Women’s Suffrage: A Celebration and a Global Perspective

suffrage sash
Suffrage sash

2020 marked the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment guarantees American women that their right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”[1] This significant achievement for U.S. women’s suffrage did not materialize in its fullest potential until recently, nor did it occur in a vacuum but was part of a shared international struggle that gained context and motivation from global influences. Women exercising their right to vote worldwide are critical to their empowerment and participation in public society. This post celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8 and March as Women’s History Month in the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom.

A Shared Historical Experience

In the U.S., we often point to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 as the women’s suffrage movement’s starting point. However, the suffrage movement found early inspiration in enlightenment concepts, the American, French, Haitian revolutions, and reform causes such as the anti-slavery movement.[2] The transatlantic abolitionist movement galvanized women’s suffrage efforts and presented strategies such as mass petitions and public speaking. Suffragists in different countries collaborated across national borders by corresponding, sharing strategies, and organizing international conferences and publications.[3] In the mid-nineteenth century, new technologies such as transatlantic telegraph cables and improved transportation helped spread information.[4]

U.S. suffrage leaders also found inspiration in other cultures, including the matriarchal societies of indigenous peoples. The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, situated in northeast North America, has a family and governmental structure based on female authority.[5]

International Timeline

Even before universal suffrage emerged at the national level in the U.S., several government units in different countries granted women the right to vote in elections. In 1869, the U.S. territory of Wyoming gave women the right to vote.[6] In 1894, South Australia was the first colony on the Australian continent to grant women universal suffrage and candidate eligibility.[7]  

In 1893, New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote in national elections.

During World War I, the mindset of what women could accomplish changed as women took over jobs traditionally held by men leaving for the front.[8] The Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and Russia are a few of the countries in the post-World War I years that allowed women to vote. Women’s suffrage has tracked international developments and changes in government. Many African nations granted universal suffrage in the period of decolonization from 1950-1975.[9]

However, several European countries did not allow universal suffrage until the latter half of the twentieth century, including Switzerland (1971) and Portugal (1976). Women in Saudi Arabia cast their first ballots in 2015 after being granted the right to participate in municipal elections.  

Not an Unrestricted Right

Although many women worldwide gained the right to vote in the last 160 years, that right was not always unrestricted. Laws sought to limit the right to vote and to exclude some women. Many of these exclusions were restrictions based on demographic factors, literacy, or marital status. In Sweden, only taxpaying widows and unmarried women gained the right to vote in municipal elections in 1862.[10] The U.K.’s Representation of the People Act in 1918 allowed women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote. Ten years later, the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 granted women over 21 the same voting rights as men.[11] In 1935, India tied the franchise for women to the qualifications of their husbands.[12]

Societal norms and local laws also inhibited women’s free exercise of their voting rights. In the U.S., even after ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, the failure to eliminate residency requirements, poll taxes, and literacy tests in the American South denied both African American women and men the vote.[13] In 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act removed discriminatory barriers for people of color.[14] Even today, ever-changing state and local laws can result in voter suppression in certain communities of color.[15]  

As of 2020, a survey of 198 countries shows that none of the listed countries bar women from voting in national elections because of their sex.[16] Despite laws to the contrary, restrictive or discriminatory practices or attitudes continue to present challenges to women exercising their voting rights.[17]

Female Voter Turnout

According to the Pew Research Center, since 1984, U.S. women have turned out to vote more than men.[18] In the November 2020 U.S. election, according to a national exit poll, women accounted for 52% of the voter turnout.[19] This trend is appearing in other countries. Russia, Belarus, and New Zealand have higher levels of female voter turnout than men.[20] Today, the lowest female participation rates in elections are found mainly in countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. Pakistan is exhibiting one of the most considerable gender discrepancies, with women accounting for less than 10% of voter turnout.[21]

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) developed a Voter Turnout Database that tracks voter turnout from around the world and contains a comprehensive global collection of voter turnout statistics from presidential and parliamentary elections since 1945.[22]

