The right to vote

Anthropology: Tracing the History of Women’s Suffrage Across the World

Over the past several centuries, legal, social and political changes have been made by women. One of them was suffrage. Almost a century would pass before the combined efforts of all the activists would bear fruit and women earned the right to vote. The history of women being granted the right to vote is traced here.

A brief overview

By the 19th century, women were already claiming equality in the economic and political spheres and towards social reforms. By the middle of the 19th century, women sought to change the laws to grant them the right to vote. Both national and international organizations joined together to pool their efforts towards that aim. These include the International Woman Suffrage Alliance which was founded in 1904 in Berlin, Germany.

Presidential table during the Seventh Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance IWSA in Budapest 1913
Presidential table during the Seventh Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance IWSA in Budapest 1913. credit@ Wikipedia

In recent centuries, many instances occurred where women were selectively given and then completely stripped of the right to vote. In 1838, Pitcairn Islands was the first province in the world to award and continuously maintain women’s suffrage. In 1913, Norway became the first sovereign nation to do this. The Kingdom of Hawaii originally had universal suffrage in 1840. But this was rescinded in 1852, and in 1898, was annexed by the United States.

Russian and British empires

In the years after 1869, several provinces under the Russian and British empires conferred women’s suffrage. Some of these provinces became sovereign nations at a later point, like Australia, New Zealand and Finland. In the Isle of Man, women who owned property attained the right to vote in 1881. In 1893, women in New Zealand (which was a self-governing British colony then) were granted voting rights. The non-Aboriginal women in Australia gradually attained the right to vote between 1894 and 1911. In the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, before its independence, women were the first in the world who gained racially equal voting rights. In 1906, they gained both the right to vote as well as stand as candidates. Most of the major Western powers granted women their voting rights during the interwar period. These included Canada (1917), Germany and Britain (1918), Austria and the Netherlands (1919) and the United States (1920).


In France, women were only given the right to vote in 1944. In Greece, literate women have had the right to vote in local elections since 1930. But equal suffrage for all women was only granted in 1952. In Switzerland, women have had the right to vote at the federal level since 1971. Between 1959 and 1990, they attained the right to vote at the local canton level.

Post World War scenario

Women working in a factory during the war.
Women working in a factory during the war. credit@

Women’s role and contribution to the First World War challenged a lot of myths about the physical and mental inferiority of women. The notion of women being unfit to vote, both by constitution and temperament, became difficult to maintain.  If women could work and ace it in the munitions factories, then it seemed both ungrateful and ridiculous to deny them the right to vote. Hence, if the war helped in any way, it was this- it helped dispel the irrational fears that swirled around women’s entry into the public sphere. But the right to vote was a lot more than simply a reward for hard work.

Gaining the right to vote was accomplished by political campaigns by women and their supporters. In several countries, women had limited suffrage before men received universal suffrage. For instance, women who were literate or owned property were granted the right to vote before all men got it. In the years after the Second World War, the United Nations encouraged women’s suffrage. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, formed in 1979, recognizes the right to vote as a basic right.

History of women’s suffrage

Ancient Athens is often cited as the birthplace of democracy. Only the adult male citizens in Athens who were property owners had the right to vote during those times. Europe was, through subsequent centuries, generally reigned by monarchs, although various forms of parliament existed at differing times. Within the Catholic Church, high ranking abbesses allowed certain women the right to sit and vote in the national assemblies. The scenario was the same with the high-ranking abbesses in Medieval Germany, whose ranks equalled that of the independent princes of the empire. Their Protestant successors were granted the same privileges almost till modern times.

A young Iroquois woman with a paddle projects an image of strength and functionality.
A young Iroquois woman with a paddle projects an image of strength and functionality. Credit@ Utica Phoenix

During the seventeenth century, Marie Guyart was a French nun who worked with the First Nations communities of Canada. In 1654, in an account describing the suffrage practices of the Iroquois women, Guyart wrote that they followed a matrilineal kinship system. It was the female chieftains who made the decisions and who delegated the first ambassadors to discuss peace. Property and descent were passed down through the female line. It was the elder women who voted and deposed the male hereditary chiefs. And just like the Iroquois people, many other First Nations peoples of North America followed the matrilineal kinship system.

Conditional women’s suffrage was in effect in Sweden during the Age of Liberty (1718–1772). Other ‘countries’ that could be the first contenders to give women suffrage include the Corsican Republic (1755), the Pitcairn Islands (1838), the Isle of Man (1881) and Franceville (1890). Some of these weren’t independent, while others only briefly operated as independent states.

In 1756 in colonial America, Lydia Taft became the first woman to vote legally. This was under British rule in the colony of Massachusetts. She voted on three different occasions in a New England town meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. In New Jersey, white women who were unmarried and owned property had the right to vote from 1776 to 1807.   

In Sierra Leone (then a British colony), in the 1792 elections, all the heads of a household had the right to vote. Out of this, at least one third were ethnic African women.


The women descendants of the Bounty mutineers who settled on the Pitcairn Islands gained the right to vote from 1838. In 1856, this right was transferred when they resettled in Norfolk Island.

