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what was the suffrage movement

Written by Malik Mashhood 8:28 pm Articles, Current Affairs, Published Content

Revisiting the Suffrage Movement in America and Britain

In this article, Malik Mashhood explores the women’s ‘suffrage’ movement, which began in the 1800s in the United States, primarily demanding the right for women to vote. He compares the suffrage movements in America and Britain, while discussing contemporary women’s rights movements in the two jurisdictions.
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About the Author(s)
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Mr Malik Mashhood is a Political Science and Media Studies graduate from the Lahore School of Economics. He is currently a student of MPhil Development Studies. He is also working as a Research Assistant.

Introduction

In November 1913, during her fundraising tour in America, Emmeline Pankhurst, a pioneer leader of the suffrage movement in Britain, spoke at Hartford, Connecticut on the issue of women’s righst to vote. Her speech was called ‘freedom or death’ and remains one of the most powerful speeches to date. Initially, political reasons such as the right to vote brought women out to demonstrate. Later, the focus gradually shifted to other issues such as family roles and workplace rights.

Suffrage Movement in America

The commencement of the first women’s rights movement in America is often traced back to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. However, it is pertinent to mention that long before this convention the seeds for women’s equal rights were already sworn at the time of the US’s independence.

Abigail Adams
Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Abigail Smith Adams

Abigail Adams, the wife of one of America’s founding fathers, John Adams, brought up the issue of women’s rights before the first continental congress in the following words; “Remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors…”

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In New York, the participation of three hundred people, both men and women, in the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, officially initiated the suffrage movement. This movement was a seven-decade-long struggle by women to achieve their voting rights in the United States. It was preceded by the American Civil War.

Susan Brownell Anthony
Susan Brownell Anthony” by Carl Gutherz, 28 Jan 1844 – 7 Feb 1907 is marked with CC0 1.0.

Almost a decade later when the civil war began, women civil war activists such as Mary Church Terrell also came to the forefront. Terrell became the first African American woman to be appointed to the education board of the District of Columbia. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman’s Suffrage Association with their aim to fight for the voting rights of all women, including Africans.

In the wake of demonstrations and protests, women were finally given the right to vote in the US a few years later. In 1869, initially, it was the state of Wyoming that passed the first women’s suffrage law, giving women their right to vote. The 19th amendment was later introduced to the US constitution which prohibited the denial of a vote on the basis of sex.

Suffrage Movement in Britain

The suffrage movement had entered Britain by the 1870s. Author Mary Wollstonecraft is often regarded as the first one in Britain to have brought up the issue of equal rights with her work ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792). Having taught at a school, she criticized the education system, asserting that women were rational human beings, equal to men, but deliberately kept incapable and in subordinate positions by the education system.

It was soon that the women’s plea for equal rights was able to reach those in positions of power, the British Parliament. A number of petitions were presented by various advocates of women’s rights before the House of Commons. In 1832, the first petition before the parliament was brought by Mary Smith, a woman from Yorkshire. She stated that women should ‘have a voice in the election of Members [of Parliament]’. This was presented in the parliament by MP Henry Hunt.

A few years later, English philosopher and Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill presented the suffrage petition, containing over 1500 signatures, before the House of Commons. Mill also wrote an essay called ‘Subjection of Women’ in which he contested the subordination of women and emphasized that there should be legal and social equality between both genders.

In 1902, women textile workers from Northern England gathered and came up with a petition that contained over 37000 signatures, demanding votes for women. These events proved to be a cornerstone for women’s right to vote in Britain. Gradually, a number of organizations were also formed which included the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act was introduced by the parliament which made women the legal owners of their property, something which wasn’t the case previously. In March 1907, the women’s enfranchisement bill failed, causing a very intense reaction from the suffragists. Finally, in 1918, the representation of peoples’ bill was passed, but it gave only women older than 30 years of age the right to vote. Later, in 1928, every individual above 21 years of age was granted the right to vote.

The women’s liberation movement resurfaced in the 1960s and 70s since women in Britain still felt unequal to men in political, economic, and social spheres. Simultaneously, there was a large gap between men and women at educational institutions and workplaces. A very significant point in the women’s liberation movement came in 1968 when around 190 women, working at the Ford Motor Company, went on a strike, demanding equal pay. This came to be known as The Ford Women’s Strike of 1968.

This event also set forth the demand for equal pay at the workplace that was presented by women in the subsequent years at different conferences and gatherings. It must be asserted that the women’s liberation movement in the UK was derived and catalyzed by working-class women since they wanted equality in the workplace.

Similarities

It can be stated that in both America and Britain, the women’s movement emerged alongside various other movements. In Britain, the women’s liberation movement began in the wake of protests by working-class women for fair working conditions. Hence their protests soon became part of the large-scale second-wave feminist movement. Similarly, in America, the women’s liberation movement had been going on alongside the civil rights movement.

Even the civil rights movement itself began due to the protests by women on the unjust treatment of an African American woman named Rosa Parks. The Rosa Parks case became one of the most significant cases in American history in the 1950s.

Another significant similarity between the two women’s movements was the role of women’s organizations. It appears that in both places women had realized that they needed a platform of their own through which they could raise their voices and put forward their demands for equal rights. Hence, in America, the National Woman’s Suffrage Association was formed in 1869, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1890, and the National Women’s Party in 1906.

Similarly, in Britain, there was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) formed in 1897, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) formed in 1903. These organizations played a very key role in both countries for women’s rights.

Differences

Despite numerous similarities between the two movements prevailing in two distinct parts of the world, there did exist some visible differences between the two. Primarily, the women’s movements in Britain often resorted to violence when they perceived that nothing of substance was being achieved. This can be analyzed in both the suffrage movement of the 1800s and the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

For instance, when the women’s enfranchisement bill 1907 was deliberately rejected in the House of Commons, almost 75 suffragists tried to storm the parliament’s building and were eventually arrested. There is no doubt that these movements helped women achieve quite a lot. However, the criticism was that the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s focused too much on white and middle-class women.

It is important to mention that by this time, debate on ‘political correctness’ was also initiated. It was being argued that those expressions which marginalized or insulted a particular community must be avoided or ‘corrected’. In both America and Britain, this movement remained impactful. In 1991, a business campaign termed ‘Opportunities 2000’ was launched with an aim to rebalance the workforce in such a way that an increased number of opportunities were created for the employment of women.

In the USA, the year 1992 remains very significant because four females were able to get elected to the US Senate for the first time in history, thus 1992 came to be known as the ‘year of women’ in the US. Then in 1994, one of the most significant acts, the Violence against Women Act was passed in the United States which prohibited crimes against women including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence. According to the US Justice Department, a sizable decline in the cases of domestic violence was witnessed in the US subsequently.

Since the 1800s, when the first women’s rights movement began in both America and Britain, one can say that women have been able to come a long way in their quest for equal rights in both countries. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to state that despite these few notable examples, the overall situation of women across the globe still calls for immense improvement.

It is ironic that the US is still among the only seven countries that are not a party to what is considered one of the most crucial conventions on women to date, ‘The Convention on The Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’ (CEDAW), opted by the UN in 1979. This treaty is often termed the only near-universal treaty that protects the human rights of women all across the globe.

Being among the foremost players in international politics, the US’s failure to ratify one of the most essential treaties safeguarding women’s rights poses a question mark on its dedication to improving the conditions of women.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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