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This paper highlights the issue of women’s suffrage during the period 1860-1914. In Britain, the process of removing women from local politics and their regaining that right was quite condensed. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 specified, for the first time, that the electoral franchise in municipal boroughs belonged to males only. 36 In non-municipal boroughs, however, local government was still conducted without reference to sex. “As these cities enlarged and developed, they were admitted to the honor of municipal incorporation. But since the Municipal Corporations Act limited the franchise to men, it resulted that while the city which was promoted to the rank of municipal borough saw its rights increased, a part of its inhabitants–the women–saw theirs suppressed.
This anomaly gave the advocates of women suffrage a chance to demand that the ballot be granted to women in the municipal boroughs. In 1869 Mr. Jacob Bright introduced such a measure in the House of Commons, and it was adopted almost without discussion.” 37 The disenfranchisement of women in English local government lasted from 1835 to 1869, only thirty-four years.
Most historians of the British suffrage movement date its beginnings to the advocacy of Mary Wollstonecraft or John Stuart Mill, but decades of nineteenth-century strategising and commitment are overshadowed by the best-known and most intense years of the campaign, those in the decade preceding World War I, stretching roughly from 1905 to 1914. While the primary goal of the suffrage movement was obtaining the vote for women, the drive for enfranchisement was entwined with a variety of debates on related issues such as women’s position in law, white slavery, the economic conditions of marriage, education, birth control and family roles, and taxation (Marilley, 2003: 85-89).
The radical tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU, founded in 1903), who preached ‘deeds not words’, were well known; they engaged in prison hunger strikes, breaking windows in public buildings and disrupting public events. Yet each of the major suffrage organisations, from the most radical to the most conservative, made use of public space and theatrically inspired events to promote the cause of the vote for women. Suffragists performed everything from monologues to tableaux, pageants to parodies, one-act to full-length plays in West End movements, Hyde Park, labour halls, garden parties, and city streets and squares (Welch, 2004: 9-10).
The entity of ‘suffrage movement’ was as much influenced by the political organisations and arguments of its day as it was by the aesthetics and practices of the movement – and the fact that the two realms came together is a significant moment in world history.
Of course, the context for suffrage movement goes far beyond such organisations, and its activism must also be contextualised in terms of the other major political issues of the time: imperialism, nationalism and liberalism. The suffrage movement rarely addressed issues of race and nation which Britain’s early-century global reach might have raised. In general, the suffragists writing plays and producing theatrical events tended to rely on conventional dramatic forms and concentrated on one political issue – the vote; their plays did not interrogate other social and cultural assumptions. In the main, suffrage movement supported the politics of a variety of pro-suffrage groups, but there are moments when the critique also stretches to the power stratifications of marriage and class (Welch, 2004: 11-12).
In 1900s, women intensively felt discriminated against by men and by most of society. Men generally held discriminatory and stereotypical views of women, which made many women dissatisfied with their lives and made them, feel their lives were unfulfilled and spinning out of control. Discrimination spurred women to take action. Women began to revolt, they began expressing the feelings they had bottled up inside all along.
First, in 1848 women rebelled against men’s stereotypical views and organised the Seneca Falls convention. Seventy-two years before the 19th amendment was added to the constitution, women knew changes needed to be made. Women in Britain were fed up with the laws prohibiting them from the right to vote, hold office or sit on juries. “In most states they could only hold property if they were single and could secure the guardianship of a man” (Discovering U.S. History). Their main grievances were clearly stated in a document, which were created shortly after the convention and first printed in a small town paper, that document was the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments.
The declaration stated the 18 main grievances that the majority of women had with American tradition and law. It was modelled after the Declaration of Independence and the first sentence declares “men and women are created equal.” Although the convention led to some rude awakenings among politicians and officials, until the 19th amendment was finally ratified in 1920, women had to suffice with forming organisations like the National Woman Suffrage Organisation while they continued to submit their demands to the government. Women fought to earn the right to vote, to be treated equally and mostly to be granted suffrage. The chief focus of the women’s rights movement quickly moved from just being recognised as reformers to being granted suffrage.
