Reflecting on the power of activism and protest on the hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment
Today, the United States celebrates the centennial of the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. With a presidential election approaching, this anniversary is a perfect moment to reflect on the many paths to women’s suffrage worldwide as well as the power of activism and protest
In her article “Women & the Vote,” published in a special open access issue of Daedalus entitled “Women and Equality,” Dawn Langan Teele discusses the long global journey to women’s suffrage. Below is an adapted excerpt from the article.
In 1880, virtually no women had access to the electoral franchise at the national level. The first movers included the Isle of Man, which allowed women to vote for its independent legislature, the Tynwald, beginning in 1881; several states on America’s Western frontier (which had authority to grant suffrage at all levels of election); and the semisovereign governments in New Zealand and Australia. Beginning in the 1910s, equal suffrage rights–that is, women’s right to vote on the same terms as men–proceeded at a quick clip.  By 1930, more than thirty countries had extended the equal franchise and, since 1950, every new constitution that provided for male franchise rights has included women on the same terms. 
There were distinctive regional patterns of enfranchisement around the world. [ . . . ] The North American and European countries were the first to rapidly expand franchise rights to women, with high growth rates beginning in 1910 and again around the end of World War II (when France, Spain, and Italy enfranchised women). The early European surge includes Finland, the first to extend universal voting rights in 1911, and a large number of its neighboring countries that agglomerated into the Soviet Union at the end of World War I.
Suffrage adoption took off in East Asia and the Pacific, as well as the Latin American countries, in the 1940s. Nearly every Latin American country had granted women voting rights by the 1960s, but several countries in East Asia and the Pacific held out until later in the century.  Sub-Saharan Africa saw a large expansion in women’s rights around the 1950s, which peaked with the massive decolonization efforts and shift toward independence in the 1960s.
In addition to regional diversity in the timing of enfranchisement, there were several different pathways that countries took to women’s suffrage: universal, imposed, gradualist, and hybrid.  In the universalist path, countries granted universal franchise to men and women at the same time, the first time suffrage was extended. The imposed route occurred when a colonial metropole decreed women’s suffrage in its territories, or when suffrage was insisted upon by an occupying power, for example at the end of a war. The gradualist route implies an alternation between men’s and women’s inclusion. There are several variants of this, but typically countries went from limited male, to manhood, to universal suffrage.  Finally, there are hybrid cases where countries may have allowed some men to vote early on, and then a new constitution implemented after regime change (or after periods of dictatorship) allowed for universal suffrage. In the world as a whole, universal franchise was implemented in 15 percent of countries that granted women’s suffrage, while the hybrid category applies to 14 percent of countries. Imposed suffrage was second most common (28 percent), while gradual enfranchisement was the most common pathway (about 44 percent of today’s countries).
The most common route to enfranchisement in East Asia and the Pacific countries, and nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, which were heavily colonized, was by imposition. After independence, many of the later democratizers in East Asia and the Pacific, as well as in South Asia, went for universal extension in one fell swoop. The gradualist path dominated North America, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and Europe and Central Asia, a pattern that is related to early moves in some of these countries toward limited male franchise rights. The varying regional patterns of enfranchisement hint at the notion that women’s enfranchisement was related to the conditions of imperialism and the overall trajectory of democratization within countries, although we know a lot less about imposed suffrage than we should.
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The age-old question for scholars of suffrage is: did suffragists matter and to what extent? It can be difficult to argue that women were responsible for their own political emancipation because women did not take up arms against the state in order to win the vote, but instead had to earn it in the context of electoral and legislative politics. This can make it seem like women were merely there to march in flowing gowns for a public that had already changed its mind about women’s rights. But to the extent that we can say any social movement mattered for securing whatever particular right, it is definitely safe to say that the suffrage movement was important.
Scholars disagree about the way in which the movement mattered, offering explanations like the use of public demonstrations (in the United Kingdom and Switzerland), the collection of large-scale petitions (in New Zealand, the United States, and Sweden), the pressure of the international feminist movement (in Latin America), the deployment of insider tactics like corralling legislators and log-rolling, changing public opinion, or doing favors for politicians or campaigns. Many scholars have noted that the places with the largest movements were in the first wave of enfranchising countries, and that the use of public tactics like holding rallies and marches was correlated with early enfranchisement.  The late enfranchisement in places like France and Switzerland and in many Latin American countries are thus partly attributable to the more circumspect actions of wishful suffragists.
Yet the fact that male legislators in elected chambers presided over reforms has made it difficult to claim that any movement was decisive. This is especially because good cross-national data on the size of the suffrage movement over time do not exist, and because it is clear that a few countries extended the vote to women in the absence of a massive local push by women for these rights (for example, in Turkey). Hence the exact role the women’s movement played for winning suffrage is part of a scholarly dispute. A key intuition from political economy, though, is that powerful groups do not concede power to others without some impetus, and women’s mobilization was the crucial impetus that put suffrage on the political agenda locally, nationally, and internationally.
This is not to say that women who wanted the vote came together harmoniously to forward their agenda. In fact, the internal and external tensions between suffragists and would-be suffragists across class and racial groups have been the subject of many excellent monographs in history and political science. Although in the United States the racial conflict was a particularly pernicious cleavage that affected the nature of the suffrage movement, it is important to understand that each country had its own cleavage. In France, the cleavage was related to church-state relations and republicanism; in parts of Latin America, it was about the Church’s role in fledgling democracies and conflicts over regime type;  in Switzerland, the linguistic and cantonal cleavage reigned supreme; and in many of the African countries, the cleavage was racial and ethnic, between colonizers and colonized. When women from the more privileged classes were very distant–ideologically and materially–from the majority of women, the difficulties of forming a cross-cleavage alliance among disparate groups of women loomed large.
