the male head of the family, according to the number of his children, also limited women's suffrage (Talmy 1962). The Vichy government included this familial voting, put forward by the Roman Catholic right in France between the two wars, in its proposed Constitution (whose promulgation would be denied by the German occupying forces). The contemporary extreme right remains attached to this modification of suffrage (Lesselier 1997).

Is it easier, then, to envisage the access of women to governing towns and cities than their access to national representation? The nomination or, in some cases, the election of female municipal councilors with only consultative power in 1930s France was favorably received. The Vichy regime then decided to name a qualified woman on social issues to the municipal councils of large cities. It was easier to give in on eligibility than on suffrage proper. In March 1944, at the Algiers Assembly, eligibility alone was considered by the commission on reforming the State. In several other countries, the right to be eligible preceded the right to vote: in the United States (1788 and 1920), in Norway (1907 and 1913), in the Netherlands (1917 and 1919), in Belgium (1921 and 1948), in Spain (six months apart 1931), except in Canada (1920—with restrictions—1960 and 1918) and in Turkey (1934 and 1930).


The various analyses of national differences regarding the access of women to suffrage vary according to whether they privilege philosophical reasons, political or politically minded ones, or conjuncture. Much has been made, for instance, of the French delay. According to Pierre Rosanvallon (1992), the utilitarian English model allows an easier inclusion of women as a specific group, whereas French-style universalism resists this type of differential-ism. This thesis is, however, lacking in nuance. Not only does France not have the monopoly of the ideas of 1789 and of universalism, but such monocausal explanations cannot be resorted to. The comparative study of the access of women to suffrage in European and North American countries reveals other obstacles or accelerators in the process.

In Europe the gap between northern and southern countries is very clear. The Scandinavian advance is remarkable. Before 1914 women were voting in Norway and in Finland. Such precocity suggests that a broadening of censitary suffrage and a late implementation of male suffrage facilitate the inclusion of women by giving suffragists historical moments to weigh in on the debate. On the contrary, in France, the early date of universal male suffrage in 1848 and the lessons on the dangers it posed to democracy that Republicans drew from it explain in part the long delay in granting women's suffrage. In France women became electors with greater ease when the political vote was not particularly sacralized and where other forms of voting were well established in social, professional, educational, and religious practices. In contrast the reformist method favored by Anglo-Saxons facilitated the political inclusion of women, as well as the proportional ballot list, whereas the revolutionary method and the uninominal ballot had the contours of a more brutal masculine world (Rudelle 1997).

Changes in regime also seemed to provide circumstances favorable to the political inclusion of women: in Russia (1917), in Germany (1918), or in Spain (1931), nascent republics marked the authenticity of their democracy with the suffrage of women.

Another favorable circumstance was the participation of women in the constitution or defense of a nation, as in Finland or in Norway, that allowed "them to transgress the traditional separation of roles but also to acquire a collective identity and a place in that imaginary community constituted by the nation" (Rochefort 1998, p. 39). Later, the examples of Ireland and Poland show that "the political freedom of women is tied into the freedom of nations" (Rudelle 1997, p. 577). In Europe after World War I women in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and Lithuania obtained the right to vote. In Turkey the young secular republic recognized the equality of political rights. But Romania and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes remained indifferent to suffragist demands.

Spain was the first Latin country to implement universal suffrage in 1931. It would be tempting to invoke a contrast with Protestant cultures to explain that lateness were it not that Catholic countries such as Ireland (1928) or Poland (1918) also granted the right to vote to women relatively early. The fact that Pope Benedict XV (1845–1922) approved women's suffrage in 1919 removed obstacles: Catholic suffragist movements developed, and conservative parties rallied to their side, among other reasons because they saw in it a useful rampart against bolshevism. In 1924 Italian and Spanish women obtained a partial right to vote: These authoritarian regimes allowed no more than a moderate suffrage. In Italy, Spain, and Portugal the era of truly universal suffrage only opened with the end of dictatorship.

Finally, one has to take into account the rapport between the sexes. The sex ratio is one such element: women's access to the vote was faster in immigrant countries where women are a minority in the electoral body, as in New Zealand, in Australia (where Aborigines of both sexes remain deprived of citizenship until 1967), and in certain states of the American West, such as Wyoming where (white) men and women had the same political rights since 1869. Finland and Norway, pioneering countries in Europe, were also little affected by demographical unbalances linked to male emigration. In contrast there was strong reticence in Great Britain where women were a majority (1.5 million more than men among a population of 45 million). In France, during the last debate of March 1944 on this very question, many anxieties were still voiced concerning an electorate dominated by women and even more so due to the absence of prisoners of war.

The judicial status of women is another important element. Wherever the Napoleonic Civil Code persists, women reach citizenship more slowly, which is not the case in common law countries where the rights of married women were recognized already in the nineteenth century. In France this emancipation was late: A law of 1938 gave wives certain civil rights, but the need to secure the husband's authorization to exercise a profession was only abolished in 1965, and parental equality did not come to pass before 1970.

Finally, the relation between the emancipation of women and the emancipation of populations deprived of civil rights (ethnic minorities and colonized people) would call for further study. For instance, some French women suffragists found it illogical that a minority of Senegalese would have the right to vote at the end of the nineteenth century. The question of priorities reappeared in 1936 regarding the civil rights of Algerians. The law of 7 May 1946 that confirmed citizenship within personal status in Algeria only concerned men, and women had to await the law of 29 September 1947 to obtain identical rights (article 4), which only became effective in 1958 in the midst of the Algerian war.

