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Limited vs Full Enfranchisement: Race in the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage
By Daniel Franklin
In a troubled year, on August 26 millions will honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which will give cause for celebration and reflection.
America was the 25th country worldwide to award women the vote in 1920, and this puts it in the top 12% all time, far ahead of many other Western democracies when looking at awarding full enfranchisement. In this article, we’ll look at the somewhat marred history of those countries with the biggest gap between awarding limited, and full, enfranchisement throughout history.
First, it’s important to acknowledge how race and the vote for women were inextricably linked from the mid-1800s.
When the first mass women’s suffrage petition, containing 1,500 women’s signatures, was presented to the House of Commons in England in June 1866, the name of one black woman was included. Sarah Parker Remond was an African American who had been giving anti-slavery lectures in England since early 1859. Remond’s stance on suffrage mirrored that of her anti-slavery message, all people deserved the basic right to be viewed as equal within any society.
Fellow abolitionist, and former slave, Sojourner Truth was touring the United States at the same time, giving lectures promoting equality and challenging the concepts of gender and race inferiority. In 1867, one year after the petition in the UK was presented to Parliament, Truth was lecturing at the American Equal Rights Association, solidifying her stance that the black vote and the women’s vote should be granted together.
“I feel that I have the right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about coloured men getting their rights, but not a word about the coloured women; and if coloured men get their rights, and coloured women not theirs, the coloured men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.” - Sojourner Truth
Truth was eerily prophesizing what would eventually take place in America. Black men were awarded the vote with the 15th Amendment, but women had to wait another 50 whole years. Yet, when the vote did come, it came for all women, and actually allowed black women in the USA to vote before the majority of women in many other Western countries.
Australia (68 years between limited and full enfranchisement)
After New Zealand granted voting rights to women in 1892, Australia followed their neighbors soon after, in 1894. However, the privilege was restricted to colonials only. Aboriginal Australians would have to wait until 1962 to be awarded the vote. Australia has a chequered history with its indigenous population, and the 68 years they had to wait is the longest time between limited and full enfranchisement in history.
Canada (42 years)
Similar to Australia, indigenous Canadian women were largely kept silent when it came to voting. Canada awarded enfranchisement after the war in 1918 but this was to whites only. Even after Inuit women were granted the vote in 1960, it would take two more years before ballot boxes were even brought to the Arctic.
The struggle was similar for Asian women (and men) in Canada, who had to wait until 1948 to receive the vote.
United Kingdom (10 Years)
Following the end of World War One, as many of the returning soldiers would not be eligible it was felt that all men had earned the right to vote. When the Representation of the People Act of 1918 was passed, the first women were also finally given the vote. There was no specific caveat on the right to vote regarding race, though the women eligible to vote must be over the age of 30 and the owner of (or wife to the owner of) property. This therefore excluded almost all non-whites from voting.
The majority of women of color would need to wait a further ten years before they could vote in Britain as young and working class women would only be included in the enfranchisement of the vote within the Representation of the People Act (1928). All adults over the age of 21 were then eligible to vote throughout the UK, regardless of status, race or gender.
When it comes to the length of time between countries awarding limited and full enfranchisement, it is clear that race was, in most cases, the sole contributing factor.
The Forgotten History Of Women’s Suffrage In The United States
Of the many thousands of women who showed up for the Women&rsquos March on Washington in January 2017, likely very few knew about the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913. So much of suffrage history has been forgotten, the good and the bad.
The 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, taking place this Aug. 18, has brought to light many stories of the struggle for the women&rsquos vote, perhaps none a more troubling object lesson than the 1913 Procession.
Held the day before newly elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson was sworn into office for his first term, more than 8,000 women marched &ldquoin a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded,&rdquo according to the day&rsquos official program. In other words, women demanded the vote.
The front of that same program depicted a young white woman on a white horse at the head of the procession, her hair styled in a sleek bob in Joan of Arc meets &ldquoNew Woman&rdquo flapper fashion. There really was such a woman at the head of the 1913 march: Inez Milholland, who would, like Joan of Arc herself, quite literally die for the cause. There was so much courage involved in the fight for women&rsquos right to vote. There was also racism. When march organizer and suffrage strategist Alice Paul told Black suffragists to march in the back that day, journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells wouldn&rsquot have it.
Daybreak March 3, 1913, was clear and cold, with zero chance of rain or snow. The day before the inauguration of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was an excellent day for a suffrage parade.
Ida B. Wells might have sat on her boardinghouse bed that morning pulling on first one pair of stockings, then another. Behind her on the coverlet may have lain the dark shapes of her heaviest skirt and coat, a thick fur muff alongside them. Bright beside those, a curving white hat covered in stars, with matching scarf and pennant. The stars signified states with full suffrage. The other side of the scarf declared in bold black letters: Illinois. Her home state. Wells no doubt assumed she&rsquod be alone in a sea of white women, but she wasn&rsquot afraid to stand out. Her creed, always: &ldquoOne had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.&rdquo
The Root: How Racism Tainted Women's Suffrage
A 1894 showdown between anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and temperance leader Frances E. Willard revealed the grip that racial resentment had over the American suffrage movement. iStockphoto.com hide caption
Monee Fields-White is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers a wide array of topics, including business and economic news.
"I am in Great Britain today because I believe that the silent indifference with which she has received the charge that human beings are burned alive in Christian Anglo-Saxon communities is born of ignorance of the true situation. America cannot and will not ignore the voice of a nation that is her superior in civilization."
In 1893, journalist and early civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells crossed the Atlantic for the first time to deliver that sobering message to Great Britain. She had hoped to sway public opinion about the racial violence that plagued the U.S. The lynching of black men and women seemed to have become a sport among Southern white mobs — reaching a peak of 161 deaths in 1892.
That included the hanging of three black businessmen, one a close friend of Wells, during that year in her former home of Memphis, Tenn. She called for blacks to leave the city "which will neither protect our lives and property." More than 6,000 black residents left, and many others boycotted white businesses Wells was exiled.
But the Memphis murders sparked the beginning of Wells' anti-lynching crusade. Combing through statistics and interviewing eyewitnesses, she conducted the first in-depth investigation into the real reasons behind the lynching of these black men — and many others who were mostly accused of allegedly raping a white woman. She wrote about her tragic findings in a column for the New York Age newspaper and forged the modern-day civil rights movement.
"Wells was one of those driven people, who never looked to the left or to the right. If something needed to be said or done, she just goes and does it," said Paula Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor in Afro-American Studies at Smith College, in an interview with The Root. "She doesn't worry about the consequences."
Civil Rights, Temperance and Suffrage: An Uneasy Mix
As the nation approached the 20th century, Wells saw that the spate of racial injustice needed to be addressed in a new and direct manner — through outright protest and self-defense. That challenged the nation's moralistic Victorian attitudes at the time. Such a grounded stance also pitted her against one of the most formidable American leaders within the movement to gain women the vote, or suffrage: Frances E. Willard, national president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.
Throughout much of the 1800s, the women's alcohol temperance movement was a powerful force in the greater push toward women's suffrage. Meanwhile, many suffrage leaders — such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — had also championed black equality. Yet in 1870, the suffragists found themselves on opposing ends of the equal-rights battle when Congress passed the 15th Amendment, enabling black men to vote (at least, in theory) — and not women. That measure engendered resentment among some white suffragists, especially in the South.
