The Origins of Women’s Suffrage

How the Wild West, industrialisation, and public education led to votes for women

Adam M Wakeling

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British poster by the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1909 (Wikimedia Commons).

AtAt the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914, three countries had fully enfranchised women at a national level. They were New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), and Norway (1913). The Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, had enfranchised women in 1906. Every Australian colony or state had granted women the right to vote, beginning with South Australia in 1894 and ending with Victoria in 1908 (the colonies federated into one country and became states in 1901).

In the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man allowed female property owners to vote in 1880. In the United States, women had been given the right to vote in Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Oregon (1912), and Alaska (1913). Women had gained the right to vote in Utah in 1870 but lost it in 1877, and women had voting rights in primaries or local elections in some other states. In Denmark, women could vote in local elections.

In other words, women were able to vote in the American west, the British colonies in the antipodes and in Scandinavia before they could vote in the great centres of democracy in London, Paris, and Washington D.C. Why were these places the first in the world to let women vote?

Undemocratic Democracy

Today, we take voting for granted. If we are an adult citizen of a democratic country, we assume that we should have the right to vote for (or against) its government. But for centuries, voting was a privilege rather than a right. In England, some form of election had been used to select members of the House of Commons since the middle ages. But it was an election on a very narrow franchise restricted to men owning property worth a certain value. In 1780, for example, Great Britain had 218,500 voters among 10.6 million people, so about 2% of the population could vote.

But why should men who paid taxes to a government and were subject to its laws not vote for it? Revolutionary France briefly experimented with and then abandoned universal manhood suffrage, but it began to catch on in the United States during the age of…

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Adam M Wakeling

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at https://www.amwakeling.com/ and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.