Thus, in half of the countries in world women only acquired the right to vote in the second half of the twentieth century. In non-European and non-North American countries, the suffrage of women has a recent history, linked to national independence and to the nature of the ruling regimes (Seager 1998). Universal suffrage, for that matter, still does not exist everywhere.

see also Hierarchy; Sex, Race, and Power: An Intersectional Study.


Bard, C. 1995. Les Filles de Marianne. Histoire des féminismes 1914–1940. Paris: Fayard.

Bard, C. dir. 1999. Un siècle d'antiféminisme, Paris: Fayard.

Basch, F. 1994. Victor Basch. Paris: Plon.

Bloom, I. 1980. "The Struggle for Women's Suffrage in Norway 1885–1913." Scandinavian Journal of History 5: 3-22.

Cova, A., and A. Costa Pinto. 1997. "Le salazarisme." In Encyclopédie op. cit., dir. C. Faure, pp. 685-700.

Daley, C., and M. Nolan, eds. 1994. Suffrage and Beyond. International Feminist Perspectives. New York: New York University Press.

Duby, G., and M. Perrot, eds. 1992. Histoire des femmes in Occident, Vol. IV: Le XIXe siècle (sous la direction de G. Fraisse and M. Perrot, Paris, Plon, 1991), Vol. V: Le XXe siècle (sous la direction de F. Thébaud).

Evans, R. J 1977. The Feminists. Women's Emancipation movements in Europe, America and Australasia 1840–1920. New York: Barnes and Noble Books.

Faure, C. dir. 1997. Encyclopédie politique et historique des femmes. Paris: PUF.

Gruber, H., and P. Graves, eds. 1998. Women and Socialism / Socialism and Women. Europe between the Two World Wars. New York: Berghahn Books.

Gubin, E. 1994. Genre et citoyenneté in Belgium (1885–1921). In La politique des droits. Citoyenneté et construction des genres aux XIXe and XXe siècles, ed. H. Jost, M. Pavillon, and F. Valloton. Paris: Kimé.

Hause, S. and A. Kenney. 1984. Women's Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jallinoja, R. 1980. "The Women's Liberation Movement in Finland. The Social and Political Mobilisation of Women in Finland 1880–1910." Scandinavian Journal of History 4: 37-49.

Kandel, L. dir. 1997. Féminismes et nazisme. Paris: Publications de l'Université de Paris, 7.

Klejman, L., and F. Rochefort. 1989. L'Egalité en marche. Le féminisme sous la Troisième République. Paris: Presses de la FNSP/Des femmes.

Le Bras-Chopard, A., J. Mossuz-Lavau, dirs. 1997. Les Femmes et la politique. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Lesselier C., and F. Venner F. dirs. 1997. L'Extrême droite et les femmes. Villeurbanne: Golias.

Molinari, V. 1996. Le vote des femmes et la Première Guerre mondiale in Angleterre. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Moses, C. 1984. French Feminism in the 19th Century, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Riot-Sarcey, M. 1994. La Démocratie à l'éepreuve des femmes. Trois figures critiques du pouvoir 1830–1848. Paris: Albin Michel.

Rochefort, F. 1998. "L'accès des femmes à la citoyenneté politique dans les sociétés occidentales. Essai d'approche comparative," Y. Cohen and F. Thebaud, dirs. In Féminismes et identités nationales. Les processus d'intégration des femmes au politique, Y. Cohen and F. Thebaud, dirs. Lyons: Programme Rhône-Alpes de Recherche in Sciences Humaines.

Rosanvallon P. 1992. Le Sacre du citoyen. Paris: Gallimard.

Rudelle, O. 1997. "Droits politiques des femmes européennes: bilan des deux guerres mondiales." In Encyclopédie op. cit., C. Faure, pp. 571-602.

Seager, J. 1998. Atlas des femmes dans le monde. Paris: Autrement.

Talmy, R. 1962. Histoire du mouvement familial en France (1896–1939). Paris: UNCAF.

Thalmann, R. dir. 1990. La Tentation nationaliste 1914–1945. Paris: Tierce.

Verjus, A. 1998. "Vote Familialiste and Vote Familial. Contribution à l'étude du processus d'individualisation des femmes dans la première partie du XIXe siècle." Genèses 31: 29-47.

Viennot, E., dir. 1996. La Démocratie "à la française" ou les femmes indésirables, Paris: Publications de l'Université Paris 7—Denis Diderot.

Woodtli, S. 1977. Du féminisme à l'égalité politique. Un siècle de lutte en Suisse 1868–1971. Paris: Payot.

                                          Christine Bard

                 Translated by Francesca Canadé Sautman

views updated




Although women had campaigned for suffrage since the mid-nineteenth century, voting rights remained a controversial question well into the twentieth. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914 only two European countries, Finland (1906) and Norway (1913), had introduced legislative measures in favor of women's suffrage. And yet during and immediately after World War I women gained the right to vote in a variety of European countries, including Britain, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the Republic of Ireland. Why did so many women achieve the vote in this period? What was the impact of war? What role did the suffrage movement play and to what extent was the political context of individual countries responsible for the timing and nature of women's enfranchisement?


