The fight to win the vote for women

November 28, 2014

In the Social Contract, published in 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that, “man is born free, and everywhere is in chains”. The French Revolution determined to remedy this state of affairs and its chosen instrument was a constitution setting out “natural, imprescriptible and inalienable rights”.

On August 26, 1789, the French National Assembly voted for a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens” whose first article stated, “men are born, and always continue, free and equal in their rights”. These rights were declared to be “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression”.

In 1791, the Duc de la Rochelle’s Committee on Mendicancy declared the “right to work” to be a basic human right that the state had an obligation to provide. In the event that the state was unable to discharge its obligation it was left with the responsibility of ensuring that the unemployed had the means of subsistence.

Two years later, the good health of its citizens also became an obligation of the state as a consequence of a determination of the National Convention’s Committee on Salubrity in 1793.

These declarations sparked a fierce and enduring debate, in France and beyond, as to the origin of human rights, how far they might extend and, once determined, how they could be guaranteed.

Most obviously, the “Rights of Man” excluded women. “Citizens” was an equally gender-exclusive term.

The playwright Olympe de Gouges prominently objected to this discriminatory exclusion and in 1791 published Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen demanding their extension. She was guillotined in 1793 for the treasonable offence of demanding government by plebiscite.

The French revolution, that “slowly manifested revulsion against centuries of unavenged wrong”, succeeded in replacing the old feudal hostility between privileged and unprivileged with a conflict between rich and poor. This developed into a political struggle, out of which emerged the socialist movement of the 19th century.

This legacy of revolution meant that for the first half of the 19th century it was France, and more particularly Paris, that formed the centre of socialism and socialist thought. Even so, women in France would still have to wait until after World War II for the vote.

The Gotha Unity Programme of 1875 that consolidated German social democracy had, as part of its political objectives, the demand for universal, equal and direct suffrage for all citizens over the age of 20 without distinction of sex, together with secret ballots and proportional representation.

It further demanded that all laws that disadvantaged women be abolished. Yet women in Germany were not granted the vote until 1919.


The extension of the franchise to include women began in the white-settler societies in the 1890s when it was introduced in New Zealand, the colony of South Australia and the state of Wyoming in the US.

The British Reform Act of 1867 and its successor in 1883 raised the enfranchised electorate from 8% to 29% of males over the age of 20, in effect entrenching politics as a male affair.

This was not only a blight on the future but harmed the memory of the previously recognised role in politics of working-class women — on the barricades, in riots and in revolutions. As the British historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out, women were second-class human beings: since they had no citizen rights at all they could not even be called second-class citizens.

Women were, in effect, outside the economy because it formally consisted of those who had an “occupation” — domestic labour in the family did not qualify as work.

The main occupation for women in Britain in the second half of the 19th century was domestic service. Their numbers increased from just over 1 million in 1850 to 2 million in the early 1890s.

Social change was, however, under way, thanks to the education acts of 1870 and 1880, which made elementary education compulsory for all children.

When a national secondary school system was established in 1902, the number of girls’ schools increased dramatically. By 1914, the number of girls staying on in secondary school past the age of 16 was considerably higher than that of boys.

This led to the opening-up of jobs that came to be dominated by women, with elementary school teaching a prime example. The number of “commercial and business clerks” who were women had risen from 6000 to 146,000 by 1911 — thanks in large part to the increased use of typewriters. In Germany, the proportion of female shop assistants rose from less than 20% to 40% of women workers in the two decades to 1907.

Before 1914, the right of women to vote in parliamentary elections had been won nationally in only Australia, Finland, New Zealand and Norway.


Several organisations had been formed to campaign for women’s suffrage in the late 19th century.

Henrietta Dugdale established a society in Melbourne in 1884, and in Britain the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies came together in 1897 under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett.

Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889, followed by the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. This divided the British movements between the “respectable” suffragists of Fawcett (whose banners proclaimed them to be “Law Abiding Suffragists”) and the militant suffragettes led by Pankhurst.

The electoral reforms of 1918, which granted male suffrage based on residence, also partially enfranchised women, who were now allowed to vote if they were over the age of 30. It would take a further 10 years for women to be granted equal voting rights in Britain.

The campaigning movements for women’s voting rights co-existed alongside the new social revolutionary and socialist organisations that were committed to the emancipation of women. It is no accident that the most popular explanation of socialism issued by the leader of the German Social Democrats, August Bebel, was Woman and Socialism published in 1879.

Although there were no significant numbers of women in most labour and socialist parties before 1905, it was socialist and revolutionary politics that offered opportunities for women that were not matched anywhere else.

A disproportionate number of them came from backward, Tsarist Russia — Emma Goldman, Alexandra Kollontai, Vera Zasulich and Rosa Luxemburg (Russian Poland) among the more prominent.

It was also in Russia that the number of university-educated women rose more rapidly than in other countries — from less than 2000 in 1905 to 9300 in 1911. In Germany, France and Italy by comparison, the number of women attending university in 1914 was between 4500 and 5000.


This was a time when women were increasingly represented in unions. In Britain in 1913, just over 10% of unionists were women; in Germany 9%; Switzerland 11%; and 12.3% in Finland.

The 1400 mainly young women who were employed in the Bryant and May match factory in the late 1880s were not members of a union. But this did not stop them from going on strike for three weeks over wages and working conditions when three of them were sacked.

The strike was won thanks to the public support they received, generated by the strike’s leader, Annie Besant, who was a member of the small and middle class Fabian Society — 25% of whom were women — and later a member of the Social Democratic Federation with Eleanor Marx.

In the US, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), founded in Chicago in 1903, was a dynamic presence in the labour movement, far to the left of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

In the Lawrence textile strike, which lasted for two months in the bitter winter of 1912, the WTUL was ordered by the AFL to shut down its relief station. The director of the relief centre, Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, resigned from the League and continued to support the strike.

With the organising help of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the women won the strike, but not without a brutal struggle. As “Big Bill” Haywood of the IWW recalled in his autobiography: “One cold morning, after the strikers had been drenched on the bridge with the firehoses of the mills, the women caught a policeman in the middle of the bridge and stripped off his uniform, pants and all. They were about to throw him in the icy river, when another policeman rushed in and saved him from a chilly ducking.”

One of the young women strikers, Annie LoPezzo, who was killed by a police officer, became the IWW’s first female martyr. A young woman picketer who wrote on her sign, “We want bread — and roses, too!” gave the strike its popular nickname, which was then turned into a song by the dime novelist and poet, James Oppenheim.


The struggle for women’s voting rights continued well into the 20th century. As in France, women in Italy and Japan had to wait until after World War II to get the vote.

The deciding influence here was the war. It was fought for a demonstrable cause — the defeat of fascism. Its end had to mark a new beginning — the building of a better society. Without equal suffrage that would be impossible.

The legal instrument that would provide it was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948.

It remedied the gender exclusion of the French declaration 160 years earlier. The human rights that it set out, one of which was equal suffrage, applied to everyone “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…”

But implementation of the rights in the declaration still had to be fought for. In Switzerland, women did not receive the vote at the federal level until 1971 and it took a federal court decision before women’s suffrage was introduced in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden in 1990.

[Read part one: Socialists and how the vote was won. The final article in this series, Socialists and the Vote in Australia, will feature next week.]

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