International moves for women’s suffrage
Tuesday 28 May 2013
The International Alliance of Woman Suffrage was established between in 1902 at a meeting in Washington attended by representatives from 11 different countries. It held its first meeting in 1904.
They met regularly until WW1, and then resumed meetings after the war, at which point, in 1926, they were renamed the International Women’s Alliance and managed to form links with the League of Nations. (The affiliation with the League of Nations is not as surprising as it may first appear, as, by this time, women had already obtained the vote in the US and UK – 1920 and 1918 respectively)
The creation of an international organisation to fight for suffrage was inspired by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and its President 1900-1904 Carrie Chapman Catt. Chapman Catt asked international representatives to come to the 34th Annual Convention of NAWSA, and from this they created the International Woman Suffrage Association.
Countries that attended included Australia, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, therefore it should be noted this was very much a Western/European movement. Chapman Catt served as president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance 1904-1923. Interestingly, high-profile British women’s suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett was the first Vice-President of IWSA. The International Woman Suffrage Alliance still exists today as the International Alliance of Women (www.womenalliance.org).
Interestingly, although British colonies (self-governed), both New Zealand and South Australia granted suffrage for women significantly earlier than Britain – in the 1890s (1893 and 1895 respectively).
In her book Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement, Millicent Garrett Fawcett says of international moves for women’s suffrage the following:
“[Mr. James Bryce, speaking against women’s suffrage in the House of Commons in 1892] used the timid argument that women’s suffrage was an untried experiment. “It is a very bold experiment,” he said; “our colonies are democratic in the highest degree; why do they not try it?” and again, “This is an experiment so large and bold that it ought to be tried by some other country first.”... Mr. Goldwin Smith, an extra-Parliamentary opponent of women’s suffrage, pointed, in an article, to its solitary example in the State of Wyoming, where it had been adopted in 1869, and asked why, if suffrage had been a success in Wyoming, its example had not been followed by other states immediately abutting on its borders.
Now it has frequently been noticed that when this line of argument is adopted it seems to be a sort of “mascot” for women’s suffrage. When Mr. Bryce inquired in 1892 “why our great democratic colonies had not tried women’s suffrage,” his speech was followed in 1893 by the adoption of women’s suffrage in New Zealand and in South Australia. When Mr. Goldwin Smith asked why the States which were in nearest neighbourhood to Wyoming had not followed her example, three States in this position, namely Colorado in 1893, Utah in 1895, and Idaho in 1896, very rapidly did so. When Sir F.S. Powell, in 1907, said in the House of Commons that no country in Europe had ever ventured on the dangerous experiment of enfranchising its women, women’s suffrage was granted in Finland the same year, and in Norway the year following.”
United States of America:
Although they first had a woman vote in 1756 (Lydia Taft – a wealthy widow, just like Lily Maxwell – of Massachusetts voted in her town meetings), the USA formed their first national women’s suffrage societies in 1869 – the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, which merged in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Much like Britain, USA suffrage laws did not explicitly exclude women until the 19th century – in New Jersey, for example, property only was a specified requirement, until 1790 when the law was revised to include women, and then 1807 when the law was again revised, this time to exclude women. Again, much like Britain, early clamours for women’s suffrage seem to be quite low-profile, considered as “the feminists”, not appealing to the masses.
Interestingly, some states enfranchised women earlier than others, and certainly much earlier than was conceived of as a possibility in the UK. According to the Collier’s New Encyclopaedia: “Wyoming granted woman suffrage in 1869, Utah doing likewise in the following year... In 1893 voters of Colorado made that State the second of the woman suffrage States. In 1895 Utah adopted a constitution in which woman suffrage was provided for.” Many states (most of the Western states, see map source below) had already granted full suffrage to women ahead of 1920. By the time women were granted suffrage in the constitution, the women of Wyoming had been voting for 51 years!
The reason that US women’s suffrage wasn’t considered granted until 1920 was because that was when the Nineteenth Amendment was brought to the Federal Constitution.
A parallel American figure to Britain’s John Stuart Mill can be seen in Gerrit Smith, the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate in 1848, whose cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is seen as one of the early women’s rights pioneers (President of NAWSA 1890-1892), and whose speech ‘Declaration of Sentiments’, presented at the first women’s rights convention, is seen as a landmark of agitation for the vote in America. Smith was believed to have been heavily influence by Stanton, and included a declaration of support for women’s suffrage in his early high-profile political speeches for the Liberal Party. This politicised and brought attention to the movement for women’s suffrage in much the same way as John Stuart Mill did in Britain in the 1860s.
The National Convention for the Rights of Women was held in 1850, a point at which women across the States fighting for various rights and equalities were brought together. However, again, much like in Britain, the women were also fighting issues of equality in all areas of life – property, divorce etc. American women were subject to an extremely powerful social ideology now known as the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ (or ‘Cult of Domesticity’), which existed to exclude women from the public sphere and confine them to the home, propagating the ideal values of womanhood: piety, purity, domesticity, submissiveness.
It should also be noted that, in 1850, the USA was struggling with horrendous racism, the ongoing problem of slavery, and the beginnings of a Civil War (1861). This somewhat pushed suffrage down the agenda – note Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ speech, advocating equality for black women as well as white.
Progress for women’s suffrage appears to be significantly slower in Europe. Although Germany granted women suffrage in 1918, Spain did not grant women suffrage until 1931, France not until 1944, and Italy 1945. Switzerland did not enfranchise women until 1971.
Finland was the first European country to grant women the right to vote, in 1906/7. It is recorded that women could vote in Finland in the 18th century, and in 1863 taxpaying women were granted suffrage in some areas.
Interestingly, although Spanish women could not vote until 1931, and did not achieve full suffrage until 1976 after the break from Franco (who dictated restrictions on women’s suffrage in the Organic Law, 1942, which specified that, in some elections, only the heads of families could vote), Spain had women MPs and mayors from as early as 1865.
National politics, especially revolutions and wars (civil and international) interfered across the globe with women’s fights for suffrage. According to www.france.fr, “during the Revolution, women were considered “passive citizens” and despite the appeal by Condorcet, they were not given the right to vote”.
Interestingly, women’s suffrage in Germany was tied to a revolutionary stance, as it was granted by the first government after the declaration of a Republic, the Council of the People’s Deputies, following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
There were prominent figures in France who made the case for women’s suffrage, most notably Olympe de Gouge, who wrote the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen” in 1791, which was a feminist piece in dialogue with the Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”. She was guillotined for treason. Again, like Britain and the USA, many women suffragists were “feminists”, few in number and considered very radical.
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