During the early twentieth century women's enfranchisement was the subject of passionate debate. Opposition to it remained strong: it was suggested, for example, that their role within the family made women ill-suited to take part in national politics, in particular foreign affairs, and also that activity in the public world "unsexed" women, made them less feminine. Suffragists, however, argued on the grounds of individual rights, natural justice, and women's common humanity with men that women should be allowed to vote. At the same time, in particular after 1900, they also used women's difference from men as a basis for their claim to the franchise. It was argued that women, as nurturers and moral guardians of the family, would bring new qualities into political life and would work for peace, social reforms, and a moral regeneration of society.

These ideological debates were entangled with pragmatic political strategies that proved to be among the main barriers to women's enfranchisement before 1914. As Gisela Bock has argued, it was difficult for women to make a breakthrough in their demands when in most countries not all men had the vote and when democratization was associated with manhood suffrage. In Austria, for example, socialists refused to put their weight behind women's claims for the vote until manhood suffrage had been achieved in 1907. In Britain only two thirds of adult males were entitled to vote even after the franchise was extended in 1884. Thus, when women called for suffrage on the same terms as men, groups that might have been expected to support them on principle—socialists, liberals, and radicals—were suspicious that propertied, middle-class women would be the ones to gain the vote and that they would support conservative groups. For male-dominated parties of the Center and Left, therefore, the needs of class were seen to override those of gender.


The upheavals caused by "total war" did provide the context for change in political, social, and gender structures and relationships. Women were encouraged to support the war effort through employment in nursing, munitions, and other essential war industries as well as through voluntary welfare work. This has led to the common assumption that women subsequently gained the vote as a reward for their war service. Indeed, many prewar suffrage activists believed that women's cooperation in the war effort would demonstrate that they could be as "patriotic" as men and that they were worthy of exercising the franchise. Nonetheless, the notion of reward for war service does not provide a sufficient or convincing explanation for women's enfranchisement. In Britain, for example, only women over the age of thirty were enfranchised in 1918, and yet it was younger women who had been most involved in war work. Frenchwomen, who had played a role similar to that of their counterparts in Britain, did not gain the right to vote until 1944. Indeed, war raised arguments that tended toward the exclusion, rather than the inclusion, of women since patriotic duty was sometimes equated with fighting for one's country. In Britain, for example, it was suggested that military service should be the basis for the franchise, an argument that alarmed male conscientious objectors as well as women suffragists. In France a measure was put forward in 1916 that would have enabled a woman who had lost a close male relative in the war to vote in his place, but it was never adopted. In Belgium, however, the mothers and widows of soldiers were enfranchised in 1919.


1906 Finland

1913 Norway

1915 Denmark, Iceland

1917 Russia

1918 Austria, Germany, Hungary (restricted 1921), Czechoslovakia, Britain (women over thirty), Republic of Ireland

1919 The Netherlands

1921 Sweden

1928 Britain (all women over twenty-one)

1931 Portugal (restricted to women with secondary or higher education); Spain (lost in 1936)

1944 Bulgaria, France

1945 Italy, Hungary

1948 Belgium

1971 Switzerland

1976 Portugal, Spain

What does seem to be crucial is the extent to which the disruption of war led to the introduction of more democratic political systems or opened up wider franchise debates. New spaces were created for women to be included as full citizens. Women gained the vote in states that were created after the war when the old European empires were dismantled, including Hungary, Poland, Estonia, and Czechoslovakia. They were also enfranchised in Germany and Austria, where democratic republics replaced more authoritarian systems of government. Here pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons were at play. The new governments felt threatened by Bolshevik revolutionaries on the left and conservative, nationalist groups on the right, and "moderate" political parties assumed that women would prove to be a force for stability. In Britain the government's decision to introduce a new franchise reform act to ensure that returning soldiers and sailors would be able to vote provided the occasion for the inclusion of women over thirty. The government was reluctant to accept equal voting rights in a context in which women would have outnumbered men and thought that the enfranchisement of "mothers" would pose far fewer risks. Suffrage campaigners accepted this compromise—even though it undermined their long-standing demand for voting rights for women on the same terms as for men—on the grounds that it was crucial that the principle of women's right, and ability, to vote be acknowledged.


Although it was difficult for women to gain the vote when the political context was unfavorable, it is important not to lose sight of the role played by the suffrage movement in contributing toward women's enfranchisement. By itself a strong suffrage movement could not ensure success; for instance, there was an active suffrage campaign in the republics of France and Switzerland, but in both countries women had to wait several decades before they were enfranchised. Conversely, in many countries women had managed to push the suffrage question to the forefront of the political agenda before the war. The campaign had gained momentum in the immediate prewar years as new suffrage organizations were formed and the basis of support widened. In Britain in particular, the development of militant methods attracted publicity to the cause, and the willingness of suffragettes to flout conventions inspired women from across the world to challenge their unequal status. Thus, by the outbreak of war it was claimed by many contemporaries that the argument for women's suffrage had been won—all that was needed was a changed political context in which it could be implemented. Indeed, in the countries noted above there was little opposition when women's suffrage was finally introduced. In Czechoslovakia, for example, women had taken part in the prewar nationalist movement and gained support for women's suffrage from a wide range of political groups, including the liberal nationalist leader Tomáš Masaryk, who was to become president of the postwar republic. In Britain there is no guarantee that women would have been included in the Franchise Bill of 1918 if they had not continued to lobby the government after 1916. It then took sustained pressure from the women's movement before an equal franchise was finally achieved in 1928.