To Willard, giving women the right to vote was the only way to rid the U.S. of evils of intemperance. She couched this view in the organization's mission of "home protection." It was a view that garnered her much support within the WCTU, which had 250,000 members and chapters in just about every state.
She was even willing to court white Southern women, at the expense of blacks, even though her parents had been abolitionists. " 'Better whiskey and more of it' is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs," Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice. "The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities."
That statement and others incensed Wells. She was angered even more by the fact that Willard was considered to be a friend within the black community, in part because some of the WCTU chapters had accepted black women as members. But the WCTU president "unhesitatingly slandered the entire Negro race in order to gain favor with those who are hanging, shooting and burning Negroes alive," Wells said in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice.
Giddings, who wrote the biography Ida: A Sword Among Lions, says that Wells knew that in order to bring change, she needed to expose the truth: that too many white liberals were doing nothing to oppose crimes against black Southerners. She was also pushing to gain financial and political backing from the British people.
"Wells always understood that one of her most difficult challenges was to get the liberals in line," said Giddings. If Wells failed in Great Britain, "all could be lost."
Wells Takes Her Case Across the Pond
Wells laid the groundwork for the anti-lynching crusade in 1893, when she arrived in Great Britain for the first time. British Quaker Catherine Impey, an activist and publisher who supported racial equality, invited Wells to speak at churches and other gatherings.
Wells was also interviewed by British news publications. Just about everywhere, she was asked why she had traveled so far. Her response: "Our country remains silent on those continued outrages. It is to the religious and moral sentiment of Great Britain we turn."
While many of the British believed that lynching was a scourge in the U.S., they had a hard time believing that women like Willard could ignore the problems. They even heralded Willard as the "uncrowned queen of American democracy."
Wells had to find a way to dispel the myth. She finally got her chance to take on Willard during a second visit to Great Britain for the anti-lynching campaign. Willard was in England as the guest of Lady Henry Somerset, head of the British temperance movement. Both women were invited to speak before British temperance advocates on May 9, 1894.
Wells had to be strategic in her speech, said Crystal Feimster, assistant professor of African-American studies and American studies at Yale University, in an interview with The Root. "Wells saw that if she could nail Willard down, she would be able to harness a huge political force in the U.S."
During that era, the social sciences were being used to justify unequal treatment according to race, Giddings said. They were employed "to show that blacks are inherently inferior in terms of their blood and makeup of the body," she said. "As a result, they are less civilized and are actually regressing to a savagery."
Wells came to the lecture armed with a copy of the 1890 interview with the New York Voice that echoed such racist thinking. Willard had told the publication that the local tavern "is the Negro's center of power . the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt."
When asked her opinion of Willard, Wells chose to read the interview. With Willard at her side and little time to actually speak, Wells asked the audience how influential white women could continue to turn a blind eye to the white mobs who threatened black lives. Afterward, she was able to get a British journal, the Fraternity, to reprint Willard's interview.
Lady Somerset was so enraged by Wells' commentary that she demanded that the Fraternity article not be printed, or Wells would never be heard in Britain again. The article was published anyway. Lady Somerset also sent a telegram to black abolitionist Frederick Douglass demanding that he publicly reprimand Wells. Douglass didn't give in to Lady Somerset's demands (yet Wells later sadly noted in a letter to Douglass that he did little to fully support her overseas campaign).
The Power of the Press — and Its Limitations
Lady Somerset and Willard were not done. Pushing to publicly embarrass Wells in the press, the pair arranged for another Willard interview with the Westminster Gazette, a London newspaper. This time it was conducted by Somerset, who gave Willard a platform for her version.
Willard talked about her family background and expressed concern for the plight of blacks. But she also stated that "the best people I knew in the South" had told her black people were threatening the safety of white women and children. She continued, "It is not fair that a plantation Negro who can neither read or write should be entrusted with the ballot."
Other U.S. publications — including the Memphis Commercial — weighed in with statements against Wells' character. The Commercial examined her career, painting "the saddle-colored Sapphira" from Holly Springs, Miss., as a harlot. The newspaper also stated that Wells was pushing her "foul and slanderous" outbursts on the British.
Even so, the media campaign didn't stop Wells. She lectured to audiences in London was invited to dinner in Parliament and before she headed home, helped Londoners establish the London Anti-Lynching Committee. Forming this group was a clear victory for Wells in the anti-lynching crusade. It comprised some of the most influential editors, ministers, college professors and members of Parliament. To Wells' surprise, Lady Somerset joined the committee, and Willard was among the Americans who also signed on.
With the victory in hand, Wells set sail for home after a four-month campaign. She later wrote in her autobiography that the moment "was not only a boomerang to Miss Willard. It seemed to appeal to the British sense of fair play. Here were two prominent white women, joining hands in the effort to crush an insignificant colored woman who had neither money nor influence — nothing but the power of truth with which to fight her battles."
When Women Received the Full Vote in Every Country: Interactive Timeline
2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, where women were giving full voting rights in the United States. In commemoration of this momentous year in history, this interactive timeline shows the year in which each country gave the vote to women. The data refers to women from that country being able to vote on a national level.
Choose a country from the drop down menu, or click on a year on the graph to see which countries granted the full vote that year.
- North America
- Central America
- South America
Total Countries with Full Enfranchisement
- North America
- Central America
- South America
Total Countries with Full Enfranchisement
The graph includes countries that no longer exist or merged i.e North and South Yemen.
The only countries where women still cannot vote fully are Vatican City and the United Arab Emirates.
It must also be noted that although women have full voting rights in the majority of countries, they still struggle to vote in a number of countries due to stigmas surrounding women's rights or due to one-party states.
The graphic below shows the top 12 countries with the greatest disparity in time between women initially being given limited voting rights to when they were given full enfranchisement. This highlights the fact that despite women being initially granted the vote, the right to vote was often dependant on their wealth, or race, for a long time.
Australia (68 years): Though Australia was technically the second country to award women the vote after New Zealand in 1894, this was restricted to colonials aboriginal peoples were not allowed to vote until 1962.
South Africa (63 years): Voting was limited to white women on the same basis as white men. Coloured people were not given voting rights until 1984, while Africans had to wait until the fall of Apartheid in 1994.
Afghanistan (45 years): After gaining independence from Britain, women had limited enfranchisement until 1929, but when the country adopted Sharia law, they could no longer vote at all.
Portugal (45 years): The restrictions on voting were based on a woman's level of education, and were lifted after the revolution in 1974.
Kenya (44 years): In 1919 European women living in Kenya were given the right to vote. In 1956 these rights were extended to African men and women with a certain level of education or property ownership. In 1963 everyone could vote regardless of race.
Canada (42 years): Voting rights were limited to women over 21, "not alien-born", and who met provincially determined property qualifications. By 1920 Canadian women (excluding aboriginal) could vote. In 1960 First Nation people were granted the right to vote.
Nigeria (26 years): In 1950, women in the south were partially enfranchised, whereas women in the north (who were predominantly Muslim) weren't allowed to vote at all until the country gave full enfranchisement in 1976.
