Women’s Suffrage Movement— The Right to Vote

The right to vote—the right to have a say in who governs and represents you—is the underlying principle of having a democratic society.  Regardless of the pivotal role it plays in how a country operates, the right to vote had not always been as accessible as it is today. As power was in the hands of the few, so was the right to determine who holds that power. As a result, people were discriminated against based on race, gender, and economic status in having the right to vote. Now, while it is not exactly voters’ equality bliss, we have certainly come a long way as a society in terms of universal suffrage. This month, AWiB will focus on the fight for women’s right to vote; understanding the beginning, remembering the struggles, and highlighting the present.

Elections: How Voting Came into Effect

Democracy—the rule by the people—was introduced in 507 BC by Athenian leader Cleisthenes. In the old days, when democracy was just on the rise, it was easy to practice direct democracy where by everyone would have a say in the decision-making process. In Cleisthenes’s democracy, there were three separate institutions: a sovereign governing body that wrote the laws; a council of representatives from the Athenian tribes; and a court where citizens argued cases in front of lottery-selected jurors. But as the population increased it became difficult to listen to each and every one of the opinions of the society.

So came the use of representative democracy, where by people would elect officials to represent them in the-decision making process. When an official is elected into office, the process is indeed direct democracy and the people would vote for whomever they think would represent them best. The wide-spread adoption of modern day indirect democracy is linked to the emergence of representative government in Europe and North America beginning in the 17th century. Representative democracy was exercised before in favor of corporations or group interests. After the 17th century, however, the individual became the center of the democracy. Elected officials did not serve the interests of the already powerful groups but rather the individual human beings in their respective districts.

While it sounds like the power to make decisions was shifted to each and every individual as a result of democracy, the reality was much far off. The power to elect the officials lied in the hands of individuals—individuals with power. Marginalized groups due to race, gender, and economic status were still left out of the game. During the early stages of Cleisthenes’s democracy, only male citizens who were above the age of 18 were allowed to take part in democracy. The overwhelming number of foreigners and enslaved people were kept out of the loop along with women citizens of Athens. Representative democracy took this exclusion tradition from direct democracy along with the other principles of the ideology. It was not until advocates of full democracy pushed for the establishment of universal adult suffrage that the power begun to shift to the general public.

What is Suffrage?

Most people confuse the word “suffrage” with the word “suffering.” Suffrage derives from the Latin word “Suffragium” and translates to the right or privilege to vote. Even as the power begun to transition from aristocrats and power-holders to the general public, marginalized groups were still excluded. And so, those marginalized groups had to fight and march for their rights to have a say in the political decision-making process of electing officials.

People who advocated for the right to vote began being called “suffragists.” Suffragists had different tactics: some were passive and led simple advocacy efforts; others were more active and engaged in efforts to convince officials to give women the right to vote. While suffragists were engaged in the struggle for inclusion, there were anti-suffragists who opposed extending the voting right to women. Anti-suffragists were men and women who put forth arguments that women should not be allowed to vote. They argued women did not want to vote, women did not have time to vote, or that women lacked the mental capacity to make such decisions. Some were also worried that women having such sort of say would threaten the family institution or womanhood itself.

Suffrage Mainstreamed

  • The first self-governing state to grant women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893. The suffrage movement in New Zealand was inspired by the women suffrage movements in Britain and the U.S. Women of New Zealand related their suffrage with the prohibition of alcohol movement which led to some opposition from politicians who supported the alcohol industry. It took two decades for New Zealand to grant women the right to vote. New Zealand was followed by Australia in 1902. However, indigenous men and women were not allowed to vote in elections in Australia until 1962. Finland, which at the time was under the rule of Russia, granted women the right to vote in 1906 and retained the right of women to vote after gaining independence. What made Finland unique was that women were not just given the right to vote but also the right to be elected. Therefore, Finland became the first country to grant all women, regardless of race, unrestricted rights to vote and to be elected.

The Case of the United States of America

In the United States, women were always implicitly excluded from having any sort of say in political matters. But once they started questioning the exclusion, it was made explicitly clear that they did not possess the right to vote. Women’s suffrage campaign in the U.S. began decades before the Civil War. During that time, a lot of reform groups were springing up in the country, including religious movements, anti-slavery organizations and moral reform societies. It was a time in the country’s story when there was fertile breeding ground for a social revolution.