Throughout all the franchise debates, political parties constantly raised the issue of women's difference from men to suggest that suffrage could pose a risk. On the one hand, women were viewed by conservatives as likely to be a radical force in politics, and it was feared that a greater public role would disrupt "traditional" family relationships. These fears were fueled by suffragists who had joined the peace movement during the war, since they argued that women needed the vote to have an influence on foreign affairs and that they would work to ensure a peaceful solution to national conflicts. On the other hand, radicals, liberals, and socialists feared that women, largely because of their domestic role, would be a force for conservatism. This was a key issue in France, which alone among the Allied nations failed to enfranchise women at the end of World War I. Although the Chamber of Deputies debated the question and passed a measure of support in 1919, the Senate procrastinated and in 1922 voted against women's suffrage. Many radicals and socialists feared that women would vote for the monarchy, conservatism, and the Catholic Church, and a significant proportion of women suffragists also thought that female voters might endanger the Republic. Again, Bock argues that in France and Switzerland, where all men had enjoyed the vote since the nineteenth century, there was little interest in forming alliances with women to extend the franchise and therefore this also set back the women's cause.

The disruption of gender roles during wartime led to fears that the "traditional" family would be undermined, and it was widely believed that male authority needed to be consolidated in the face of the modern woman, who sought an active role in the public sphere. At the same time, anxieties about population decline and its impact on the state led to a new focus on the importance of motherhood and domesticity. In the interwar years, mass unemployment, the development of conservative and fascist regimes, and the threat of war made it difficult for women who were not enfranchised to achieve the vote, and for others to hold on to, and to extend, the gains that had already been made. Indeed, the right to vote enjoyed by both sexes sometimes disappeared with the introduction of totalitarian political systems. In Russia, for example, women who had been enfranchised during the first revolution of 1917 lost this right when the Bolsheviks seized power later in the year. Women were also disenfranchised in Germany when National Socialism replaced the Weimar Republic. In Italy women's suffrage had been discussed during the war and Benito Mussolini was initially sympathetic to the demand, but by 1925 he had dissolved Parliament and all elections were suspended.

In some cases, however, women were able to hold on to voting rights, or even to acquire them for the first time, but under very restrictive circumstances designed to ensure that they would exert a conservative influence. In Hungary, for example, women received the vote on the same terms as men after the war when a new liberal constitution was established, though the suffrage movement itself had always been weak. Yet the successful counterrevolution by the conservative wing of the nationalist movement disenfranchised women in 1920. Voting rights were reestablished in 1921, but only for women over the age of thirty who met educational and economic qualifications. Similarly, in Portugal the authoritarian regime of Antonio Salazar granted women the vote in 1931 but they had to have completed secondary or higher education, whereas male voters had only to be able to read and write. This, however, was in the context of a single-party system where there was no real choice.

Women stood a greater chance of gaining the franchise when more constitutional governments were formed, if only for brief periods. In Spain women's groups and socialist feminists debated women's emancipation during the 1920s when the military dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera was in power. The introduction of the Second Republic in 1931 stimulated women to demand political rights. During discussions of the new constitution, two women, Victoria Kent and Clara Campoamor, who were both attorneys and had been elected deputies in 1931, debated the question of women's suffrage. Kent opposed the measure on the grounds that women were not yet ready and might endanger the Republic, whereas Campoamor claimed that it was a matter of principle and that the criticisms raised could also apply to men. In the event, the new constitution of 1931 did enfranchise all men and women over the age of twenty-three, but after the civil war of 1936–1939 and the introduction of General Franco's dictatorship, universal suffrage was suppressed.


It was after World War II that women in a number of the participant countries achieved the vote, most notably in France and Italy. In France women's enfranchisement was part of the ordinance of 21 April 1944, issued by General Charles de Gaulle as leader of the Free French in Algiers. This ordinance proposed constitutional arrangements for France once the country had been liberated. The short-term reasons for this included de Gaulle's need to reassure the Resistance within France, and also his British and American allies, that he was committed to restoring republican democracy in France. It is also likely that he assumed that women would vote for conservative and clerical parties. Within the Resistance itself there were divisions between socialists and communists who favored women's suffrage and radicals who opposed it. The National Resistance Council, which commented on the constitutional proposals, was interested in the idea, put forward ironically by the Vichy government, that heads of household should have extra votes to reflect the number of children in the family. This was, however, rejected in favor of the principle of one person, one vote. Nonetheless, it is important to note that these changes were not introduced in a vacuum. Women's suffrage had been widely debated for many decades, and during the interwar years the campaign for the vote continued to attract support; the French Union for Women's Suffrage, for example, extended its organization beyond Paris and into the provinces and had ten thousand members in 1929. It is significant that when the decision to enfranchise women was taken, it was broadly welcomed in the popular press and encountered little opposition.

