Women’s suffrage is the term given to women’s right to vote and stand for political office.
For a very long time and in many different places, men were the only ones deemed wise enough to vote. A woman’s political knowhow was cast aside as unimportant and non-existent. Even in the motherland of democracy and the root of Western civilization, Ancient Athens, only men were given the right to choose who their leaders were.
In medieval Germany and England, that right was extended to the respected abbesses of the Catholic Church – an honour bestowed upon them for being wise consultants to kings and princes of city-states and countries. Protestant women in the same capacity also enjoyed what was then a luxury. So did women in maternal societies like the Canadian Iroquois.
The seeds for women’s suffrage were first sown in modern history in the late 18th century by Nicolas de Condorcet during the French Revolution. Sweden and several other small countries did grant limited or temporary suffrage for women during this time and the overdue realization that a country could be run by both men and women finally started to dawn on peoples all over.
But things truly picked up pace when in 1840, at a global conference regarding the slave trade, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other female US delegates were denied seats due to their gender. This kicked off a series of protests that resulted in some of the newer American states to grant women suffrage. Simultaneously, women across the world were being granted similar rights, but it was not yet a real global phenomenon. Only the first steps were taken during the second half of the 19th century. Of the still-existent independent countries, New Zealand was the first to allow women to engage in political activity; in 1893. It was a self-governing British colony by then. Activist Kate Sheppard made sure the bill was passed before that year’s general elections in order to allow women to immediately exercise their right to vote.
Australia followed suit in 1902 (although some Aboriginal women were denied the right, which shows a clear flaw in the system), and so did the Grand Duchy of Finland 4 years later. In 1907, 19 women sat in the Finnish parliament. From then to 1948, a handful of states started granting limited or total suffrage to women. This came as a result of the World Wars – the huge war effort required the help of women and so would the re-construction. This was when women began to take their chances and campaign for full inclusion into society.
1948 was the year that the UN adopted the Declaration of Rights, which made it international law to allow everybody in a country to vote – within a certain age range.
One of the iconic struggles for voting rights occurred in Britain. Two groups campaigning for the same thing but with two different ideologies existed there; the suffragists (who meant to tackle the issue constitutionally) and the suffragettes (those who were far more militant in their approach). Many male supporters of their causes would often see it as a “vote for the household”, and that women would be coming in mainly to add some sensitivity to the decision-making mechanism, and to reflect their needs as housewives. This was of course, not what was trying to be achieved. What really mattered was that women and men could vote equally – regardless of their motivation.
Of course, both groups were met by stern opposition.
Some people simply didn’t want to grant rights to females, and others didn’t want to do it because it might lead to people of different races also being allowed to vote. The fear was that by allowing women to vote, then every single person would be allowed to vote, which was an absolutely correct analysis of the situation. Thankfully, women stayed strong and eventually, everybody was allowed to vote.
And women did excellently in political office too!
The very first democratically elected female head-of-state in the world was Iceland’s Vigdis Finnbogadottir. She held the post for 16 years, and is the only person to ever be democratically elected for that long. She was clearly a very popular woman.
In South America, Eva Peron has claimed the status of one of Argentina’s and the world’s most prominent icons because of her vision, drive and popularity.
By incorporating themselves into the political management of the world, women have contributed to some of the greatest social change in human history. The past 6 or 7 decades have re-defined what it means to be a human to an incredible extent, and our acceptance of men and women as true equals has gone a long way to doing that.
For men and women to be equal, they need to take each other seriously and the female suffragists have made sure that they’ve got enough power as equal citizens to shape the future of a nation. Entire party slogans and domestic agendas now revolve around the empowerment of women and granting them leadership in our society. Feminist parties have cropped up in many places in the world and most governments have entire ministries dedicated to the empowerment of women.
That’s what the suffragists have done – they’ve managed to make women become serious figures. And that achievement should be heralded as one of the greatest in human history.