In 1848, a group of activists gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss the problem of women’s rights. The convention was called and led by two women:  Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The participants of the convention articulated the common definition of womanhood—someone who was submissive, pious and exclusively concerned with home and family. The delegates decided a woman was an autonomous individual who deserved her own political identity.  And so the pursuit for that autonomy began.

When the Civil War began, the women’s rights movement took a blow. All focus shifted to the war, which was followed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution of the U.S. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including formerly enslaved people—and guaranteed all citizens equal protection by the law. This ensured that race did not determine the citizenship of an individual. Following the 14th Amendment came the fight for the 15th Amendment—the right of African Americans to vote. While the idea sounds grand, it did not include all African Americans; it was solely for Black men. Some women’s suffrage advocates strongly opposed the 15th Amendment as they believed it would hinder their fight for the right of women to vote. Some of them even teamed up with racist southerners who believed that white women’s votes could be used to neutralize the votes of African Americans. Nonetheless, the 15th Amendment was ratified on February 3rd, 1870.

The Exclusion in the Fight for Inclusion

As the women’s suffrage movement continued to push for the right of women to vote, activists started setting up associations. In 1869, a new group called the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony. The NWSA fought for a universal suffrage amendment to the constitution. However, the NWSA was against the 15th Amendment and endangered Black enfranchisement. Some sources state advocates who were pro-15th Amendment formed the American Woman Suffrage Association and attempted to ensure women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis.

In 1890, the two groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The agenda of the association shifted from arguing that women are equal to men and instead advocated that women should have the right to vote since they would bring a whole new perspective to the table. Due to this shift of direction, the association was able to get support from people who believed women’s “maternal instinct” would help bring peace. White supremacists also supported the agenda of the white-dominated association because they believed white women would push their supremacist views.

Black women were left with a huge disadvantage. Black men wanted their help in the civil rights movement for the 15th amendment—a movement which excluded them. At the same time, they were concerned with the women’s suffrage movement—a movement dominated by white women. Black men and white women required and used the efforts of Black women but excluded them from the benefits. The NAWSA prevented Black women from attending their conventions and Black women even had to march separately from white women in suffrage parades. When NWSA founders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote the History of Woman Suffrage, they largely ignored the contributions of African American suffragists.

Due to their unique situation, Black women advocated for universal suffrage and human rights rather than suffrage solely for African Americans or for women. Black activists like Mary Ann Shadd Cary supported the 15th amendment but were also critical of its exclusion of women. Advocates such as Sojourner Truth argued for the inclusion of Black women in the fight on many platforms, including her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” when her womanhood was questioned by white men. African American women believed that suffrage was too complex to be tackled by separate organizations. 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.

While Black women tried to work with organizations like NAWSA, they understood those mainstream organizations failed to address the unique challenges they faced. In the late 1800s, Black women formed clubs and organizations where they could focus on issues that affected them. 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 gatherings 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.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

With the eruption of World War I, the women’s suffrage movement took another blow. However, the war also served as a way to showcase the importance of women. Women’s multifaceted services during the war were taken as a testament to their patriotism. After several hunger strikes, marches, and conventions, the U.S. slowly started to adopt laws to ensure women had the right to vote. The suffrage movement succeeded when Congress passed the Woman Suffrage Amendment on June 4th, 1919. The law was ratified on August 18, 1920, and became the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. In November of that year, more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted in elections for the first time.

After the 19th 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 adviser 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.

The Case of the United Kingdom

Women in the United Kingdom were faced with similar resistance as those in the United States when it comes to the suffrage movement. Some sources suggest that suffragists in the UK were classified into two groups: the ‘suffragists’ who campaigned using peaceful methods such as lobbying, and the ‘suffragettes’ who were determined to win the right to vote for women by any means. ‘Suffragettes’ fostered militant campaigning which sometimes included unlawful and violent acts, attracting much publicity.

