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In the nineteenth century, large numbers of women began to advocate for participation and legal protection in matters affecting their daily lives. By mid-century, this struggle had become increasingly political, and women’s suffrage—the right to vote—became central in this movement. New Zealand was the first country to grant women suffrage in 1893.
Women around the world have fought for the right to vote (suffrage) for centuries. Women have sought to participate actively in political life and to have a voice in shaping the contours of their societies. By the 1990s the vast majority of women throughout the world had gained the right to vote in local and national elections, and in many countries they have achieved high office as elected politicians. As of early 2010, women still can’t vote (but men can) in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
During the nineteenth century, women in many parts of the world began working to achieve such personal liberties as the right to hold property and the right to divorce, with the goal being to obtain protection under the law and legal recourse in matters related to their daily lives. By the mid-nineteenth century, women’s movements became increasingly political, and the centerpiece of the various movements was women’s suffrage. From the latter part of the nineteenth century through the twentieth century women made great strides in obtaining human and political rights, including voting rights. New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), Finland (1906), Norway (1913), Great Britain (1918), Russia (1917), Germany (1919), and the United States (1920) were among the first nations to grant women the vote.
During the early years of the various women’s movements, thousands of women marched through the streets making themselves heard, flooded the legislatures with petitions for the vote, and continually appealed to male politicians to support the female franchise. Historians, political scientists, and sociologists have argued that cultural transformations brought about through rapid industrialization, war, and other social upheavals contributed to shifts in political participation and the shaping of a political identity for women globally. Some have argued that nations that have undergone restructuring due to decolonization or war have become more progressive, with the most democratic of these nations gradually implementing more egalitarian policies in government that recognize women’s value as voters and political leaders.
Revolution and Suffrage
While over time women have been successful in gaining the vote, that right has been hard won. Although women organized for broader gender rights, the majority of the leaders of women’s rights movements from World War I through the postcolonial period realized the franchise was necessary if they were to have power and promote positive change. In 1945, in post–World War II Japan, about 67 percent of the newly enfranchised women voters turned out to vote, and by the 1970s tatakau onnatachi (“fighting women”) were fighting against sexist laws, seeking wage equity, and establishing themselves as politically informed voters.
Women have often entered the suffrage arena through participating in national struggles for independence, as was the case for women in Egypt, Vietnam, and South Africa. In those countries, women and men worked together toward national independence, and in that context nationalism promoted women’s suffrage and allowed for women’s voting rights. For example in Egypt, the nationalists who worked toward building a modern nation-state independent of Great Britain saw improvements in women’s restrictive lives as integral to their program. Feminist activists became the center of the anticolonial movement. Egyptian women began to push for women’s rights, including the vote, in earnest after World War II, and liberal (male) nationalists supported the early efforts of women like Bahithat Al Badiya, who pushed a feminist political agenda that called for equality and opportunity for Egyptian women. By the 1950s, however, Islamic traditionalists were mounting resistance to women’s suffrage, and some of the liberal nationalists made concessions to right-wing traditionalists. In spite of traditionalists’ resistance, Egyptian women gained the vote in 1956, and during the same year a number of women became minor elected offi – cials. In 1979, a presidential decree established that thirty seats in Egypt’s parliament be reserved for women; the president also has the power to appoint a number of representatives, a proportion of whom must be women, to parliament. Unfortunately, an upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism has led to constitutional suppression of women’s public and political space.
In Vietnam, like Egypt, women supported anticolonial revolutionaries during the pre–World War II era, and their struggles eventually led to the defeat of French military forces in 1954, though it was more than twenty years before Vietnam, divided in 1954, was reunited under the Communists. In Communist Vietnam, socialist leadership paved the way for Vietnamese women’s activism in political spaces. Women’s newly formed public identities as warriors and liberators merged with their private identities as mothers and keepers of national heritage. Scholars have argued that social revolution has historically promoted change in class relations and in the relative power of the state. Histories of countries such as Vietnam, however, suggest that vast continuities between pre- and postrevolutionary societies remained intact. Although women were encouraged to participate in revolution, few have made use of their right to vote or hold political office after the reunification of the country in 1976. As Vietnamese nationalists gained power, they assumed traditional patriarchal power and dismissed women’s revolutionary activities and political gains as part and parcel to the climate of national revolt; thus, as the generation of women who had participated in the revolution died out, so did women’s hope for political rights.
In South Africa under apartheid, women have had to bear the burden of the double-edged sword of racism and sexism in gaining voting rights. White South African women won the vote in 1930, women of Asian or mixed ethnic extraction (“colored”) gained the vote in 1984, and black South Africans did not receive the vote until 1994, after apartheid was dismantled. Through the 1950s blacks organized through the African National Congress (ANC), led by Nelson Mandela. Gertrude Shope, an ANC member and chair of one branch of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), organized black women to fight for equality and voting rights. White political leaders acted quickly to suppress the ANC and other organizations; Mandela was imprisoned and Shope went into exile, where she became the secretary to the head of the ANC’s Women’s Section. During the 1970s resistance resurfaced; the numbers of protestors were larger and included women, who wanted to end the continuous oppression in their daily lives through the achieving of voting and political rights. In 1991, as apartheid was beginning to crumble, Shope was elected president of the ANC’s Women’s League. In South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, approximately 25 percent of South Africa’s legislative seats were won by women. Despite these gains, persistent poverty and social ills, most notably the AIDS epidemic, continue to negatively impact the lives of South Africa’s women.
Europe and North America
Women from Europe and North America have had fewer difficulties than women from other parts of the world in obtaining the franchise, for reasons that include more liberal political policies in Europe and North America, less restrictive religious traditions, and women’s emergence into the public sphere as wage earners. Although American and British women have been considered leaders in worldwide women’s suffrage, women’s political participation in the United States is rather lackluster, with just 55 percent voting in primary elections in 1992 and women holding just 17 percent of U.S. legislative seats. Among European nations Germany has a good track record, having granted women the vote in 1919 and with just over 73 percent of women voting by 1990 and 28 percent of legislative seats held by women.
Outlook for Women’s Political Activism
The goal of most feminists in liberal-minded countries is to encourage women around the globe to participate in the voting process, to increase the number of women political officeholders, to create and pass laws that protect women and children against violence, to make the public aware of gender oppression, and to further the mission of equality for all citizens. Given the dedication of women in even the harshest situations and the most repressive of societies to work toward those ends, we can expect further advances in the years to come.
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