Women’s suffrage: After 100 years since millions of women got the vote around the world, how do their rights compare now?

The first countries to grant women the vote in 1918 include Ireland and Azerbaijan. But in the UK, it was only women over 30 who owned a property or had a university education that were allowed to vote. Emily Goddard and Josie Cox look at how some of the most forward thinking countries of the time now fare in terms of rights for women

Emily Goddard,Josie Cox
Tuesday 06 February 2018 12:01
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The memorial procession for the suffragette Emily Davison, London in 1943
The memorial procession for the suffragette Emily Davison, London in 1943

Amid a groundswell in sexual harassment claims across Hollywood, Westminster, the City of London and elsewhere, it is with bitter-sweet sentiment that we celebrate this year’s centenary of the Representation of the People Act on 6 February.

Commemorating Emily Davison, who died after being knocked down by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby

The legislation granted some women in the UK the right to vote, but while its anniversary serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come, it should also underscore how much work still lies ahead. April’s gender pay gap reporting deadline is perhaps the next important test.

The Act and what it achieved should also not be over-celebrated. While it marked an important beginning of a process, it was in many ways a feeble start. It gave females the right to vote, but only if they were over the age of 30, owned property, were a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, or were a graduate in a university constituency.

It was restrictive and overly selective. But it did change the face of the electorate dramatically. According to the electoral register of the time, the female proportion shot up to 43 per cent despite those limitations. And, perhaps most significantly, it paved the way for the Equal Franchise Act a decade later: an extension of the Act from 1918, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote – property owners or not.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of that first important milestone, we take a look at how women’s rights in the UK have developed since then and how this country stacks up in a global context.

United Kingdom

 ‘Black Friday’, Westminster, London, 18 November 1910: riots followed the shelving of The Conciliation Bill (which would have given the vote to some women); 115 women and 4 men were arrested (Getty)

Despite the political reform of 1918 and 1928 that came as a result of the Suffragette movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst, it took several other pieces of legislation for real social reform to be achieved here in the UK, theoretically granting women rights on par with those enjoyed by men.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 stipulated that nobody could be disqualified from performing a public function, or from holding a civil or judicial office or post, because of their gender. But it wasn’t until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937 that women were given the same rights to divorce their husbands as the rights men had to divorce their wives.

And women in the UK had to wait until 1970 for the government to introduce the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to treat men and women doing an equivalent role differently in terms of pay.

Despite this, pay discrimination is still a widespread concern that institutions such as the BBC have in recent months shone an unflattering light on by publishing the salaries of their highest paid actors and presenters.

Emmeline Pankhurst is escorted by police at her eleventh arrest in 1911 (Getty)

In early April this year, all organisations in the country employing at least 250 people will have to publish the gender pay gap of their company for all four quartiles of their workforce.

On paper, women may have all the same judicial rights as men here in the UK, but gender pay gap reporting will undoubtedly provide further evidence that we’re still decades off being able to speak about true parity of the sexes.

United States

3 February 1913: American suffragette Rosalie Jones leads protesters up Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC (Getty)

Different states granted women the right to vote in the US at different times – starting in 1890 with Wyoming – but in 1920, thanks to the 19th Amendment of the Constitution being ratified, suffrage was rolled out nationally.

In the subsequent decades, a flurry of political groups formed dedicated to individual issues around women’s rights. Prominent examples included the League of Women Voters and the National Council of Negro Women.

The National Women’s Party, which was founded in 1913, drafted the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, which stipulated that equality of right under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. It took until 22 March 1972 – almost half a century later – for the ERA to be passed by Congress and sent to the individual states for ratification.

Last year, on 22 March, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA.

1917: Two women hold a suffrage protest banner, District of Columbia (Alamy)

In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by John F Kennedy, aimed at abolishing wage disparity but, as in the UK, a stubborn pay gap remains across the US. In 2016, the gap was still around 20 per cent, despite having narrowed considerably since the 1970s.

Much of that gap, like that in the UK, is down to women having caring responsibilities, dropping out of the workforce to have children, and tending to occupy lower paying jobs, but some of it is also believed to be down to discrimination.

Since the 1990s, movements and political groups dedicated to women’s rights have largely focused on issues such as reproductive rights – safeguarding a woman’s right to chose if she wants to have an abortion – rights around sexual harassment and issues around the so-called glass ceiling in the corporate world.

Switzerland

This Alpine country may seem achingly democratic in many ways, but when it comes to women’s right to vote, Switzerland was an embarrassingly late adopter.

In fact, women didn’t gain the right to vote in Switzerland until February 1971, making it one of the last developed countries to adopt women’s unconditional suffrage. A referendum had been held on the matter in 1959, which still would have been late by international comparison, but the motion was rejected by the majority of the country’s men.

It wasn’t until 1991, 20 years later, that the small canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden finally allowed women to vote on local issues too.

Despite pay equality between the sexes being enshrined in law, thanks to the Gender Equality Act, Switzerland also still has a gender pay gap – thought to be above 18 per cent. According to the government, the gap is even greater (around 24 per cent) in managerial positions and some of that is down to discrimination.