In order to have effective campaigns, a lot of associations were formed in the UK. In 1897, Millicent Fawcett organized the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS – the Suffragists) to campaign peacefully for the vote. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU – the Suffragettes) was formed, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The Suffragettes used violent protest, famously breaking windows and chaining themselves to railings. Another group campaigning for the vote was the East London Federation of Suffragettes (1913), led by Sylvia Pankhurst. The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (1908) campaigned against votes for women.

  • When talking about the women’s suffrage movement in the UK, it is worth mentioning one remarkable woman who immensely affected the effort and made a lasting mark in Ethiopia. Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the women whose campaigns and hunger-strike led to British women being allowed to vote in the early 20th During the suffrage movement, some activists begun to exclude working-class women from the suffrage as they believed working-class women did not bring the publicity and public attention wealthy women brought. This ideology was promoted by none other than the sister of Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel. After Christabel fled to Paris, Sylvia put up the fight to include women of all classes and denounced her sister’s beliefs. She fought to mainstream the rights of working-class women to vote. Silvia fought for many social justice issues including campaigning against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. She later moved to Ethiopia and her body now lies in Addis Ababa.
  • Despite all the campaign efforts, women had not won the vote by 1914. Parliament rejected every bill to give women the vote. Male members held strong views about the weakness of women. When the First World War broke out, the Suffragettes and Suffragists stopped most of their campaigns. Just as the U.S., women’s contributions during the war immensely helped their suffrage movement. Women contributed greatly to the war effort and kept the country going while the men were away. In 1918, the government passed the Representation of the People Act, giving the vote to all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30 and who were householders or married to a householder. The campaign for women’s suffrage finally succeeded in 1928 when women were granted exactly the same voting rights as men.

The Case of Middle East and North Africa

The Islamic world is characterized for its requirement of male guardianship for women. The male guardianship requires women not to make important decisions regarding their own lives. Male guardians—fathers, husbands, brothers or sometimes sons—determine if a woman should be allowed to travel, sign a contract, get married or divorced. With the looming gaze of the male guardianship, it is no surprise that women’s suffrage took a very long time in Middle East and North African countries.

Egyptian women were granted the right to vote and became eligible to run for office in 1956. However, there was a catch: women were required to be literate to vote whereas men were not. In 2015, Egypt’s High Elections Committee revealed that 13,878 women (compared to the 3,130 men) cast their ballots during the first three hours of voting. Following the unrest in 2011, in which Egypt’s totalitarian ruler Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power by massive country-wide protests, efforts put in place to ensure women’s participation in the political sphere have been largely removed.

Tunisian women obtained the right to vote and run as candidates in elections under the country’s 1956 Personal Status Code, considered the “backbone of women’s rights legislation” in the country. The law gave women the right to vote, to be granted a seat in parliament, to earn equal pay, and to initiate divorce. Women in Tunisia voted for the first time in municipal elections in May 1959, while the country appointed the first female minister in 1983. Following the ousting of former president Ben Ali in 2011, the country began implementing a “zippered list” model, alternating the names of male and female candidates on electoral lists, which effectively guarantees women seats in Parliament. At one point, women had a greater share of seats in Tunisia’s Parliament than women had in the French Parliament.

In Syria, women were allowed to vote as early as 1949 and the remaining restrictions were removed by 1953. In Iran, women gained suffrage in 1963 after a referendum found a majority of the Iranian people in favor of women’s right to vote. A six-point reform program called the White Revolution was passed; it included suffrage and allowed women to run for office.

Under the Palestinian Basic Law, women in the country were able to exercise their voting rights for the first time in 1996, according to a UNICEF report. During the PLC elections in 2006, women accounted for 11.2 percent of the candidates and 46 percent of the voters, according to a UN Women report. While women had the right to vote, activists like Shireen Mohammad Abu Helal argued that women lacked basic information as to who to vote for and as a result were used to cast ballots in favor of their husbands’ choices. In 2016, the names of female candidates in the running for municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza were replaced with “sister of…”, “wife of…”, or initials on campaign materials.

There is no denying that Arab countries were late to the party in terms of granting women the right to vote. Arab countries that ensured women’s suffrage in more recent years include: Qatar in 1999; Bahrain in 2002; Kuwait in 2005; United Arab Emirates in 2006. At last came Saudi Arabia, where women won the right to vote only in 2015. The same year, women were allowed to run for elected office.