By the end of World War II, therefore, most European women living in countries with some form of democratic government were enfranchised. (Many others, living under authoritarian or military governments, had to wait until representative political systems were introduced, as in Portugal and Spain in 1976, or until the Soviet Union and Communist regimes collapsed in the late twentieth century.) The main exception was Switzerland, which had a well-established republican government and yet did not grant women the vote until 1971. Here again, men had little incentive to support women's suffrage since they had long enjoyed the right to vote. There was a complex political system that required a referendum on proposed constitutional changes, while the local autonomy of cantons limited the power of the bicameral National Assembly. It was not until 1957, in the context of growing international pressure, that a national referendum was held on the subject of women's suffrage. Despite support from both chambers of the Assembly, male voters still opposed it. Women continued to campaign for the vote, but it was Switzerland's membership in the Council of Europe in 1963 that exposed the anomalies in its constitutional position. It was unable, for example, to sign the European Convention on Human Rights in 1968 and, when its petition for an exemption was turned down, a referendum on women's suffrage at last received the necessary majority in 1971.


The controversies and passions roused by the demand for women's suffrage indicate the importance attached to the vote as an agent of power in political democracies from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Women believed that their inclusion in the franchise would enable them to exert an influence on government policies, in particular social reforms. They also saw the vote as having considerable symbolic importance. Without voting rights, women could not be full citizens and therefore their inferior social status would be confirmed. Since the nature and timing of women's enfranchisement was linked to political developments in individual countries and also to terms on which men had the vote, class was always an important factor in the debates. Conversely, women's own agency played an important part in bringing women's suffrage to the forefront of politics and in creating a climate in which it became an acceptable measure to adopt.

The achievement of the vote, however, certainly did not mark the end of women's long struggle for emancipation. Only a small proportion of women were elected to representative assemblies, and in the context of the interwar years it was difficult for women to gain, or hold onto, equal rights. Feminists themselves were divided about what they hoped to achieve, with some emphasizing equal rights and others focusing on the welfare needs of mothers and women's social duties to the state. Once the suffrage struggle was over, the women's movement became more fragmented and less visible, making it difficult to exert pressure for change in gender relations. It was recognized that deep-seated structural issues around women's position in the family and the workforce needed to be tackled alongside formal equal rights. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there was greater skepticism among both men and women about the extent to which the vote enables any group to exercise real political influence. Nonetheless, inclusion in the franchise was a vital first step for women in their campaign to be treated as full citizens with an equal right to take part in all areas of public life alongside men.

See alsoCitizenship; Feminism; Suffrage Movements.


Bartley, Paula. Votes for Women. London, 1998. A useful overview of the British suffrage campaign and a guide to further reading.

Bock, Gisela. Women in European History. Translated by Allison Brown. Malden, Mass., 2001.

Evans, Richard J. The Feminists: Women's Emancipation Movements in Europe, America, and Australasia, 1840–1920. London, 1977. An early comparative study that emphasizes the importance of liberal nationalism in Europe.

Foley, Susan K. Women in France since 1789: The Meanings of Difference. New York, 2004.

Frevert, Ute. Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation. Translated by Stuart McKinnon-Evans in association with Terry Bond and Barbara Norden. Oxford, U.K., 1990.

Griffin, Gabriele, and Rosi Braidotti, eds. Thinking Differently: A Reader in European Women's Studies. London, 2002. Brief articles on individual countries.

Holton, Sandra Stanley. Feminism and Democracy: Women's Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900–1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1986. Contains a detailed analysis of the impact of war on the British suffrage movement.

Keene, Judith. "'Into the Clean Air of the Plaza': Spanish Women Achieve the Vote in 1931." In Constructing Spanish Womanhood: Female Identity in Modern Spain, edited by Victoria Lorée Enders and Pamela Beth Radcliff, 325–347. Albany, N.Y., 1999.

Law, Cheryl. Suffrage and Power: The Women's Movement, 1918–1928. London, 1997. A detailed account of the struggle for an equal franchise in Britain after World War I.

Legates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society. London, 2001. A clear discussion of the interwar context and debates around women's suffrage across Europe.

Offen, Karen M. European Feminisms, 1700–1950: A Political History. Stanford, Calif., 2000. A key text that explores the suffrage campaign in a range of European countries.

Reynolds, Siân. France between the Wars: Gender and Politics. London, 1996. Stimulating discussion of why women gained the vote in 1944.

Smith, Harold L., ed. British Feminism in the Twentieth Century. Amherst, Mass., 1990. Focuses on the complex arguments around equality and difference among British feminists.

Summerfield, Penny. "Women and War in the Twentieth Century." In Women's History: Britain, 1850–1945: An Introduction, edited by June Purvis, 307–322. London, 1995.

Thane, Pat. "What Difference Did the Vote Make?" In Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present, edited by Amanda Vickery, 253–288. Stanford, Calif., 2001.

Ward, Margaret. "'Suffrage First—Above All Else!' An Account of the Irish Suffrage Movement." Feminist Review 10 (1982): 21–36.