Bermuda (24 years): Voting rights were limited to property holding women.
Guatemala (19 years): Only literate women were granted voting rights.
United Arab Emirates (12 years): Still limited suffrage for women and men, the rulers of the seven Emirates each select a proportion of voters for the Federal National Council (FNC) that together account for about 12% of Emirati citizens.
El Salvador (11 years): Voting rights were restricted in regards to literacy level.
United Kingdom (10 years): Voting rights were limited to women over 30, compared to 21 for men and 19 for those who had fought in World War One. Additionally, various property restrictions remained in place (see The Representation of the People Act 1918).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage
This Narrative focuses on women’s rights and can be used alongside The Women’s Movement and the Seneca Falls Convention Lesson.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a Second Great Awakening, or religious revival, swept through the United States. The evangelical fervor spawned numerous reform movements such as abolitionism, temperance, and prison reform. Reformers sought to alleviate harsh conditions, work for equality for all, eliminate vice, and create a utopian society. In general, they wanted to achieve a more just society.
In the 1830s and 1840s, these reform movements created organizations that worked to advocate greater equality and improve civil society. They sent out speakers to raise awareness, spread knowledge through pamphlets and newspapers, lobbied politicians at various levels of government, and learned how to create strong organizations. Many of the reform movements were controversial because of the change they sought.
During this time, most Americans accepted the idea that there were different spheres for men and women – men were active in public life through their jobs and politics, and women were responsible for the home. As a result of these gender roles, women suffered inequality in most social and political institutions. They could not vote or serve on juries, and married women generally could not own property. They did not have the same educational or professional opportunities as men. The antebellum reform movements gave women an opportunity to participate in politics and public life because of the inherent moral quality of social reform and because, by the 1830s, women were being seen as defenders of morality in society. When they engaged in movements for equality and justice such as abolition and prison reform, women gained practical experience in organizing a movement.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the pioneers in the fight for women’s rights. Born to an affluent family in upstate New York, the “burned-over district” and center of the Second Great Awakening, she received a classical education, unusual for girls at the time. Her parents were Quakers who taught her their values of human equality and abolitionism. In the spring of 1840, the twenty-five-year-old Stanton boarded the Montreal to sail to London on her honeymoon with her new husband, abolitionist Henry Stanton. They were among forty people from the United States (including eight women) who were traveling across the Atlantic to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.
The three-week voyage was largely uneventful. Stanton and her husband took advantage of the trip to read abolitionist tracts and discuss ideas associated with antislavery. The couple stayed at the grimy lodging house of an abolitionist in Cheapside, London. Nevertheless, they enjoyed touring around the capital and engaging other abolitionists in conversation.
On Friday, June 12, the meeting of some five hundred abolitionists convened in Freemasons’ Hall. Stanton and the other female delegates bristled when they were seated behind the bar and not on the floor of the convention as official participants. Abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips and other American men boldly protested the unequal treatment of women. Phillips stated that excluding women was akin to excluding black delegates. Another famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who arrived late and refused to participate because of the seating issue, later said, “If women should be excluded from its deliberation, my interest in [the convention] would be about destroyed.” Nevertheless, the English hosts were adamant that the women would not be seated, because of the customs of the country. Stanton had suffered discrimination at the hands of those at the vanguard of abolitionist reform. It was a turning point in her life.
This lithograph by John Alfred Vinter depicts the 1840 Anti-Slavery Society Convention in London. Note that in this image, women are included on the floor of the meeting, which was not Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s experience at the time.
While in London, Stanton struck up a friendship with women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott. Stanton revered the older Mott and was struck by her oratorical ability when she preached at a London Unitarian church. During a sightseeing walk, the two women agreed to hold a convention and organize a society dedicated to women’s rights. After lingering in London for their honeymoon, the newlyweds sailed home in December with Elizabeth dedicated to a new cause for justice.
Over the next few years, the couple had several children and moved to Boston, where Henry practiced law. Elizabeth’s time was largely consumed by domestic affairs, though she was still very interested in women’s rights. In 1847, she moved her family to New York after her father offered her a piece of property there, with a farmhouse in her own name. The humble town soon became be the site of a historic meeting for women’s rights.
On Sunday, July 9, a half-dozen Quaker women assembled in nearby Waterloo. They met at that time to include Mott, who was visiting from Philadelphia. Mott had encouraged them to also invite Stanton, who made the short ride by train and expressed her discontent at women’s status. The women resolved to call a meeting to “discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” They placed an ad in the local newspaper and in black abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s North Star announcing the upcoming convention. The following Sunday, Stanton met with a few other women and penned a series of resolutions on her own that she intended to present, and, more importantly, a Declaration of Sentiments based on the Declaration of Independence, after reading that document aloud.
(a) Elizabeth Cady Stanton, shown with two of her sons in an 1848 photograph, and (b) Lucretia Mott in an 1842 oil portrait by Joseph Kyle. Both women emerged from the abolitionist movement as strong advocates of women’s rights.
On Wednesday, July 19, a blistering hot summer day, more than one hundred women assembled for the convention in Seneca Falls’ Wesleyan Chapel. Forty men also appeared and were asked not to speak during the morning session. Stanton delivered an opening address in which she spoke passionately against the subordination and inequality of women. She introduced and read the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments (commonly called the “Declaration of Sentiments”) for attendees’ consideration before adjourning in midafternoon.
The next day was just as hot, but more than three hundred women and men squeezed into the crowded church to consider the Declaration of Sentiments and a series of resolutions. Henry Stanton had warned his wife that if she planned to bring up women’s suffrage, he would stay away. “You will turn the proceedings into a farce,” he told her. Because she definitely would advocate women’s suffrage, he spent the day lecturing in another town.
The assembly heard Stanton read the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments again and noted its familiar words, because it was modeled after the assertion of universal rights in the Declaration of Independence. Stanton’s Declaration featured a significant clarification: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” Just as the original Declaration had presented a list of grievances against George III, the Declaration of Sentiments included a list of grievances and stated that the “history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.”
The list included examples of political, civil, economic, and educational inequality. Man had compelled woman to follow laws “in the formation of which she had no voice.” It continued, “He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.” Moreover, “He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.” Men had allowed women “but a subordinate position” in church affairs. Most importantly, and most controversially, the declaration asserted: “It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise” of the vote.
The Declaration and other resolutions, especially for women’s suffrage, were highly contentious, even at the convention. Mott told Stanton, “Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous.” The other Quaker women, who were not interested in civil affairs, also demurred. Frederick Douglass was the only man to support the resolution and delivered a speech defending women’s right to vote. He said, “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” In the end, the resolution barely passed and, as predicted, it was the center of ridicule in the press. That evening, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed the convention’s statement.
This souvenir from 1908 was created to commemorate the women and men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848.
