Suffrage, or the right to vote, is an important right in any democracy. Societies routinely exclude some sectors of the community from voting and this is entirely consistent with international norms. Normally voting in a democracy is open to citizens that have reached the age of majority. In many countries today that is 18 years. The rules vary by country, and even subnational jurisdiction. Generally voting is restricted to citizens but even they may be excluded from voting if they have resided out side of the country for an extended period, if they have been convicted of or incarcerated for serious offences or for other reasons. Prohibiting individuals from voting in this manner is considered to be consistent with international standards today. This is generally called universal sufferage even though segments of the community are excluded from voting.
What is not considered acceptable by democracies today is to exclude someone from voting on the basis of gender. It is widely believed today that women were disenfranchised from voting until recently. This is true, but what is often not stated in this narrative is that the same was true for most or all men. A survey in 1780 in the UK, for example, revealed that only 3% of the population were entitled to vote.
Britain had no less than three acts of parliament during the 19th century that enfranchised a growing proportion of men - and yet a significant proportion of the male population remained unable to vote. Voting rights in the UK, as in most nations, was initially based on land ownership. This often meant that land owning women could vote but men without land could not. There is documentary evidence that British women who owned land were voting as early as 1843 - decades before most men obtained the right to vote.
Many men were still disenfranchised when conscription was enacted in the UK in 1917 as the number of volunteers prepared to fight in World War I waned. Many of these men drafted and forced to war against their will were unable to vote. The year the war ended, 1918, the UK finally granted full enfranchisement to men. At the same time women over 30 were permitted to vote. Had women been fully enfranchised in 1918 along with men they would have constituted a majority of voters due to the significant number of men killed during World War I. Women were finally fully enfranchised in 1928, only 10 years after men received full enfranchisement.
In the UK we see a pattern repeated around the world. Enfranchisement was held by a small group of people which grew over time. It would not be unreasonable to say that the rights of women were curtailed in the UK (and elsewhere in Europe) in the 18th and 19th centuries. In previous centuries it had not been uncommon for women to work in trades, sometimes rising to high positions. Common men and women in the UK had little political power until the 18th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries the political rights of men in the UK grew, arguably causing the political rights of women to lag. Feminists today see the state of women during that time and erroneously apply it to all of history, all around the world.
A different situation existed in the United States. Many US states had laws that restricted the rights of black Americans, male or female. As a result there was a far wider divide between black and white citizens of the US than their was between men and women, in terms of their ability to have a voice in the running of the nation. Even after the civil rights movement black Americans continued to experience impediments to their ability to vote in elections. As a result American men and women achieved universal suffrage at the same time. Some people argue they still haven't achieved it.
Originally most US states only enfranchised land owners, as was common around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Gradually the right to vote was extended to citizens of the US that were considered to be white. Suffrage in the US included all white men by 1860. White women were fully enfranchised in 1920. American citizens who were black, however, would have to wait. While some state provided de jure voting rights to black Americans, de facto the right to vote was denied. This would done through both overt intimidation, and more subtle tactics that would put roadblocks in front of black Americans that tried to enrol to vote. Black Americans, both men and women, are generally held to have achieve a genuine right to vote with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, although as recently as the 2000 election there was evidence that black Americans, both men and women had a more difficult time casting their ballot than white Americans.
The situation in Australia was similar to the US. Men started to receive enfranchisement in the 1850s. This allowed them to vote for colonial parliaments. In general only white men were permitted to vote, with the notable exception of any Maori who happened to be living in Australia. White and maori Women in Australia started receiving enfranchisement in the 1890s.
While much is made of the enfranchisement of women in many nations, such as the US and Australia, men of colour were usually enfranchised long after white women. The emphasis on gender as a primary determiner of voting rights is misleading and deflects attention from more important aspects.
Today it is common for gender to be over-emphasised as a defining characteristic. Culture, ethnicity, social class at birth, and many other characteristics are better determiners of the life a person will have than is gender. Historically most men and women were disenfranchised. Power rested with the ruling class, men and women alike. While it was generally true that men were more likely to wield hard power (and women soft power) even this was not universally true, and from time to time a powerful female ruler arose.
Feminists so often put the focus of enfranchisement on voting rights for women as if this was an event that occurred in a vacuum. The enfranchisement of women is in fact only a part of a greater story. Over a period of centuries the body of electors grew. Impedements to enfranchisement included gender, property, age, and education. This process is in fact ongoing with increasing moves to enfranchise resident non-citizens and to further reduce the voting age in some nations. The enfranchisement of women was just one step among many, and not one that was easily separated from the enfranchisement of men in many nations.
The next time someone tells you how long women have had the vote in their nation, ask them how long men have had the vote. They probably won't know.
- Why has everyone forgotten about male sufferage
- The Forgotten Victory, Votes for Working Class Men
- Did Women’s Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government?
- Timeline of suffrage