International Efforts Promoting Women Civic Participation

The United Nations (U.N.) is engaged in the fight for women’s suffrage worldwide. In 1953, the U. N. adopted the Convention on the Political Rights of Women. This convention resulted in the first international law document to protect women’s political rights and suffrage, evidenced by Article 1, which states, “Women shall be entitled to vote in all elections on equal terms with men, without any discrimination.”[23] The 2003 U.N. Resolution on Women and Political Participation calls upon States to promote and protect the human rights of women concerning many things, among them “[v]oting in elections and public referendums and being eligible for election to publicly elected bodies on equal terms with men[.]”[24] The resolution expresses great concern that “women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to health care and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women[.]”[25] In 1975, the International Women’s Year, the U.N. began commemorating International Women’s Day on March 8 and officially recognized it in 1977.[26]

Women’s suffrage has expanded over the last two centuries worldwide. As we celebrate women, their achievements, and their potential during March and throughout the year, we all must continue the movement towards equal rights and safeguard equal justice for all.  

Jean M. Wenger
Director of the Law Library/Senior Lecturer
Chicago-Kent College of Law Library
Chicago, Illinois
The author is a member of the IALL Board of Directors.

This Blog contains entries by members of the International Association of Law Libraries on issues germane to the Association’s areas of focus. Views expressed in an individual entry only represent the views of the author.

[1] U.S. Const. Amend. XIX.

[2] Katherine M. Marino, The International History of the US Suffrage Movement, National Park Service (last updated Oct. 10, 2019).  For more information, see the Library of Congress’ exhibit, Shall Not Be Denied – Women Fight for the Vote.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Wagner, Sally Roesch, How Native American Women Inspired the Women’s Rights Movement, National Park Service, (last updated: Dec. 14, 2020).

[6] Wyoming Territorial Laws, 1869, Chap. 31, p. 371.

[7] Julia Gillard, A Global Story – Women’s Suffrage, Forgotten History, and a Way Forward, Brookings Gender Equality Series, Sept. 2020.

[8] Women’s Suffrage Movement — Facts and Information on Women’s Rights, HistoryNet.

[9] Katherine Schaeffer, Key Facts about Women’s Suffrage Around the World, A Century After U.S. Ratified 19th Amendment, Pew Research Center (Oct. 5, 2020).

[10] P. Orman Ray, Woman Suffrage in Foreign Countries, 12 American Political Science Review, pp. 469-474 (1918).  

[11] Women get the vote (UK Parliament).

[12] Government of India Act, 1935, [26 Geo. 5 Ch. 2.].

[13] Malia Brink, Fines, Fees, and the Right to Vote, 45 Human Rights Magazine, No. 1: Voting Rights (Feb. 9, 2020).

[14] Voting Rights Act of 1965, P.L. 89-110, Aug. 6, 1965.

[15] Sarina Vij, Why Minority Voters Have a Lower Voter Turnout: An Analysis of Current Restrictions, 45 Human Rights Magazine, No. 3: Voting in 2020 (June 26, 2020).

[16] Katherine Schaeffer, Key Facts about Women’s Suffrage Around the World, A Century After U.S. Ratified 19th Amendment, Pew Research Center (Oct. 5, 2020).

[17] Monitoring and Protecting the Human Rights of Women, Manual on Human Rights Monitoring, OHCHR, 2011.

[18] Ruth Igielnik, Men and Women in the U.S. Continue to Differ in Voter Turnout Rate, Party Identification, Pew Research Center (Aug. 18, 2020).

[19] National Exit Polls: How Different Groups Voted, New York Times, Nov. 3, 2020.

[20] Abdurashid Solijonov, Voter Turnout Trends around the World, IDEA International, 2016.

[21] Id.    

[22] Voter Turnout Database, IDEA International.

[23] Convention on the Political Rights of Women, 193 U.N.T.S. 135, entered into force July 7, 1954.

[24] U.N. Resolution, Women and Political Participation, A/RES/66/130 (2011).

[25] Id.

[26] International Women’s Day, U.N.