June Hannam

views updated


Nineteenth-century suffrage movements can be best understood both within the history and culture of the period and as part of a broader set of social reform movements. For the most part, between the turn of the century and the Civil War, voting rights became increasingly defined in terms of whiteness and manhood. Early in the century, New Jersey law had allowed "all 'inhabitants' who otherwise were qualified" to vote, which was "interpreted locally to mean that property-owning women could vote" (Marilley, p. 54). In 1807, however, the New Jersey legislature established that only free white men could vote, thus enacting voting-rights criteria more in line with the rest of the nation. As for free African Americans, few states immediately denied them the vote following the Revolution, but by the time of the Civil War, only Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island failed to discriminate against free blacks (Keyssar, p. 55). Enslaved blacks were denied the vote, as were many Native Americans and a number of new immigrants, including Chinese immigrants in the West and Irish immigrants in the East. It was within this political context that the suffrage movements developed and operated.

Despite the success of these antiprogressive voting laws, an environment for progressive social and political reform was being established. In the late 1820s the Englishwoman Frances (Fanny) Wright (1795–1852) began a lecture tour of the United States, speaking before audiences of both men and women. By speaking in front of mixed audiences, a violation of contemporary notions about what constituted the women's sphere, Wright established a precedent. In 1829 David Walker (1785–1830) published Walker's Appeal the Coloured Citizens of the World, in which he argued that slaves should revolt against their owners. He also condemned antislavery colonization efforts that would send freed slaves to Africa. Two years later, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) established The Liberator, an abolitionist weekly that became a champion of other radical social reforms, including women's rights. In the early 1830s Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879), a free African American woman living in Boston, was published in The Liberator and delivered speeches before mixed-sex black audiences, arguing for universal rights and the abolition of slavery. These examples served as early moments in a developing reform culture that would have increasing if often indirect influence on American politics in the decades preceding the American Civil War.


The suffrage movements of this period were thus an aspect of larger reform movements that targeted a broad expansion of rights for Americans who were denied the benefits associated with citizenship. The most prominent of these movements began in the 1830s and focused on antislavery reform; as a supporter of the movement, the radical abolitionist Garrison greatly affected suffrage reform. Garrison not only advocated freedom and full citizenship rights for enslaved African Americans but also encouraged female participation in the movement, thus providing the foundation for the first organized women's rights movement in the United States. Garrison's The Liberator offered a forum for radical social reformers including Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873), Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879), Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), and Wendell Phillips (1811–1884) to advocate a progressive agenda organized around a radical expansion of rights, including suffrage, for the disenfranchised. The formation in 1833 of the American Anti-Slavery Society also proved to be a significant moment in antebellum social reform, providing the organizational foundation for the antislavery movement while also creating an environment in which a philosophy for women's rights could develop. Early on, women were among the most active abolitionists, organizing petition drives and raising the money needed to sustain the movement. Some of these women also became increasingly visible in their abolitionism by publishing their antislavery arguments and by speaking before mixed-sex and mixed-race audiences. Following Wright and Stewart, the most notable early examples of this were the Grimké sisters, daughters of a wealthy slave-owning family, who became two of the most vocal of the Garrisonian antislavery activists in the late 1830s. Both wrote against slavery and spoke to audiences composed of both men and women. The participation of women in the abolition movement provided them with experience that would later become essential in planning women's rights organizations and running conventions, but it also underscored the need for an independent women's rights movement. At the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, female delegates from the United States were denied the opportunity to participate because they were women, which convinced Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) that the time for the reform of women's rights had arrived.

In 1838 Sarah Grimké published Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, which grew out of her developing political beliefs and the criticism she and her sister had received for their very public abolitionism, which was perceived as transgressing the appropriate female sphere. Earlier in 1837 the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts had issued their "Pastoral Letter," a response to the public political activity of the Grimkés. In this letter, the ministers urged women to reject the public sphere and to instead embrace the private, encouraging "the cultivation of private Christian character, and private efforts for the spiritual good of individuals." Grimké challenged this position by advocating greater rights and freedoms for women. In 1843 a second founding work of the American women's rights movement was published, Margaret Fuller's (1810–1850) essay "The Great Lawsuit; Man versus Men, Woman versus Women," which Fuller later expanded into a book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Less overtly political than Sarah Grimké and other women's rights activists, Fuller advanced ideas that were nonetheless crucial to the developing women's rights movement. Fuller argued that women should have access to the same paths in life as those available to men and should be responsible for their own choices.

While Fuller does not specifically champion suffrage—her arguments are more philosophically abstract than overtly political, reflecting an approach rooted in transcendentalism—her work helped provide an ideological basis for later women's rights efforts, which included the vote for women. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention drew on Fuller's work for a philosophical foundation for women's rights. The Seneca Falls Convention stands out as perhaps the most important moment in the nineteenth-century women's rights movement, in part because it was the first meeting in the United States organized exclusively for the advancement of women's rights but also because of its Declaration of Sentiments. Written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and modeled on the Declaration of Independence, this document details how men have historically wronged women, echoing Thomas Jefferson's litany of England's abuses of the colonies. Included in Stanton's declaration was a list of resolutions, the ninth of which claimed that it is "the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise" (1:70). This resolution proved to be the most controversial, even within the convention itself, as opponents condemned it, arguing that it was impractical and that it would undermine women's rights as a whole. The resolution passed, however, when Frederick Douglass argued that the vote was an essential component of freedom that should be denied based neither on sex nor race. Following the Seneca Falls Convention, female suffrage became an important element in the drive for expanded women's rights, with Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) often taking the lead. However, while most of these reformers believed that suffrage was a crucial element of women's rights, other issues related to property rights, divorce rights, and child custody sometimes were deemed of greater significance for women; part of the reason for this was that the reform of these laws would provide immediate relief for women, but it was also a question of what was most pragmatic, as female suffrage faced considerable entrenched opposition.