Voting during the new republic had been limited to those with economic independence, because of the republican ideal that only they could be disinterested in exercising the right of suffrage. In New Jersey, the 1776 state constitution allowed all women to vote. Then, in 1790s, the state’s constitution was revised to allow only single women who owned property to vote. This remained in effect until 1807, when suffrage was rescinded due to partisanship disputes. During the 1800s, new ideals of democratic citizenship and suffrage were formed. Stanton led the fight for women’s suffrage on the grounds that the individual right to vote was at the core of citizenship and political participation in the republic. She stated that women’s suffrage was the “stronghold of the fortress” of women’s equality. The long struggle for women’s suffrage thus began with the unflagging fortitude of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her dedication to the cause of justice for women.
1. Upon what document was the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments based as it argued for women’s rights?
- The U.S. Constitution
- The Articles of Confederation
- The Declaration of Independence
- The Declaration of Rights and Grievances
2. Most of the women who led the women’s rights movement in the 1830s and 1840s had gained leadership experience in campaigns for which movement?
- Abolition of slavery
- Separation of church and state
- Democratic socialism
- Equal pay for equal work
3. During the antebellum period women were least likely to have the opportunity to
- receive elementary education
- work outside the home
- vote and run for office
- own property
4. Who did not support adding the right to vote to the 1848 Declaration?
- Frederick Douglass
- Lucretia Mott
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
- Quaker representatives
5. The catalyst for the start of the women’s rights movement was
- the realization that women were excluded from the Constitution
- the exclusion of women as official delegates at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London
- the strong desire for women to have the right to vote
- the breakdown of traditional roles between men and women
6. Which abolitionist spoke these words in support of the women’s rights movement?
In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.
- William Lloyd Garrison
- Frederick Douglass
- Henry Stanton
- Wendell Phillips
Free Response Questions
- Explain why Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other like-minded individuals supported the movement for women’s rights in the United States.
- Explain the motivation for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the participants of the Seneca Falls Convention to use the Declaration of Independence as the model for the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments.
AP Practice Questions
“Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation, in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.
In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.”
The Declaration of Sentiments
Seneca Falls (NY) Convention, July 19-20, 1848
1. The excerpt reflects the sentiments of which group?
- American Indians
- Abolitionists working on behalf of enslaved persons
- Supporters of women’s rights
- Supporters of the rights of Irish and German immigrants
2. Which part of the Bill of Rights do the Declaration’s signers expect to use most frequently?
- The First Amendment
- The Second Amendment
- The Third Amendment
- The Fourth Amendment
3. Which of the following was the most controversial issue in the movement whose sentiments are expressed in the excerpt?
- Equal access to education
- Women’s suffrage
- Explicit support for abolition
- The support for temperance
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. “Modern History Sourcebook: Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls Conference, 1848.” https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/senecafalls.asp
Ginzberg, Lori D. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Matthews, Jean V. Women’s Struggle for Equality: The First Phase, 1828-1876. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.
McMillen, Sally G. Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
The 19 th Amendment
The first generation of American suffragists was coming to an end – Lucy Stone died in 1893, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1903, Susan B. Anthony in 1906. New women took over: The journalist Ida B. Wells revived the old alliance between equality for African Americans and equality for women. Carrie Chapman Catt at the head of NAWSA turned her organization back to lobbying for federal voting rights enshrined in an Amendment to the Constitution. And Alice Paul, inspired by the British suffragettes (read more on them below), brought radicalism and the all the tools at the disposal of an activist movement back to the US.
- Iconic leaders of the American suffrage movement I: Card Alice Paul from The Vote, ©Hollandspiele.
- Iconic leaders of the American suffrage movement II: Card Ida B. Wells from The Vote, ©Hollandspiele.
Paul’s organizations – first the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, then the National Woman’s Party – staged some of the most iconic public manifestations of the suffrage movement – like the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession through D.C. to the picketing of the White House and the protest against “Kaiser Wilson” fighting a war for the self-government of the Germans while half of his own citizens were disenfranchised. On the other side, NAWSA under the organizational and diplomatic leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt proved a highly effective lobbying organization, always in touch with members of the federal and state legislatures, the administrations, and the party leaders.
Alice Paul’s National Woman Party had a keen eye for striking imagery, as exemplified by the procession depicted on the cover of The Vote. Note the color scheme: Gold was the traditional color of American suffragism, but Paul had adopted the purple from the British suffragettes. Image ©Hollandspiele.
International developments also turned in favor of women’s suffrage: Women had taken on many traditionally male roles during World War I, and thus had strengthened their claim to the vote. Russia and Germany established full suffrage in their respective revolutions of 1917 and 1918/19. The United Kingdom introduced limited female suffrage by parliamentary legislation in 1918.
Under these influences, president Woodrow Wilson, originally an opponent of equal suffrage, came around to (reluctantly) endorse it. A new federal campaign for an equal suffrage amendment began. The amendment – it would be the 19 th – was introduced into Congress in May 1919 and passed with the votes of most Republicans and about half of the Democrats. Now, the Amendment only needed to be ratified by three quarters of the 48 states. This struggle for ratification forms the climax of Votes for Women – the last two turns in which suffragists and anti-suffragists fight over ratification in the individual states.
The 48 states on the mapboard of Votes for Women. The suffragist player (or players, if played cooperatively) will need 36 of them to ratify the 19th Amendment. Or, conversely: If the anti-suffragist player locks down a mere 13 states to decline ratification, they win. Image ©Fort Circle Games (not final art and subject to change until release).
Many states rushed to ratify. Others took it more leisurely or voted against ratification – especially in the south. Southern lawmakers were rather conservative with fixed ideas where a woman’s proper place was (not at the ballot box). The numerous white supremacists among them feared that female enfranchisement would undermine their domination, as black women were expected to vote in higher numbers than white women (who presumably were content with being represented by their male kin).
The anti-suffragist movement in the south leaned heavily on these fears. On the other side, southern suffragists aimed to assuage them – often by arguing that female suffrage strengthened the existing racial hierarchy, as there would be more white female voters than black voters of all genders combined.
By March 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 state legislatures had ratified the amendment. Then further advance stalled. By late May, seven states had rejected ratification, and, surprisingly, Delaware was added to that column in June. Of the remaining states, Connecticut and Vermont seemed in no great rush to ratify, Florida and North Carolina were staunchly against it. Thus, it all came down to Tennessee – a southern state, but politically diverse enough to consider ratification.
Suffragists and anti-suffragists from both in and out of state lobbied the Tennessee lawmakers. For a few weeks in August 1920, Nashville was the hottest place to be – not only because of the southern summer. Under immense pressure from both suffragists and anti-suffragists, Republican and Democratic party leadership, moneyed interests like the railroad and liquor industries, and their own constituents, many Tennessee lawmakers had the instinct to flee. House speaker Seth Walker motioned to table the ratification resolution and only bring it up again after the 1920 presidential election – and failed by one vote. And yet, no majority for either side was certain by the tallies the activists kept. When the Tennessee House finally voted on the ratification, Representative Harry Burn who’d been counted as unreliable at best and an opponent of ratification at worst voted in favor of it – after receiving a letter from his mother urging him to vote yes that very day. The Amendment was ratified with 50 out of 99 votes.
Thus the 36 th state had ratified the 19 th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Legal challenges to the Amendment were rejected by the courts over the next years. By then, women in all states had already cast their ballots in the elections of 1920.
