A BRIEF HISTORY OF SUFFRAGE

By Tim Lambert

Suffrage in Britain

In the 18th century only a small minority of men in Britain could vote (only those who owned a certain amount of property). But in 1832 the government introduced a reform but the franchise was only extended to about 14% of men. The working class were still excluded. From 1838 a working class protest movement called the Chartists was formed. (They were named after their People's Charter). The Chartists had several demands. They wanted all men to have the vote. Furthermore at that time you had to own a certain amount of property to become an MP. Chartists wanted the property qualification abolished. They also wanted MPs to be paid. Chartists also wanted all constituencies to be equal in size and they wanted voting by secret ballot.

The first Chartist rally was held in Manchester in 1838. In 1839 the Chartists delivered a petition to parliament, which was rejected out of hand. Another petition, delivered in 1842 was also rejected. Finally in 1848 another great petition was sent to parliament but it turned into a farce. Some of the signatures were obvious fakes.

Chartism then fizzled out.However reform eventually followed. In 1867 more men were given the vote. The number of voters approximately doubled. In 1872 the Ballot Act introduced voting by secret ballot. (When voting was public voters could be intimidated). In 1884 still more men were given the vote. For the first time a majority of men in Britain (about 60%) could vote. However not all men had the right to vote until 1918.

There are records of women voting in Britain in non-parliamentary elections in the 19th century as this article in The Telegraph shows. But they could not vote in parliamentary elections till 1918.

Once most men in Britain could vote movements began to give women the right to vote as well. In 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organisation was moderate and its members were called suffragists.

However in 1903 a more radical organisation was formed called the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and its members were called suffragettes. Suffragettes committed crimes like vandalism and arson. They also planted bombs. However the suffragettes halted their campaign when the first World War began in 1914.

Many men supported the suffragists and wanted women to be allowed to vote. In 1907 they formed the Men's League for Women's Suffrage. However not all women wanted to be able to vote. In Britain the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1908. Its president was a famous writer named Mary Humphry Ward. In 1918 women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. In 1928 all women in Britain were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men).

American Suffrage

When the USA became independent only a small minority of men could vote. You had to own a certain amount of property to be able to. The first state to allow all men to vote was Kentucky in 1792 (in 1799 it was restricted to white men). In the early 19th century the right to vote was given to all white men in other states too. The last state to give all white men the right to vote was North Carolina in 1856. In 1870 the 15th amendment theoretically gives African American men the right to vote. (In practice in many states they were prevented from doing so till the 1960s).

In the USA after all white men gained the vote a movement began for women to have the right to vote too. The campaign for was led by Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1869 Stanton and Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Also in 1869 Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell founded the American Woman Suffrage Association. The two joined forces in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

However in the USA as in Britain some women were anti-suffragists and they opposed women being allowed to vote. In the USA a woman writer named Grace Duffield Goodwin published a book called Anti-Suffrage: Ten Good Reasons, in 1912. In it she explained why, in her view women should not be allowed to vote.

Meanwhile the territory of Wyoming allowed women to vote in 1869. When Wyoming joined the union in 1890 it became the first state in the USA to allow women to vote. Some other states followed. In 1893 men In Colorado voted in a referendum to allow women to vote. Idaho and Utah were given the vote in 1896. Washington state followed in 1910. So did California in 1911. Women in Oregon, Arizona and Kansas got the right to vote in 1912. Alaska gave women the vote in 1913. Women in Montana and Nevada were allowed to vote in 1914. New York State allowed them to in 1917. Finally in 1920 the 19th amendment gave women in all states the right to vote.

Suffrage in Other Nations

During the 19th century the right to vote was extended to all men in certain places. In Switzerland and France all men were given the right to vote in 1848. In 1857 Victoria, Australia allows all men to vote. In 1858 New South Wales followed and gave all men the vote. In 1871 In Germany all men were given the right to vote in elections for the Reichstag (parliament).

Then in 1872 Queensland, Australia gave all men the vote. In New Zealand all men were given the vote in 1879. All men in Western Australia were given the vote in 1896. All men in Norway were given the right to vote in 1898 and in Finland in 1906. In 1907 all men in Austria were given the vote Italy gave all men the vote in 1912. So did Argentina. In the Netherlands all men were given the vote in 1917. All men in Japan were allowed to vote in 1925. In Malta all men were given the right to vote in 1947. (The same year Maltese women were allowed to vote for the first time).

In other countries too once all men were given the vote women were also granted that right. New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women to vote in national elections in 1893. In Australia women were granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1902. In Canada women were allowed to vote in federal elections in 1918.

From 1906 Finnish women were allowed to vote. Norway followed in 1913. Denmark allowed women to vote in 1915. Germany and Austria granted women the right to vote in 1918. The Netherlands followed in 1919. Sweden gave all women the right to vote in 1921. Spain did in 1931.

In Turkey women gained full voting rights in 1934. In France women were given the right to vote in 1944 and in Italy in 1945. Japan gave women the right to vote in 1946. Women in Malta were allowed to vote in 1947. So were women in Argentina. Belgium gave women the vote in 1948. Women in Greece were allowed to vote in 1952 but in Switzerland they were not allowed to until 1971.

In the USA in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed to prevent African Americans being denied the right to vote. In Britain in 1969 the minimum age for voting was reduced from 21 to 18. In the USA it was reduced to 18 in 1971.

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Last revised 2018