As a women's rights movement developed, abolitionists continued their efforts to end the practice of slavery in the United States. A key moment occurred in 1845 when Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, an autobiography detailing Douglass's years as a slave and his escape to the North, was published. Douglass had for several years been among the most effective antislavery speakers, but it was his first autobiography that most firmly established his abolitionist credentials and public identity, and it has endured as one of the most important works of antebellum literature. In the decades following the Narrative, Douglass remained active as a reformer, publishing his own abolitionist paper, the North Star, which later became Frederick Douglass' Paper, and advocating universal suffrage.

The 1850s proved to be one of the most politically contentious decades in American history, largely because of the slavery issue. Early in the decade, two novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and William Wells Brown's (c. 1814–1884) Clotel (1853), reflected the politically charged environment. Stowe's novel, first serialized in the moderate antislavery newspaper the National Era, became the most successful novel in American history. Stowe had intended that Uncle Tom's Cabin would peacefully end slavery in America by revealing to the public the moral horrors associated with the institution. While the novel clearly fell short of this goal, it did shape the antebellum discourse on slavery and advance the antislavery sentiment in the North. Brown's Clotel may have had a lesser social impact than Uncle Tom's Cabin, but it is nevertheless significant both for cultural and literary reasons. The first published novel by an African American writer, it details the travails of the daughters of Thomas Jefferson and an African American slave, exploring how the intersection of Jefferson's two legacies—that of the rhetoric of freedom invoked in the Declaration of Independence and that of his own slave progeny—revealed conflicting American belief systems that were reflected in the ongoing ideological clash between northern freedom and southern slavery. Both novels represent the ante-bellum era's spirit of reform, specifically in antislavery terms, and both advanced the emphasis on individual rights advocated by radical reformers.

During the 1850s this conflict became more heated as politicians attempted to maintain the compromise on slavery between North and South written into the constitution while antislavery reformers advanced their own agendas and northerners and southerners became increasingly mutually suspicious. The Fugitive Slave Act (1850), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision (1857) were pivotal moments in the ongoing attempt to maintain this delicate balance, and each reinforced the belief of many northerners that slave power had increasing authority in their lives. From this situation emerged John Brown's (1800–1859) violent attacks on proslavery settlers in Kansas and his later raid on Harpers Ferry. Widely condemned throughout the nation, Brown nonetheless gained the respect of many northerners even if they objected to his violent tactics, largely because he provided a challenge to what they perceived as the spread of slave power, which is reflected in Henry David Thoreau's "A Plea for John Brown" (1859). In the realm of politics, the formation and rapid growth of the Republican Party demonstrated the increasing importance of political abolitionism and a movement away from apolitical reform societies as the center of the antislavery movement. John Brown's acts in 1859 and the founding of the Republican Party in 1854 reflected the growing antislavery sentiment in the North; this sentiment would lead to the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, which in turn offered southern states the rationale to secede, prompting the beginning of the Civil War.


The Civil War caused social reformers to pause in their reform efforts and shift their focus to the war. Following the Union victory, suffrage activists recognized the opportunity to press their case. The alliance between women's rights reformers and abolitionists had been established in the early years of Garrison's The Liberator, but long-developing tensions between the two movements were exacerbated following the war. For decades, this alliance had been threatened by the unwillingness of many antislavery activists to accept the very public roles that women had occupied. While male Garrisonians largely embraced the women's contribution and supported women's rights, more conservative reformers identified their behavior as a violation of the women's sphere and a threat to the antislavery cause.

When it became clear after the war that new laws would be established providing rights and protections to newly free African Americans, including possible amendments to the constitution involving voting rights, suffrage activists could see both opportunity and potential danger. While Stanton and Anthony continued to call for suffrage for women, other reformers, including Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone (1818–1893), and Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), argued that such advocacy at this crucial moment would endanger suffrage for black men, with potentially disastrous consequences. For Douglass, it was a question of survival for African Americans, as the racially charged postwar milieu in the South and the riots targeting blacks in northern cities revealed. Suffrage, Douglass believed, would provide a form of protection that had long been denied to African Americans. For Stanton and others, failure to achieve suffrage for women would be a defeat and would indicate that decades of effort had been squandered. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment proved especially vexing, as the inclusion of the word "male" three times in Section 2 made the fears of suffragists real; the constitution had now clearly excluded women from voting in federal elections.

Suffragists held out hope that a subsequent amendment would grant women the vote, but the later passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which declared 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude," dashed these hopes, as well, as the language made it clear that women would continue to be denied the elective franchise. Women's suffrage was thus deferred, and it would take nearly fifty years before women gained the vote, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. What initially appeared to be a victory for African Americans was, however, complicated by widespread systematic efforts to deny them the vote for decades following the war. It would take the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century to finally ensure that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments would truly be enforced.

See alsoDeclaration of Sentiments; Letters on the Equality of the Sexes;The Liberator;Oratory; Reform; Seneca Falls Convention; Woman in the Nineteenth Century


Primary Works

Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter. 1853. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century andOther Writings. 1845. Edited and with an introduction by Donna Dickenson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts. "Pastoral Letter." 1837. In American Rhetorical Discourse, edited by Ronald F. Reid, pp. 365–367. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 1995.