In 1920, “Votes for Women” had turned from a rallying cry into reality. Cover design for Votes for Women, ©Fort Circle Games.
The presumed unified bloc of women voters did not materialize. Women were Republicans, Democrats, and supporters of third parties or independents. Consequently, women’s issues were not a major priority of most lawmakers and administrators (who were still overwhelmingly more often male than female). The first wave of American feminism had won women the vote on equal terms with men (including their limitations – Native Americans regardless of gender were still not enfranchised in 1920, African American women were widely barred from exercising their voting rights in the South as were African American men). Yet it took the second wave in the 1960s and 1970s to put women’s issues beyond legal discriminations – equal pay, reproductive rights, or equal access to education – on the executive and legislative agenda.
Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights
"Awaiting the suffrage Which, if hard work counts for anything, the Negress richly deserves." 1910
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Was there ever a time when your voice wasn’t being heard?
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Black women played an active role in the struggle for universal suffrage. They participated in political meetings and organized political societies. African American women attended political conventions at their local churches where they planned strategies to gain the right to vote. In the late 1800s, more Black women worked for churches, newspapers, secondary schools, and colleges, which gave them a larger platform to promote their ideas.
But in spite of their hard work, many people didn’t listen to them. Black men and white women usually led civil rights organizations and set the agenda. They often excluded Black women from their organizations and activities. For example, the National American Woman Suffrage Association prevented Black women from attending their conventions. Black women often had to march separately from white women in suffrage parades. In addition, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote the History of Woman Suffrage in the 1880s, they featured white suffragists while largely ignoring the contributions of African American suffragists. Though Black women are less well remembered, they played an important role in getting the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments passed.
Nine Afro-American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding banner reading, "Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention" (1905-1915).
Library of Congress, Lot 12572, https://www.loc.gov/item/93505051/
Black women found themselves pulled in two directions. Black men wanted their support in fighting racial discrimination and prejudice, while white women wanted them to help change the inferior status of women in American society. Both groups ignored the unique challenges that African American women faced. Black reformers like Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Harriet Tubman understood that both their race and their sex affected their rights and opportunities.
Because of their unique position, Black women tended to focus on human rights and universal suffrage, rather than suffrage solely for African Americans or for women. Many Black suffragists weighed in on the debate over the Fifteenth Amendment, which would enfranchise Black men but not Black women. Mary Ann Shadd Cary spoke in support of the Fifteenth Amendment but was also critical of it as it did not give women the right to vote. Sojourner Truth argued that Black women would continue to face discrimination and prejudice unless their voices were uplifted like those of Black men.
Mrs. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Prominent Woman of Boston, Leader of the Club Movement Among Colored Women
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1900. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-70ac-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a9
African American women also believed that the issue of suffrage was too large and complex for any one group or organization to tackle alone. They hoped that different groups would work together to accomplish their shared goal. Black suffragists like Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote and spoke about the need for Black and white women to cooperate to achieve the right to vote. Black women worked with mainstream suffragists and organizations, like the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
However, the mainstream organizations did not address the challenges faced by Black women because of their race, such as negative stereotypes, harassment, and unequal access to jobs, housing, and education. So in the late 1800s, Black women formed clubs and organizations where they could focus on the issues that affected them.
Banner with motto of Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women's Clubs.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
In Boston, Black reformers like Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Charlotte Forten Grimke founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. During their meetings at the Charles Street Meeting House, members discussed ways of attaining civil rights and women’s suffrage. The NACW’s motto, “Lifting as we climb,” reflected the organization’s goal to “uplift” the status of Black women. In 1913, Ida B. Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the nation's first Black women's club focused specifically on suffrage.
After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, Black women voted in elections and held political offices. However, many states passed laws that discriminated against African Americans and limited their freedoms. Black women continued to fight for their rights. Educator and political advisor Mary McLeod Bethune formed the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 to pursue civil rights. Tens of thousands of African Americans worked over several decades to secure suffrage, which occurred when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. This Act represents more than a century of work by Black women to make voting easier and more equitable.
Casting ballots in the race for Fifth District, United States Congress. African American voters were crucial to Helen Douglas Mankin's electoral victory.
Votes for Women
|1832||August||Mary Smith, from Yorkshire, petitions Henry Hunt MP that she and other spinsters should &lsquohave a voice in the election of Members [of Parliament]&rsquo. On 3 August 1832, this became the first women&rsquos suffrage petition to be presented to Parliament. |
|1866||7 June||John Stuart Mill MP presents the first mass women&rsquos suffrage petition to the House of Commons. It contains over 1500 signatures.|
|1867||January||Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage (MNSWS) is formed, alongside many other societies in different cities across Britain. |
|May||John Stuart Mill makes an unsuccessful amendment to the Second Reform Bill, which would have granted suffrage to women property holders.|
|1868||April||On 15 April 1868, the MNSWS holds the first ever public meeting about women&rsquos suffrage at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. |
|1870||December||The Married Women's Property Act gives married women the right to own their own property and money.|
|1880||November||The Isle of Man grants female suffrage in an amendment to the Manx Election Act of 1875. |
|1894||December||The Local Government Act is passed, which allows married and single women to vote in elections for county and borough councils.|
|1897||The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) is formed, uniting 17 societies. Later led by Milicent Fawcett, the NUWSS favoured peaceful campaign methods such as petitions.|
This pamphlet states that &lsquothe object of the Union [NUWSS] is to obtain the Parliamentary vote for women on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men&rsquo.
|1902||Women textile workers from Northern England present a petition to Parliament that contains 37,000 signatures demanding votes for women.|
|1903||October||The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) is formed in Manchester at the home of Emmeline Pankhurst.|
|1905||The WSPU adopts the motto ‘Deeds not Words’, resulting in the start of militant action by the suffragettes.|
|1907||February||The NUWSS organises their first large procession, where 40 suffragist societies and over 3000 women marched from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall in the rain and mud. It later became known as the 'Mud March'. |
|8 March||The Women’s Enfranchisement Bill (the ‘Dickinson Bill’) is introduced to parliament for its second reading but is talked out. |
Dora Thewlis and 75 other suffragettes are arrested when the WSPU attempt to storm the Houses of Parliament. 
|August||Qualification of Women Act is passed, allowing women to be elected onto borough and county councils and as mayor.|
|Autumn||1-in-5 suffragettes leave the WSPU to join the newly-formed Women’s Freedom League (WFL).  |
|1908||April||Herbert Henry Asquith, an anti-suffragist Liberal MP, becomes Prime Minister.|
|June||‘Women’s Sunday’ demonstration is organised by the WSPU at Hyde Park, London. Attended by 250,000 people from around Britain, it is the largest-ever political rally in London. Ignored by Asquith, suffragettes turn to smashing windows in Downing Street, using stones with written pleas tied to them, and tie themselves to railings.|
|July||The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (WASL) is formed by Mrs Humphrey Ward.|
|1909||July||Marion Wallace Dunlop becomes the first imprisoned suffragette to go on hunger strike. Later that year prisons begin to force feed inmates on hunger strike. |
|October||The Women's Tax Resistance League (WTRL) is formed, a direct action group who refused to pay taxes without political representation. Their founding slogan is ‘No vote, no tax’.|
|August||The WASL merges with the Men’s National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. The League now has a total of 42,000 enrolled members. |
|November||The Conciliation Bill, which would grant suffrage for one million women who owned property over the value of £10, is passed by the Commons but fails to become law. |
In retaliation, 300 suffragettes from the WSPU march on parliament, where they are met with police brutality, assault and arrests. This day later becomes known as ‘Black Friday’.