Suffrage at that time was known as the freedom to express their opinions through voting. Many suffragettes and supporters believed that once women had managed to gain the right to vote they would be able to make more headway in gaining other rights. As stated above, the Seneca Falls convention was one of the first reforming movements towards suffrage (Marilley, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States). Because of this, women began to take more of a part in education and politics. Men believed that any women who could incite such a revolution towards the aforementioned reforms were evil and should have been stopped (Welch, 2004: 11-12).
They opposed women suffrage and believed that women were less intelligent and unable to make political decisions. Because of such strong opposition from the men, women did not make progress towards gaining suffrage; that is until the ratification of the 15th amendment which allowed black Americans to vote but still left women segregated from the rest of society (Marilley, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States). It denied them the laws and principles specifically granted to all Americans. This lowered the women’s standings in society to below that of the black freemen. Women were outraged at this blatant show of disrespect from the American government and, led by strong political leaders, decided to do something about it (Stowell, 2002: 89-96).
Many women gained fame during this era, mainly by their strong positions on women’s rights and their demand to have their rights recognised by all. The supporters of Women’s suffrage movement were recognised for their antagonistic views and their loud protests. There is no doubt that all these women were intelligent and had the ability to manage themselves as well as men did, if not better.
One of the first women to be recognised was Susan B. Anthony. Susan Anthony was raised to be self-reliant and she had a sense of self-discipline that had already been instilled into her throughout her childhood. Anthony received most of her recognition from 1851 to 1920 when the fight for women’s rights was at its peak. Anthony was the first to think of using the previously ratified 14th amendment to create a loophole to try to get more rights. The fourteenth amendment to the constitution stated that:
“All persons born or naturalised in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law or deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (14th amendment to the Constitution).
The women decided to test the amendment and demand the right to vote because they too were citizens, and according to the law, they too deserved the same rights and laws of all U.S. citizens. Many women during the period 1860-1914 began detailing flaws in American society, much to the outrage of all men who suddenly realised they were wrong about women and just could not admit it. Women would be forced to get their points across in other ways and larger groups (Tickner, 2000: 112-132).
While eighteenth-century constitutions denied women the franchise, those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to leave regulation of suffrage to legislation. Legislatures, meanwhile, were confronting the well-organised women suffrage movement (Weatherford, 2001: 45-53). As a result, the new states and nations were more likely to grant women the vote than the older states and nations. Three granted women suffrage within a year of establishing their own political institutions, and New Zealand extended suffrage to women as part of a general revamping of its electoral act. 43 In the United States, a federal constitutional amendment granted women full voting rights in 1920. However, eight of the last ten states admitted before 1920 had full suffrage, while full woman suffrage had existed in only 18 percent of the older states. The pressure of some states in which women had full political rights put additional pressure on the holdout governments (Marilley, 2003: 85-89). In Britain and later in Britain’s colonies, local government was one aspect of political life in which at least a few women of property were able to participate. With the change from property-based suffrage to manhood suffrage, even these few women were excluded, at least temporarily, from local government. It was not long, however, before women began regaining the local franchise. Further, women began holding local elective offices again relatively quickly, even before the franchise was available. In this way, local government was different from state and national politics, in which women only began to participate in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Marilley, Suzanne M. (2003). Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in England: 1860-1914: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: p85-89
Stowell, Sheila (2002). Women’s Activism in Suffrage Era: Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press: p89-96
Tickner, Lisa (2000). The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-1914: London: Chatto and Windus: p112-132
Weatherford, Doris. (2001). A History of the British Suffragist Movement: London: Oxford University Press: p45-53
Welch, Susan. (2004). Women, Elections & Representation: London: Oxford University Press: Lincoln: p9-10
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