A new look at how women won the vote


Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives
Edited by Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan
Pluto Press, 1994. 368 pp.
Reviewed by Bernie Brian

All of the articles in this collection were first presented at the "Suffrage and Beyond" conference held at the Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, in August 1993.

One hundred years earlier, New Zealand women had become the first in the world to gain the right to vote in national elections. 1994 also marks the centenary of the granting of voting rights to women in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

These centenaries have sparked a renewed interest among historians in the struggle by women to gain the vote. In today's political climate, with cynicism about the political process at an all-time high, it may be easy to dismiss the importance of this achievement, but it became symbolic of the wider struggle to challenge the dominant view that women should be seen and not heard.

The history of the struggle for women's enfranchisement across the world was very diverse. This collection of articles can only scratch the surface of this history and be a companion volume to wider reading. As a collection of conference papers it is a little disjointed at times, though common themes run throughout. All the articles stress that the right to vote was a product of women's independent political struggle and that suffrage was very much an international movement.

In one of the more fascinating papers, Japanese academics Yukiko Matsukawa and Kaoru Tachi detail the movement for the vote in Japan. Women won the vote in Japan in 1945 while that country was occupied by the United States. US propaganda at the time promoted this as a gift of US democracy. But as Matsukawa and Tachi reveal, Japanese suffragists did not have short memories and knew of the long campaign by Japanese suffragists for not only the right to vote but even the right to read newspapers.

The movement in Japan had also played a leading role in the fight against militarism and fascism. For her services to society, Japanese suffragist Ichikawa Fusae was purged from the public service by the postwar US administration.

The idea that the vote was a "gift" from "democratic" male legislators is a prevalent one in histories of the Australian suffrage movement. Labour historian Ian Turner wrote that women were "handed the vote on a plate".

While the Australian suffragists never resorted to the militant tactics of the British "suffragettes", they were nevertheless subjected to considerable public vilification from their opponents. The Bulletin described them as "disappointed childless creatures who had missed their natural vocation".

Undaunted by these public taunts, the women activists in the suffrage associations collected mass petitions and addressed numerous meetings demanding the vote. One petition in Western Australia, when pasted to a piece of cloth, stretched a mile.

Contributions in Suffrage and Beyond stress the international links that developed among leading women in the various suffrage campaigns. Australian researcher Sandra Holton gives an inspiring account of the links between British suffragists and abolitionists in the United States.

Well-known North American historian of the suffrage movement Ellen DuBois details the role of the international socialist movement in campaigning for the right to vote and includes a critical but sympathetic evaluation of the role of German socialist Clara Zetkin. The socialist suffragists were especially keen to build links with the male labour movement. However, this was often easier said than done due to the sexism of male workers and the middle class origins of many suffragists.

Nevertheless, Susan Magarey points out that the support of the South Australian United Trades and Labour Council was an important factor in the early victory in that state. Male sexism was one factor, but the labour movement was also opposed to the call from some sections of the suffrage movement for the vote to be granted only to women of property.

Research into the campaign for women's suffrage is a relatively recent phenomenon, as there was a tendency after the impact of the second wave of feminism to dismiss first wave feminists as conservative. Anne Summers took them to task for their defence of the family and women's place in it. However, more recent works have stressed the importance of seeing these feminists limited by historical conditions rather than by a lack of boldness.

Nevertheless, this may be a distorted picture of the views of these turn of the century feminists. North American historian Nancy Cott gives an account of groups like the German League for the Protection of Mothers, which campaigned for a "new concept of mother's rights, for reproductive freedom and autonomy for women". Australian suffragists like Catherine Spence also produced radical critiques of the laws of marriage.

The campaign by women to win the vote was a long one. While Australian women won the vote at the turn of the century, French women could not vote till 1944 and Swiss women in 1971 and black women in South Africa in 1994. The victories of Australian women must be qualified, however, given that Aboriginal men and women lost the right to vote in 1902, only regaining it 60 years later

One strength of Suffrage and Beyond is that it does not limit itself an analysis of the Western movement but includes accounts from the Pacific Islands, South America and Japan. A useful addition is the appendix, which gives a chronological list of when women won the vote around the world. This collection is not the final say on a complex issue, but it will become a useful companion to future research.