Map for a Suffragette march, June 1911
This map shows the route for the Coronation Procession organised by the WSPU in 1911. It shows 'the great demonstration' would begin at Westminster and end at the Albert Hall.
|1911||Emily Wilding Davison avoids the census by hiding in a cupboard in the crypt at the House of Commons.|
|June||On the eve of King George V’s coronation, around 40,000 women from 28 suffrage societies march for female enfranchisement.|
|November||Asquith announces a manhood suffrage bill, which is seen as a betrayal of the women’s suffrage campaign. In protest, the WSPU organises a mass window-smashing campaign through London. This heightened militancy continues into 1912, and spirals to include arson attacks.|
|1912||March||The Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill is introduced and defeated by 222 votes to 208.|
| ||The Labour Party become the first political party to include female suffrage in their manifesto. This was partly in reaction to the NUWSS’s ‘Election Fighting Fund’, which was set up to help organise the Labour campaign. |
|1913||April||The ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act is introduced (officially titled Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act). It allows authorities to temporarily release suffragettes on hunger strike, and then re-arrest them once they have recuperated. |
|June||Emily Wilding Davison is killed after she steps out in front of the King’s horse at Epsom Derby. A member of WSPU, she intended to disrupt the Derby for the suffrage cause, though her exact motives are unknown. Thousands attend her funeral.|
|18 June - 25 July||50,000 people from around the UK take part in the NUWSS’s ‘Pilgrimage for Women’s Suffrage’, which concludes with a rally in Hyde Park. The NUWSS wanted to display the suffragists’ peaceful, law-abiding tactics. |
|December||As part of her involvement with WTRL, Sophia Duleep Singh is taken to court over her refusal to pay taxes.|
|1914||The East London Federation of Suffragettes is expelled from the WSPU after Christabel Pankhurst claims that they are too concerned with other causes – such as living and working conditions.|
|The NUWSS reaches 50,000 members the WSPU has 5,000 members. |
|May||The WSPU clash with police outside of the gates to Buckingham Palace, when Emmeline Pankhurst attempts to present a petition to King George V. |
|July||The outbreak of World War One brings a suspension to the WSPU’s and NUWSS’s campaigns. Women are urged to support the war effort, and they do, as during this period nearly 5 million women remain or enter into employment. |
|1916|| ||Asquith makes a declaration of allegiance to women’s enfranchisement.|
|December||David Lloyd George, a Liberal MP, replaces Asquith as Prime Minister.|
|1918||February||The Representation of the People Bill is passed, allowing women over the age of 30 and men over the age of 21 to vote. Women have to be married to or a member of the Local Government Register.|
|November||The Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act is passed, enabling women to stand as MPs.|
|1919||March||Millicent Fawcett retires as President of the NUWSS, when it becomes the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship.|
|November||Nancy Astor takes her seat in the Houses of Commons, as the first female MP for Britain. In 1918 Constance Markiewicz stands for Sinn Fein and becomes the first woman elected to Westminster, but in line with Sinn Fein politics declines to take the seat.|
|1928||July||The Representation of the People Act entitles everyone over the age of 21 to vote.|
|1929||May||Women over the age of 21 vote in their first general election. There is no majority, but Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour party take over from the Conservatives.|
 ‘Imperial parliament of Great Britain and Ireland’, Morning Chronicle, (No. 19,638, 4 August 1832), p. 1.
 ‘The Women’s Suffrage Question’, Morning Post (No. 29,438, 16 April 1868), p. 7.
 M A Butler and J Templeton, ‘The Isle of Man and the First Votes for Women’, Women & Politics (4:2, 1984), pp. 33–47.
 J Marlow, ed., Suffragettes: The Fight for Votes for Women (London, 2000).
 ‘Another Suffragist Raid’, Morning Post (No. 42,065, 21 March 1907), p. 7.
 Jill Liddington, Rebel Girls, (London, 2006), p. 67.
 KevinGrant, ‘British Suffragettes and the Russian Method of Hunger Strike’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 53, no. 1 (2011), pp. 113–143.
 Paula Bartley, Votes for Women, 1860-1928 (Oxon, 2003), p. 85.
 ‘An Act to provide for the Temporary Discharge of Prisoners whose further detention in prison is undesirable on account of the condition of their health’, 1913 Cat and Mouse Act, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1913/3&4G5c4 (1913).
 Leslie Parker Hume, The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies 1897-1914 (London, 1982), pp.198–99.
 Julia Bush, Women against the vote: Female anti-suffragism in Britain (Oxford, 2007), p. 3.
 Gail Braybon, Women workers in the First World War (Oxon, 2012).
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Key facts about women’s suffrage around the world, a century after U.S. ratified 19th AmendmentA woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Soweto in April 1994 for South Africa’s first free and democratic general election. (Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)
This year marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees women the right to vote. But the United States was hardly the first country to codify women’s suffrage, and barriers to vote persisted for some groups of U.S. women for decades. At least 20 nations preceded the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center analysis of women’s enfranchisement measures in 198 countries and self-administering territories. Today, none of these 198 countries and territories bar women from voting because of their sex some countries do not hold national elections.
Here is a closer look at the history of women’s suffrage around the world. This analysis focuses on when women in each country won the right to vote in national elections, not regional or local elections.
A century after U.S. women gained the right to vote, we conducted this analysis to find out when women in other countries were first enfranchised at the national level. The analysis is based on information about 198 countries and self-administering territories from government publications, historical documents from organizations like the United Nations and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and news reports. For each country or territory, the year in which women received the right is based on the date this right was codified in a law or constitution or officially granted as part of a United Nations plebiscite. The analysis looks only at when women gained the right to vote in national elections, not in regional or local elections. In some cases, data about when these measures were passed is incomplete, contradicted in other publications or difficult to find, so this analysis is as complete and accurate as possible within our research limitations.
Saudi Arabia and Brunei do not hold national elections, and Hong Kong and Macau do not participate in China’s elections. In all four of these jurisdictions, women are able to vote in local elections.
The 198 countries and self-administering territories covered by this analysis are home to more than 99.5% of the world’s population. They include 192 of the 193 member states of the United Nations (data for North Korea is not included), plus six self-administering territories: Kosovo, Hong Kong, Macau, the Palestinian territories, Taiwan and Western Sahara. Reporting on these territories does not imply any position on what their international political status should be, only recognition that the de facto situations in these territories require separate analysis.
New Zealand enfranchised its female citizens in 1893, making it the first nation or territory to formally allow women to vote in national elections. At least 19 other countries also did so prior to the U.S. passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, according to our analysis. These countries are spread across Europe and Asia, and about half first gave women this right while under Russian or Soviet control or shortly after independence from Russia. Russia itself extended the vote to women after demonstrations in 1917.
In at least eight additional countries, some women – but not all – gained equal voting rights in or before 1920.
