In most countries today, people think it is obvious that all adults should have the right to vote in democratic elections. But it was not so long ago that women did not have this right. Only after a long struggle did women gain the right to vote.
By the early nineteenth century, modern democratic forms of government were appearing in the United States, Great Britain, and some European countries. In these countries, most adult men had the right to vote in democratic elections. Some men were denied this right if they were poor or if they belonged to a racial minority group, but gradually this right was extended to all men.
It took much longer for women to gain the right to vote. Only in special cases, such as that of a widow who owned land, could a woman be allowed to vote. Many men believed that it was not necessary for women to vote, because they assumed that the husband should decide on behalf of his wife. Some men believed that women did not possess the intelligence or the discipline to vote carefully. Some women also believed that women should not be involved in politics, but many others wanted the right to vote.
By about the year 1850, some women began to organize in an effort to change the laws regarding women and the vote. This movement was known as the “woman suffrage” movement, because the word “suffrage” means voting. Leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton brought attention to this issue, and persuaded many people that women should vote.
The first part of the United States to recognize women’s right to vote was Wyoming, in the year 1869. During the following decades, many other states recognized women’s right to vote, particularly in the western part of the country, where women had a high social status. However, the United States was not the first country to recognize women’s right to vote at the national level.
The first country to recognize women’s right to vote was New Zealand, in 1893. Soon after, Australia also allowed women to vote, and so did the Scandinavian countries of northern Europe. But in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, women could not yet vote. Women in those countries struggled to gain the vote. For example, in Great Britain, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters participated in hunger strikes.
During World War One (1914-1918), women’s work efforts were very important to winning the war, and people’s attitudes were increasingly in favor of women having the right to vote. Women then gained the right to vote in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Gradually, other democracies around the world also recognized women’s right to vote.
Today, it seems difficult to believe that women were not allowed to vote only a few generations ago. But there is still progress to be made. In most countries, women are under-represented among political leaders. Perhaps the day will soon come when women are elected as often as men.