The Case of India

The woman suffrage movement in India started to pick up speed due to two reasons: the female participation in the freedom struggle, beginning with the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905-08), and support from British suffragists. Different provinces of British India thus extended limited suffrage rights to women in the 1920s. The Government of India Act 1935 expanded women’s suffrage and even provided reserved seats for women in central and provincial legislatures. Full voting rights were awarded with the passing of the Indian Constitution in 1950, which provided for universal adult suffrage.

The women’s suffrage movement in India faced resistance from multiple fronts. British officials argued that universal suffrage was a bad fit for India. In colonial India, elections were restricted with limited number of voters. The seats were assigned for people in religious, community or professional lines, which meant that allowing women to vote would endanger those seats. On the other hand, the freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi—and by extension his supporters—did not support women gaining the vote yet urged them to help men fight the colonial rulers. But, as historians write, Indian women’s organizations fought hard to demand voting rights for women.

Colonial administrators and legislators—both Indian and British—resisted moves to expand the franchise. Opponents of the vote talked of women’s inferiority and incompetence in public affairs. Some said giving women the vote would result in the neglect of husbands and children; others even argued political activity rendered women incapable of breast feeding. In 1921, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Madras (now Chennai) became the first provinces to give the limited vote to women. Between 1923 and 1930, seven other provinces allowed women franchise.

The Case of Ethiopia

In our country women were granted the right to vote, together with men and without any struggle, by Emperor Haile Selassie in his revised constitution in 1955. At the time, this right was merely symbolic. The 1987 Constitution of the Derg regime was the first to enclose the rights of women into law. Again, such rights remained on paper. The EPRDF’s Constitution seemed to have derivatived much from the Derg’s in terms of rights and freedoms for the people, including Article 35 on women’s rights. While the law had existed on paper for a long time, traditional and social norms prevent women from casting ballots.

Within traditional systems of leadership, women are largely excluded from having a say in the decision-making process. However, in the culture of the Oromo people of Ethiopia, women have their own institutions such as Siiqqee where they participate in decision-making. Women use this institution to make decisions in matters that involve women’s rights and to ensure women are protected from abuse and violence.

Current Challenges in Women’s Suffrage

Vatican City

Vatican City is the only place in the world where women are currently not allowed to vote. Being the center of the Roman Catholic Church, this state only allows men to vote. This is because the ruler of the Vatican City is the Pope and the Pope is elected by the votes of cardinals—who are all men. While this also means that only few men have the right to vote, men have the option of becoming cardinals in order to exercise voting rights. Restricted from becoming cardinals, women are unable to hold any executive or legislative positions in Vatican City.


Although women only gained the right to vote in Oman in 2003, they still face religious and cultural barriers to voting. Oman has received a 1.2/5 rating when it comes to women’s freedom to exercise rights in political and civic matters. Women hold two of the 83 seats in Oman’s Consultative Council, providing little inspiration for women who wish to become politically active. When women do have the chance to vote, their decisions are usually dictated by their husbands. In 2011, Omani women spoke up about how they would risk their husbands divorcing them to vote with their own preferences.


Like many of the patriarchal countries, women in Qatar face pressure from elders and conservative family members not to vote. However, younger generations of women are showing more independence in what they wear, resulting in hope for a cultural shift towards independence in other areas. In the last election, one woman, Sheika Yusuf Al Jaffiri, was elected unopposed out of 29 seats. Elections as a whole have been suspended in Qatar until 2019, and the country operates under Sharia Law, which is restrictive to women’s rights in many aspects.


Uganda has proved difficult for women to exercise their right to vote. In the 2016 elections, violence against women at the voting polls was so concerning that a control center was set up to monitor it. What was set up to protect women from violence at the polls ended up discouraging a lot of them from voting. The center received 600 complaints from women’s rights groups who claimed it only further discouraged women from voting, causing delays in queues that forced women to go home to return to domestic duties. The burden of household work being on the woman in many of these countries is a real obstacle to voting, with many women unable to find the time to travel to polling stations outside of their expected duties.