More than half of the countries and territories we analyzed (129 out of 198) granted women the right to vote between 1893 and 1960. This includes all but six European nations. Some of the European nations that allowed universal suffrage after 1960 include Switzerland (1971), Portugal (1976) and Liechtenstein (1984).
In other world regions, women secured the right to vote in national elections only after major cultural or governmental shifts. For example, 80% of the countries in Africa we analyzed granted citizens universal suffrage between 1950 and 1975 – a period of sweeping European decolonization for the continent (as well for parts of Asia and Latin America). Many newly independent nations adopted universal suffrage along with new governments and constitutions.
Bhutan, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are the most recent countries or territories to allow women to participate in national elections, although the picture is complicated. Bhutan and the UAE only established national elections recently. Bhutan shifted from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy in 2007. The UAE allowed a small number of male and female citizens to vote in the country’s first national elections in 2006. In Kuwait, the country’s Parliament amended an election law in 2005 the change guaranteed women the right to vote and run for office.
In Saudi Arabia, women were enfranchised in local elections in 2015 the country does not hold national elections. South Sudan was established in 2011. It is not included among the most recent countries to give women the right to vote because women had this right starting in 1964, when the area was part of Sudan.
At least 19 nations – including the U.S. – initially restricted the right to vote for women of certain backgrounds based on demographic factors such as race, age, education level or marital status. Sometimes, decades passed before all citizens were enfranchised. In the U.S., for example, more than four decades passed between the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which took aim at discriminatory state and local restrictions intended to prevent Black Americans from voting.
Restrictions like these weren’t unique to the U.S. In Canada, for example, legislation in 1918 expanded suffrage to women, but it excluded Canadians from Asian Canadian and Indigenous backgrounds. Asian Canadians were not fully enfranchised until the 1940s, and Indigenous people could not vote until 1960.
In Australia, Indigenous women were not enfranchised until 1962, six decades after non-Indigenous women were able to vote. In South Africa, more than 60 years passed between when White women won voting rights in 1930 and when Black women won them in 1993, following the end of apartheid.
When India first expanded voting rights to women in 1935, only those who were married to a male voter, or possessed specific literacy qualifications, could vote. Universal suffrage followed in 1950.
Some countries also initially set a higher minimum age for women voters than for their male counterparts. In 1915, for example, Icelandic women over age 40 gained the right to vote. Five years later, the voting age for women was lowered to 25, in line with the requirement for men.
Legal and cultural restrictions limited women’s voter participation in some countries and territories even after enfranchisement. Ecuador, for instance, became the first Latin American country to grant women voting rights in 1929, but it only extended the franchise to literate Ecuadorian women, and voting was not mandatory for women as it was for men. A new constitution in 1967 made voting mandatory for literate women, and it wasn’t until 1979 that the literacy requirement was dropped completely. Several other countries, such as Hungary and Guatemala, also imposed literacy requirements on women voters that were lifted later.
More recently, Samoa’s government system allowed only those with chiefly titles, known as matai, to vote in parliamentary elections, effectively excluding women from the vote. The island nation adopted universal suffrage in 1990.
In some places, women were able to vote in local elections before they were enfranchised at the national level – or vice versa. In Switzerland, for example, women secured the right to vote in national elections in 1971 but had been able to vote locally in some cantons, or states, since 1959. But in another canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, women were only given the right to vote in local elections after a 1990 federal court ruling.
Few countries and territories have rescinded women’s voting rights after initially granting them, but there are some notable exceptions. Afghanistan, for instance, was an early adopter of women’s suffrage after winning independence from Britain in 1919. Government shifts and instability over the next almost 100 years resulted in women losing and formally regaining the right to participate in elections several times. Women have the right to vote in Afghanistan today, but there are still barriers in place that limit their participation.
In Puerto Rico, Women Won the Vote in a Bittersweet Game of Colonial Politics
Genara Pagán was causing a stir at the voter registration office. As a Puerto Rican and an American citizen, Pagán wanted to register now that the 19th Amendment that extended the franchise to women was ratified. Knowing that she might encounter challenges, the sufragista arrived to claim what she believed was rightfully hers. The Puerto Rican officials were flummoxed they turned her away as the government asked the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs to weigh in on whether Pagán had the right to vote.
When Pagán heard back months later, it confirmed the grim reality she was prepared to hear. As colonial subjects, Puertorriqueñas would not be afforded the same freedoms as their white, American sisters on the mainland. Despite the 19th Amendment’s promises and despite their American citizenship, Pagán and the roughly 300,000 other Puerto Rican women eligible to vote would have to wait another 16 years to cast ballots.
In their journey to suffrage, Puertorriqueñas defiantly used the island’s colonial politics to their advantage to pressure the island’s governing elite to deliver the vote. Yet the story remains incomplete. Their struggle didn’t end when Puerto Rican women were extended the franchise for local elections on a federal level, Puerto Ricans of all genders remain as disenfranchised as they were 100 years ago. Island residents have the rare displeasure of being citizens who cannot vote for president, and the delegates they elect to Congress also cannot vote on U.S. laws.
In 1898, the U.S. claimed the island as a bounty of its victory in its war with Spain and took over colonial control. After a few short years of military rule, the U.S. established a civil government subject to American supervision, drastically transforming Puerto Rican society. Thousands lost their family-owned farms to U.S. companies eager to exploit the island’s natural resources through the sugar, tobacco and coffee industries. More women, facing the prospect of poverty, were forced to enter the workforce.
For sufragistas like Pagán, the factory was where they developed revolutionary ideas. As a despalilladora (tobacco stripper), Pagán followed in the footsteps of one of Puerto Rico’s earliest feminists, Luisa Capetillo. A bookish girl who grew up in Arecibo, Capetillo was a fierce labor organizer and journalist who railed against capitalist oppression in her role as a lectora, the workers’ reader. She would stand on the factory floor reading aloud the writings of Émile Zola and Victor Hugo so workers could spend hours discussing socialism, racism, anarchism and feminism.
The seed of women’s suffrage grew out of such boisterous ideological debates among working-class women, who were mostly black and mixed-race. As descendants of enslaved Africans, indigenous Taínos, and white Spaniards, black and brown Puerto Rican women struggled in the racial and economic hierarchy established under 400 years of Spanish colonialism. Puerto Rican society was stratified by class, gender and skin color, with wealthy, light-skinned criollos, Spanish men born on the island, privileged over mixed (mestizo and mulatto) and dark-skinned black and brown Puerto Ricans. Working-class socialists, though not without their own colorist and sexist struggles, often organized political platforms around issues of race and gender.
Left, despalilladoras in 1945. At the turn of the century, the suffrage movement was fueled by these working-class women. Right, Luisa Capetillo wearing pants, which, one news account said caused a street to become "congested with thousands of people." (Archivo General de Puerto Rico Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
In socialist circles, Capetillo stood at the forefront of demands for gender equality. She's credited with penning the 1911 book of essays Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (My opinion on the liberties, rights and responsibilities of women), widely considered the first treatise on feminism in Puerto Rico. Her subversion of traditional gender roles extended to her fashion choices, too. Capetillo is popularly known as the first woman to wear pants in Puerto Rico, and she was even memorialized in a song that said: “Doña Luisa Capetillo, intentionally or not, has created a tremendous uproar because of her culottes.”