Modern democracy is said to have emerged when male citizens obtained the right to vote before female citizens were granted the same. An exception was in the Kingdom of Hawaii, where all citizens were given suffrage in 1840, without the mention of sex. However, in 1852, a constitutional amendment withdrew women’s voting and put property qualifications on men’s voting.  

Woman’s Rights Convention in the United States

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, the seeds for change were sown. Mott and other women delegates were refused places at the conference simply due to their sex. Little did they know that the wheels were set in motion for the first Woman’s Rights Convention in the United States in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1851 and within a short period of time, the two women would join in the struggle to fight for women’s voting rights in the US.    


Elizabeth Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony (standing).
Elizabeth Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony (standing). credit@ Library of Congress

Many of the women in New York were working in the printing and sewing trades and were always excluded from the men’s trade unions. In 1868, Anthony encouraged these women to form their own Working Women’s Associations. In the same year, Anthony was a delegate to the National Labour Congress. She persuaded the female labour committee to call for equal pay for equal work and votes for women. But the men at the conference scrapped the reference to the vote.

In the United States, women in the Wyoming Territory were granted voting rights and to stand for office in 1869. Disagreements over tactics among the subsequent suffrage groups often threatened to cripple the movement. The National American Woman Suffrage Association saw a state-by-state campaign as effective. But the National Woman’s Party insisted on an amendment to the US Constitution.

In 1840, a House of Representatives was established by the constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii. But no details were specified as to the eligibility to participate in the election. According to some academics, this omission of detail enabled women to vote in the first elections. In the first elections, the votes were cast by signing the petitions. But this interpretation is not without controversy. In 1852, the second constitution specifically stated that only men above twenty years of age had the right to vote.

In 1849, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (Italy) became the first European state to pass a law that granted women the right to vote, for administrative elections. The tradition was already informally in practice in Italy before it became official.

British colonies

The Isle of Man, a self-governing territory of the British crown, enfranchised women who owned properties in 1881. This was the first action concerning women’s suffrage in the British Isles.

Two suffragists holding a banner for the  National Woman Suffrage Association.
Two suffragists holding a banner for the National Woman Suffrage Association. credit@ USA Today

From 1889 to 1890, the Pacific commune of Franceville maintained independence. It became the first self-governing nation to grant universal suffrage without discrimination based on sex or colour. Although women did have voting rights, only white males were allowed to hold office.  

Among the countries that were originally self-governing colonies but later became independent, New Zealand was the first to grant women suffrage in 1893. The right to vote was mainly due to a movement led by Kate Sheppard. It was in the same year that the British protectorate of Cook Islands recognized the same right. In 1894, South Australia, which was another British colony at the same time, extended not just voting rights for women, but also the right to stand for election to its parliament.


In 1902, the Australian Federal Parliament passed laws that permitted adult women to vote and stand for election. However, the Aboriginal women of some states were excluded from this law.

In Europe, the first place to pass women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1906. It was also the first place in continental Europe that implemented racially equal voting rights for women. The result of the parliamentary elections in 1907 was that nineteen women were voted to be the first female members of a representative parliament. In the Russian autonomous province, this was one of the many self-governing actions that led to clashes with the Russian governor of Finland. In 1917, it eventually led to the creation of the Finnish nation.

World War scenario

In the years before the First World War broke out, Norwegian women attained the right to vote. During the First World War, women in Canada, Denmark, Poland and Germany were also given the right to vote.

Women in front of the White House in 1917, demanding full access to voting rights.
Women in front of the White House in 1917, demanding full access to voting rights. Credit@ National Park Service

In 1918, the Representation of the People Act saw British women, who were more than thirty years old, gain the right to vote. A year later, Dutch women were able to vote.

With the passage of the 19th Amendment, American women won the right in 1920. Racial minorities won the right to vote with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1922, Irish women won the same rights as men, that is, for citizens over twenty-one years of age. In Turkey, women were permitted to vote in the local elections in 1930 and in the national elections in 1934. French women were granted the right to vote in 1944 by Charles de Gaulle’s government in exile.

United States

The United Nations Human Rights Commission introduced voting rights for women into international law. Eleanor Roosevelt was the elected chair. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations. The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, which was enforced in 1954. Women got equal rights concerning suffrage, to hold office and to access public services under national laws.

More recent progress regarding women’s suffrage is Bhutan granting women the full right to vote in 2008. In 2015, women in Saudi Arabia were permitted to vote in local elections and be appointed to the Consultative Assembly.


The suffrage campaign granted women not just the right to vote, but camaraderie and solidarity with other women. United and proud to be part of this long crusade, the solidarity that was created lasted for the rest of their lives. The right to vote is the result of thousands of women who united in the struggle for suffrage.

Through the suffrage movement, women became increasingly skilled at grassroots organizations, leading to a larger involvement in local, state and national communities. Apart from the financial contributions they made to the movement, the energy and time that the suffragists poured into their cause and improving the status of women also demonstrates a connection between the suffrage movement and the philanthropic segment.

Beyond earning the right to vote, the suffrage movement promoted public action among the newly enfranchised women. This was done through the formation of organisations like the League of Women Voters. The movement gave women a voice and greater ammo to fight and make a difference at the local and federal levels. While the right to vote may not be as appreciated today as it was in the past, it is a serving reminder of the struggles women faced in the past. And women continue to influence their communities and nations today.


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