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What can we learn from the suffrage movement that can inform the feminist politics of this new century? The first key lesson is that women did not win the vote primarily by waiting for men to wake up and realize the justice of the claim, but instead had to fight–both meticulously behind the scenes as well as loudly in public–to be taken seriously. Although notable men did aid suffrage in many contexts, the main protagonists in this movement, and all of its true leaders, were women.  For those women, the activities that they engaged in were pushing the boundaries of the time, even if the mainstream suffragists were less avant-garde than some of the far-left feminists.
Second, the class and racial politics that cleaved through the movements, many of which may seem like an embarrassing stain on a momentous achievement, actually provide analytic leverage for understanding the size and scope of social movements today. The fact that many of the leaders of the suffrage movement were upper-middle class does not imply that the movement was won by and for the bourgeois. To the contrary, the integration of women from all walks of life, and particularly the activism of immigrants and the working classes, were crucial in most countries, and particularly in those with the two longest and most sustained movements, the United States and the United Kingdom.  But what the suffragists had that feminists today have not found is a single issue to guide their fundraising and focus. Although suffragists wanted policy changes in a host of arenas, coalescing on a single issue may have provided the momentum for their sustained social movement. It also allowed many of the largest umbrella organizations to claim nonpartisanship and therefore court women from many camps. The feminist impulse today does not seem to have such a unifying impulse, and perhaps too few efforts are made to coordinate with women from very different ideological traditions.
Yet even if feminists can find an issue to agree upon, this does not mean that dissent from the radical fringe should be suppressed. Because leaders of the more mainstream movement often decried the tactics of the radical fringes–such as with the steady Millicent Fawcett and the pugnacious Emmeline Pankhurst in the United Kingdom, or the formidable Carrie Catt and the brazen Alice Paul in the United States–historians (and the popular arts) have and will continue to have a lot to say about the seeming “cat fights” between suffragists and suffrage organizations. But the radicals may have served an important function for the success of the mainstream movement. The existence of a militant wing allowed the moderates access to the press and to politicians under the mantle of respectability. This increased the status and sway of the suffrage centrists. In this sense, if the radical fringe allowed the demands of the centrists to be viewed more favorably by men in power, both wings were integral to the victory.
Third, although women did not form a solid voting bloc in most countries, it bears stressing that many major changes in women’s rights were achieved along the road to suffrage.  Many of the same women who fought for suffrage argued for the right to own property, to transact commercially, to have intellectual rights to their own inventions, to safe working conditions, to maintain their citizenship even if they married foreigners, and to birth control. These legislative achievements should be viewed as part of the legacy of the suffrage movement. What these lessons imply for politics today is that women’s rights are not just normal goods that emerge automatically over time, but rather are fragile resources that have to be demanded, tended, and defended. As the saying goes, well-behaved women have rarely made history.
1. Australia excluded aboriginals in its initial constitution, and the U.S. states, via Jim Crow, excluded most Black people from voting, hence both are cases of equal suffrage. Since New Zealand’s colonists included Maori voters among their electorate, the 1893 reform was universal.
2. The global norm change after the 1950s could be due to the 1945 Equal Rights Section of the UN Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. As Marino describes in Feminism for the Americas, the UN declarations were important for cementing the legitimacy of women’s rights, including suffrage, in internationalist circles in Latin America. On diffusion, see Francisco O. Ramirez, Yasemin Soysal, and Suzanne Shanahan, “The Changing Logic of Political Citizenship: Cross-National Acquisition of Women’s Suffrage Rights, 1890 to 1990,” American Sociological Review 62 (5) (1997): 735–745.
3. On the literacy and property requirements that remained in Latin America after the 1960s, refer to Engerman and Sokoloff, “The Evolution of Suffrage Institutions in the New World.”
4. These are my categories; see Teele, Forging the Franchise, introduction. But another way to conceptualize the pattern is whether the reforms were “joint track” with the male working classes or piecemeal, with wealthier women included before the masses; see Blanca Rodríguez-Ruiz and Ruth Rubio Marín, The Struggle for Female Suffrage in Europe: Voting to Become Citizens (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012), introduction.
5. Norway is one of the few places that had manhood franchise (1898) but that limited the women’s vote, at first to property holders in 1907. By 1913, the contradiction was eliminated and universal franchise instantiated.
6. Banaszak, Why Movements Succeed or Fail; Patricia Grimshaw, Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1972); and Holly J. McCammon, Karen E. Campbell, Ellen M. Granberg, and Christine Mowery, “How Movements Win: Gendered Opportunity Structures and U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movements, 1866 to 1919,” American Sociological Review 66 (1) (2001): 49–70.
7. See Isabel Castillo, “Explaining Female Suffrage Reform in Latin America: Motivation Alignment, Cleavages, and Timing of Reform” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 2019).
8. Brooke Kroeger, The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote (New York: SUNY Press, 2017); and Ben Griffin, The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
9. For instance, see Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage, 1981); Laura E. Free, Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2015); Ellen Carol DuBois, “Working Women, Class Relations, and Suffrage Militance: Harriot Stanton Blatch and the New York Woman Suffrage Movement, 1894–1909,” The Journal of American History 74 (1) (1987): 34–58; Holton, Feminism and Democracy; Pugh, The March of the Women; Susan E. Marshall, Splintered Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Campaign against Woman Suffrage (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997); and Susan Englander, Class Conflict and Coalition in the California Woman Suffrage Movement, 1907–1912: The San Francisco Wage Earners’ Suffrage League (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992).
10. J. Kevin Corder and Christina Wolbrecht, Counting Women’s Ballots (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Anna L. Harvey, “The Political Consequences of Suffrage Exclusion: Organizations, Institutions, and the Electoral Mobilization of Women,” Social Science History 20 (1) (1996).