In the early 1900s, women all across Puerto Rico were unionizing in earnest. By 1904, eight women’s unions had organized to lead strikes and protests demanding equal wages and worker protections. Capetillo and other women called for women’s suffrage to be a central political platform at a worker’s organizing meeting in 1908. That same year, labor activists convinced one lawmaker to present the first bill calling for women’s civil rights to the Puerto Rican legislature, but it was soundly rejected. Within the next decade or so, Puerto Rican politicians would reject more than a dozen bills calling for women’s right to vote.
The 1917 Jones Act made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens practically overnight—but under special conditions. Beyond voting limitations, citizenship was statutory and was not protected by the Constitution, so it could still be revoked by the Supreme Court.
Five months later, Ana Roqué de Duprey and Mercedes Solá, elite white educators, cofounded Liga Femínea Puertorriqueña, one of the first organizations dedicated specifically to women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico. The first meeting in the capital city of San Juan included prominent teachers, intellectuals and doctors, all ready to fight for their shared interests. For Roqué, that meant only enfranchising those who could read and write. “If it is feared that the illiterate classes will increase their power by giving the vote to women,” she wrote, “the solution is to restrict the vote to the literate classes.”
Left, a cartoon that appeared in a 1919 edition of Heraldo de la Mujer, a publication of which Ana Roqué, right, was the administrative director. (La Colección Puertorriqueña del Sistema de Bibliotecas de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras)
Literacy proved the most divisive question in the fight for suffrage. White, wealthy and educated Puerto Ricans organized for the restricted vote. Literacy restrictions were popular because white criollo men in power deeply feared losing their political capital to the Socialist Party, which they rightly believed working women would support. A literacy requirement meant only a small minority of women could participate, anyway, as formally educated and upper-class women constituted just a sixth of the female population. And, writes gender and Africana scholar Magali Roy-Féquière, “Many suffragists/educators were more than willing to negotiate their enfranchisement at the expense of illiterate, black, mixed-race, poor women.”
In the 1920s, after it became clear that the 19th Amendment did not apply to Puertorriqueñas, suffrage organizations regrouped. Liga Femínea reformed itself into Liga Social Sufragista (LSS) and implemented changes, like cutting monthly dues, to diversify their membership. Under the leadership of the more progressive Ricarda López de Ramos Casellas, the LSS changed its position and formally declared itself in support of universal suffrage.
Roqué and other conservative sufragistas bristled at the inclusive ideological shift. In 1924, she severed her relationship with the organization she founded and started the Asociación Puertorriqueña de Mujeres Sufragistas to continue pushing for the restricted vote. They found quick allies in the growing number of male politicians now willing to concede some women’s right to vote as long as they could continue to secure their interests—yet the legislature still stalled.
Despite the increasing pressure to formally expand the vote, Puerto Rican legislators staunchly opposed anything without a literacy requirement. Fed up with waiting, activists focused on strategic alliances that could help take the fight to the U.S. Congress that delivered citizenship to Puerto Ricans in the first place.
In 1926, Puerto Rican sufragistas, including López de Ramos Casellas, met in San Juan with delegates from the U.S.-based National Woman’s Party. The American organization, founded by famous suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, was an unlikely ally considering its checkered record of largely ignoring the voices of black women and women of color. But they were interested in expanding women’s right to vote to Puerto Rico. Later that year, the NWP worked with the LSS to draft a bill to add one crucial line to the Jones Act: “And provided further, That the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.” It was introduced in Congress by Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut but got little traction.
American suffragists Zonia Baber and Burnita Shelton Matthews (of the NWP) work on drafting text for a bill that would extend suffrage to Puerto Rico. (National Photo Co., Library of Congress)
Puerto Rican politicians, including president of the Senate Antonio R. Barceló, believed the sufragistas' outreach to the U.S. jeopardized the island's governing autonomy. They “conveniently chose to see in women’s suffrage struggles an undesirable intrusion of U.S. ideas in the social life of the Island at the cultural level as well as at the level of colonial politics,” writes Roy-Féquière. At the time, illiterate men were able to vote in local elections, but Barceló even deemed male universal suffrage a mistake, insisting that literacy requirements were a necessary voting standard.
Navigating the politics of colonization and sexism proved difficult for sufragistas. In a 1928 speech that was reprinted in the NWP’s magazine, Equal Rights, the suffragist and poet Muna Lee, who was born in Mississippi but had moved to the island with her Puerto Rican husband, said: “Our position as women, amongst you free citizens of Pan-America, is like the position of my Puerto Rico in the community of American States…We are treated with every consideration save the one great consideration of being regarded as responsible beings.” She continued with a searing indictment: “We, like Puerto Rico, are dependents. We are anomalies before the law.”
In April 1928, LSS and NWP suffragists testified together before Congress. Marta Robert, an LSS member and doctor who ran the maternity hospital in San Juan, pointed out the ludicrous reasoning that prevented her from voting, “Why should we not ask you to give us complete citizenship in our country?” she said. “We are allowed to come here to the United States…and we have the right to vote. but the only thing that prohibits us from going to Puerto Rico and voting and exercising our electoral right is just a little injustice from our men when they make the electoral law in Puerto Rico.”
Another LSS speaker, Rosa Emanuelli, stressed that Puerto Rican women could advance democratic freedoms for their people if given the franchise. Her appeal to democratic ideals carried some irony, given that she was asking a colonial power for political representation, but this dynamic proved fruitful for the cause. When Congress moved towards passing the Jones Act amendment—an act of colonial imposition, albeit indirectly—Puerto Rican legislators had no choice but to push through a suffrage bill to save face. There was a catch, though. While the LSS and NWP had firmly argued for universal suffrage, the first bill that Puerto Rico passed in the spring of 1929 only enfranchised literate women.
It was a bittersweet victory. The LSS begrudgingly accepted that, like black and Indigenous women in the mainland U.S., their Afro-Puerto Rican and mixed-race working class peers would be forced to wait. In the years that followed, thousands of women workers protested the discriminatory literacy tests that barred them from voting.
Despite these restrictions, women who could pass literacy tests participated in their first major election in 1932. About 50,000 cast their ballots, and promptly elected women to city governments across the island, as well as María Luisa Arcelay, the first woman member of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives. The final push for universal suffrage came from a coalition of working-class and middle-class women who organized within Puerto Rico’s Republican and Socialist Parties. A bill for universal suffrage finally passed in 1935.
Today, as the world’s oldest colony, Puerto Rico remains disenfranchised because its 3.1 million residents, despite most being American citizens, do not have voting representatives in Congress and cannot cast votes in presidential elections. The 20th-century chapter of women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico is a history lesson, but full enfranchisement for Puertorriqueñas remains a goal still incomplete, a story without its ending.
About Rosa Cartagena
Rosa Cartagena is a writer at Washingtonian magazine where she covers news, arts and culture. She’s written about anti-racism efforts at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, dinosaurs in the revamped fossil hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and the horrors of taking a digital detox. She also runs the magazine's entertainment and culture newsletter, Things to Do.