Grimké, Sarah. Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and OtherEssays. Edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth Ann Bartlett. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage. 6 vols. 1881–1922. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Boston: J. P. Jewett; Cleveland: Jewett, Proctor, and Worthington, 1852.

Walker, David. David Walker's Appeal to the ColouredCitizens of the World. 1829. Edited and with a new introduction by Peter P. Hinks. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Secondary Works

Du Bois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: TheEmergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship in AntebellumAmerica. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Marilley, Suzanne M. Woman Suffrage and the Origins ofLiberal Feminism in the United States, 1820–1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The AntislaveryFeminists in American Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

James R. Britton

views updated

suffrage. Since suffrage (the right to vote) can be the key to political power, it has been contentious since representative institutions came into being. The original county franchise seems to have included all freemen, whether freeholders or not. But an Act of Henry VI's reign in 1429 declared that ‘great, outrageous and excessive numbers of people … of small substance and of no value’ were voting at elections, and went on to limit the franchise to freeholders with land worth 40 shillings a year, free of all charges. This remained the franchise until 1832. But the effect of inflation, particularly in the Tudor period, was to weaken the qualification and increase the total electorate. The issue became lively after the Civil War. At the Putney army debates, Cromwell and Ireton opposed Rainborough and the radicals who pressed for a great extension of the franchise: where would it end, demanded Cromwell, if men ‘who have no interest but the interest of breathing’ were given the vote? In fact the subsequent Commonwealth regime cut the franchise dramatically to £200 p.a. property, though the old franchise was restored in 1660. Shaftesbury was still complaining in 1679 that ‘men of mean and abject fortune’ were voting.

In parliamentary boroughs the franchise had always varied but there were four main groups—corporation, freeman, burgage, and inhabitant householder. They ranged from Westminster, Bristol, and Coventry with thousands of voters, to Gatton, a rotten borough with two voters, and Malmesbury, where the thirteen members of the corporation elected the two MPs. The Scottish representation was extremely narrow, before and after the Union of 1707. The burgh electorate totalled some 1,250, the counties about 2,500. In the whole country, there were fewer voters than in Suffolk.

In the 18th cent. arguments for extending the franchise were heard with increasing frequency without quite getting onto the political agenda. Wilkes argued in 1776 that ‘the meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer’ was entitled to a vote, but nobody supported him and Lord North retorted that he was surely ‘not serious’. From 1832 onwards, however, a number of measures, several of them claiming to be final, enlarged the suffrage to full democracy. By the Great Reform Act the urban franchise was made uniform at the £10 householder level, and in the counties the £50 copyholder was brought in to join the freeholders. The Scottish electorate rose from some 5,000 to 65,000. Radicals were far from satisfied and within a few years manhood suffrage was one of the six points of the charter. It was strenuously opposed, Macaulay insisting in 1842 that universal suffrage was ‘utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilization’. The second Reform Act of 1867 moved one step closer, giving the vote to borough householders, including many working men, and the 1884 Act, by extending the same franchise to the counties, brought the total electorate to well over 5 million. The introduction of secret ballot in 1872 had freed voters from landlord or employer influence, though many continued to vote deferentially.

By the later 19th cent. the campaign to give the vote to women was well under way, though they had to wait until 1918, and then were given the vote only if they were over 30. The electorate was more than doubled and, at 22 million, was fast approaching that universal suffrage Macaulay had so much feared. Women under 30 gained the vote in 1929 and in 1969 the inclusion of persons between 18 and 21 brought in another 3 million new voters. The electorate in 2001 was estimated at more than 44 million (England and Wales just over 39 million, Scotland just under 4 million, Northern Ireland just over 1 million) out of a population of 56 million. Of these, 32,800,000 or some 75 per cent cast their votes. The vote is not available to convicted felons or certified lunatics, but is granted to resident citizens of the Republic of Eire.

J. A. Cannon

views updated

suffragecarriage, disparage, Harwich, intermarriage, marriage, miscarriage •undercarriage •cartridge, partridge •Selfridge • Cambridge • Bainbridge •Knightsbridge • umpirage •borage, forage, Norwich, porridge •Oxbridge • storage • drawbridge •Trowbridge • tollbridge • footbridge •courage, demurrage, encourage •umbrage • suffrage •peerage, steerage •sewerage • moorage •harbourage (US harborage) •pasturage • pilferage • anchorage •acreage • vicarage • brokerage •cellarage • Coleridge •haemorrhage (US hemorrhage) •amperage • factorage • hectarage •litreage (US literage), metreage (US meterage) • fosterage •porterage, quarterage •tutorage • average •beverage, Beveridge •leverage • overage • coverage

views updated

suf·frage / ˈsəfrij/ • n. 1. the right to vote in political elections. ∎ archaic a vote given in assent to a proposal or in favor of the election of a particular person. 2. (usu. suffrages) a series of intercessory prayers or petitions.

views updated

suffrage See franchise

views updated

suffrage pl. (intercessory) prayers XIV; vote XVI. — L. suffrāgium, partly through F. suffrage; of uncert. orig.

More From