In Northeastern Kenya, societal conflict means women are discouraged from walking the long distances to registration centers as well as the physical insecurity of being out alone for a long period of time. In western Kenya, women expecting children are prohibited by cultural norms to be seen in public, meaning that a huge portion of women are unable to go out to vote. With widespread health conditions in this country, women are also put off if they don’t feel fit enough to make the journey to vote. This remains a problem in many countries were diseases and health conditions aren’t treated well and so prevent many people from getting out to vote. In Kenya as a whole, violent elections in the past—notably 2007-2008—discourage women from voting out of fear.


A 2013 poll coined Egypt the worst country in the Arab world for women’s rights, with sexual harassment, FGM and extremely conservative Islamist ideals contributing to the low rating. While Egyptian women had the right to vote since 1956, they face similar barriers to women in other patriarchal countries. In 2015, the Supreme Elections Committee announced that women wearing niqab will not be allowed to cast ballots unless they remove their veil while voting. In what has been termed a ‘war on niqab,’ the ban has faced a lot of resistance despite the SEC’s claim that it is for identification purposes. In what seems like an opposite to the niqab ban, Egyptian government also banned women in revealing clothes from voting in parliamentary elections in the same year.


Similar to the other patriarchal countries, the societal barriers in Nigeria outweigh the legislative barriers to voting. Many Nigerian women feel their vote doesn’t count, especially with only 8% of representatives in the National Assembly being women. With a former president who does not acknowledge the kidnapping of 279 girls for three weeks and a current president who jokes about his wife belonging in the kitchen, women’s rights are very much considered an afterthought in Nigeria.

The Gender Gap in Voting

In the United States, since having the right to vote, more women generally cast their ballots than men. Women’s turnout has been higher than men’s in every presidential election since 1980. The gender gap is widest among Black voters, among whom women have reported voting at higher rates than men consistently for the past 30 years. Hispanic women outvoted Hispanic men by about 5 points in 2016 (50% vs. 45%). However, the gender gap among Hispanic voters has not been consistent. At times in the past several decades, Hispanic men and Hispanic women have said they voted at roughly similar shares. Among Asian Americans, there has been no consistent gender gap as long as the trend has been measured which could be attributed to voter turnout data on Asian Americans only going back to 1992.

The aggregate findings of the most recent World Values Survey, however, reveal only minor differences in voter turnout between men and women. The lowest rates of female participation in elections are found mainly in countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Female participation is lowest in Pakistan. Countries from diverse regions can be found in the middle of the range. Equal rates of participation were found in Australia and Argentina. Some countries in the Middle East—Turkey and Yemen—have almost equal rates of participation between female and male voters. Women are more active in elections than men in 21 of the countries, most notably Belarus, New Zealand, Russia and Trinidad and Tobago.

Although gender desegregated data is useful in understanding the participation of women, such data are not available in most countries. Voting secrecy makes it difficult for election administrators to extract gender statistics from electoral results. While some countries, such as Australia, Costa Rica and India, do collect such data, most countries do not allocate the time and effort required.  Most data, therefore, relays results of representative surveys conducted among the population.


As is evident in our past, women across the globe were not granted the same agency as that of men.   From the beginning of democracy, women have been excluded from any form of decision-making including voting. Modern democracy carried the exclusion torch forcing women to fight for their right to vote. The U.S. and the U.K. were two of the world’s countries where suffrage movements presented widespread resistance to voting restrictions. Yet, those who were fighting for inclusion excluded certain demographics, leaving Black women in the United States and indigenous people in other countries at a disadvantage.

Islamic countries presented unique challenges to the suffrage movement by relating women’s freedom to vote with challenging Islamic ideologies. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia became the last state to grant women the right to vote—in 2015. Currently, while all states but the Vatican City have officially granted women the right to vote, there are still a lot of barriers standing between women and ballots. Violence, threats of divorce, coercion of choice, domestic responsibilities, social bias and flat out discriminatory laws are some of the challenges that women currently face in exercising their right to vote—having their voices heard. However, in countries where gender desegregated data is available and women are relatively free to practice their voting rights, women vote at a proportionally higher number than men.


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