There’s also still a widely held traditional view that women, especially if married, should only work part time. According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development from last year, Switzerland has one of the highest proportions of women working part time of all 35 member countries of the OECD, which significantly reduces their earning potential.

New Zealand

April 1896: National Council of Women of New Zealand at their inaugural meeting in Christchurch (Alamy)

One of New Zealand’s, if not the world’s, most prominent figures in women’s suffrage, Kate Sheppard, had unlikely beginnings in Liverpool. Born in the north-west English city in 1847, she moved with her family to Christchurch in the 1860s and led the campaign that saw New Zealand become the first self-governing country in the world to allow women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

The landmark move was signed into law on 19 September 1893 and when the general election was held two months later, nearly two-thirds of New Zealand women over 21 used their vote. Sheppard’s pioneering work cemented the nation’s place at the vanguard of women’s rights activism and was pivotal to its image as a “social laboratory” – it also meant her face would appear on the front of the 10-dollar note.

Women getting the vote set the foundations for further steps towards gender equality in New Zealand. Just two months later, Elizabeth Yates became the mayor of Onehunga, making her the British Empire’s first female mayor. However, women were not eligible to stand for parliament until 1919 and it was not until the 1933 by-election that the first female MP, Elizabeth McCombs, was elected.

It would be another eight years before women were eligible to be appointed to the upper house of parliament and another 56 years before the country got its first female prime minister in Jenny Shipley. Last month (January), however, current prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, secured another win for the women’s movement with the announcement that she would give birth while holding office. “I’m just pregnant, not incapacitated,” she said. “Like everyone else who has found themselves pregnant before, I’m just keeping on going.”

New Zealand regularly appears in the top five of “best places in the world to live as a woman” ratings and it was the first country to hold a women’s march against Trump’s inauguration, but there is still work to be done. While the country is squeezing its gender pay gap, it is still a problem at 0.9 per cent between the ages of 20 and 24 and 19.9 per cent for those aged between 50 and 54, and it has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the developed world. Perhaps most worrying though is the fact that life for Māori and Pacific Island women remains very different to that of Pakeha.

Ireland

Ireland, like the United Kingdom, is this year marking the centenary of the nation’s women getting the right to vote after a long campaign led by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Although equality and universal suffrage had been key principles of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out on Easter Monday two years before, this entitlement was only enjoyed by women who were over the age of 30 and owned property, despite men being able to vote at 21 with no qualification. It was not until after partition that all Irish women over 21 were given full voting rights in 1922.

The years that followed, however, saw the introduction of laws that stripped women of many basic rights, including employment after marriage, working in industry and jury service, as a conservative culture and the Catholic church grew at a suffocating pace. In 1937, then Taoiseach Eamon De Valera’s constitution prohibited contraception and divorce, and women were all but banned beyond the realms of the home.

 3 July 1926: Anglo-Irish poitical activist and writer, Charlotte Despard (centre) leads members of the Women’s Freedom League in the Equal Political Rights Demonstration, London (Getty)

The arrival of second-wave feminism in the Seventies, along with its “contraceptive train”, looked as though it could spell a change in fortunes for the nation’s women but improvements have been small and slow. The sale of contraceptives was allowed from 1979 but the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed in 1983, means abortion on request remains illegal still today.

Meanwhile, the true scale of the horror that went on inside the walls of Magdalene Laundries for unmarried mothers and their children was only just coming to light in the 1990s, and the last one closed its doors in 1996. Only last year, another mass grave of babies’ remains was discovered at a former Catholic care home, where it is believed up to 800 died.

These reprehensible practices are a stain on Ireland’s history but some hope that this year, 100 years after Irish women became eligible to vote, will be a watershed for women’s rights after it was announced last week that a referendum on whether or not to reform its anti-abortion laws will be held in May.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan became the first Muslim-majority (although secular) country to enfranchise women when it introduced universal suffrage in 1918. On paper, the genders share the same legal rights but the reality lived by many women in the former Soviet republic can betray that fact because they are often repressed by traditional social norms. This might explain its position of 98 out of 144 countries in last year’s Global Gender Gap Index.

22 August 1908: Mary Leigh (left) and Edith New are released from Holloway prison; they were imprisoned for breaking windows at 10 Downing Street

In politics, Mehriban Aliyeva was last year made vice president of the nation – but she is also the first lady, with her husband Ilham Aliyev having been president since 2003. Her appointment was hailed as a major stride forward for women’s rights. Several other women have held senior government posts, but only 17 per cent of members of parliament are women. Elsewhere, women are particularly underrepresented in high-level positions in the workplace and business, for example.

A 2016 report on Azerbaijan’s human rights practices noted problems with violence against women and trafficking. Most worrying though is that it has one of the largest gender gaps in the world for health and survival, which could partly be attributed to gender-biased sex selection because the custom is reported to be widespread, especially in rural regions.

Legal frameworks are in place for preventing domestic violence but, in practice, women can struggle to find help when they face the threat of abuse. Societal attitudes towards abusive relationships are also alarming; 40 per cent of Azerbaijanis believe women should tolerate domestic violence in order to keep their family together and nearly a quarter agree there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten. Research has also found that the authorities rarely enforce the ban on sexual harassment and some women have been “encouraged” to become prostitutes to support their family.

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