19th Century Women's Suffrage in Europe Research Paper

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Europe Women's Suffrage

Most countries in Western and Central Europe, including Great Britain granted women the vote right after World War I, and only in the Scandinavian nations of Norway and Finland did they receive it earlier than that. France stood out as exceptional, however, no matter that it was the homeland of democratic revolution and of the idea of equal rights for women. It also had a highly conservative side and did not allow women's suffrage until 1945. In Southern and Eastern Europe, granting the vote to women was usually delayed at least that long as well, especially due to the influence on the Catholic Church. In any event, the authoritarian or even fascist nature of the regimes in most of these countries made voting irrelevant, but for the most part no movements for women's suffrage and equality even existed in these regions in the 19th Century. Women's suffrage advanced fastest in the Northern Protestant European countries that had the strongest liberal and democratic traditions un the 19th Century, particularly Britain and Scandinavia, although almost everywhere, working class and social democratic parties were the first to formally endorse female voting rights. These parties were almost always the first to introduce the first bills in favor of it in the national legislatures, which were literally men with howls of scorn and ridicule when the subject came up in the 19th Century, as something quite literally comical, absurd or unthinkable. In traditional and conservative societies, as opposed to those that were more urban and industrialized, women were largely confined to their domestic roles and had few opportunities for participation in public political or economic life. In countries with string authoritarian traditions like Germany, Russia, Austria and Italy, where parliaments were either weak or non-existent and not even the majority of men could vote, there was virtually no chance of voting rights being granted to women in the 19th Century.

Great Britain

Great Britain was the first country in Western Europe that began to extend voting rights to all men the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884-85, including to laborers and the working class, although full universal suffrage for all males regardless of income and property ownership did not come until the 20th Century. Women age thirty and over were allowed to vote in national elections in 1918, and this was extended to all women over age twenty-one in 1928. Unlike France, which proclaimed universal suffrage for all men in the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, only to abolish it again in the dictatorships or absolute monarchies that were restored later, in Britain the progress toward democratization was slow and steady throughout the 19th Century. Moreover, once certain rights were granted, usually after exhaustive debate and discussion, they were never rescinded again, which did happen on the continent in Germany, Italy, France and Russia when weak liberal regimes collapsed. John Stuart Mill first advocated women's suffrage in On Liberty (1859) and petitioned Parliament to allow women's voting rights during the debate over the 1867 Reform Act. That same year, the first women's suffrage committees were formed in Manchester and other large cities, and almost everywhere the cause of women's suffrage and equality was strongest in the large cities rather than rural areas and small towns, which always tended to be more conservative and traditional.[footnoteRef:1] [1: Jane Rendall, "Citizenship, Culture and Civilization: The Languages of British Suffragists, 1866-1874" in Caroline Daly and Melanie Nolan (eds). Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives (NY: University Press, 1994), p. 129.]

These local committees and societies finally coalesced into the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in 1896, led by Millicent Garret Fawcett. In contrast to the far more militant Women's Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, these organizations did not engage in civil disobedience, violent protests, arson and smashing or store windows. If the members of the more moderate groups were not jailed, beaten up by the police or going on hunger strikes in jail like the 'suffragettes' and did not go on hunger strikes, neither did they ever manage to get the same amount of public notice as the Pankhurst's -- who made no pretense about women being meek or following traditional domestic roles. In Britain, the suffragists were also disappointed by the pre-1914 Liberal governments, which failed to introduce a bill in parliament, and as in most countries, the Labour Party was actually the first to endorse women's suffrage in 1912. Starting in 1869-70, they were granted the right to vote in local and school board elections, however, and in city council elections in 1907, but the national franchise came about only as a result of women's contributions in the First World War.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Ute Planert, "Women's Suffrage and Antifeminism as a Litmus Test of Modernizing Societies: A Western European Comparison" in Sven Oliver Muller and Cornelius Torp (eds). Imperial Germany Revisited: Continuing Debates and New Perspectives (Berghahn Books, 2002), p. 110.]


France was unusual in Western Europe in that it was the first country to inspire feminist writings during the French Revolution, such as those by Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft, but did not finally grant the vote to women until 1945. In France the Chamber of Deputies voted overwhelmingly to grant women the right to vote and run for office in 1919, which the new democratic governments in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia did as well after World War I, but the law was blocked in the upper house and never approved by the president. Nor did the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and the Paris Commune fundamentally advance the rights of women, and indeed generated conservative backlashes against radical or reformist movements of any kind. Women demanded the franchise during the 1848 revolution, for example, and in the Paris Commune of 1870-71 were allowed to vote for the first time, but this right was taken away immediately when the revolutions were suppressed. On the whole, the age of revolutions in Western Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th Centuries did not bring "considerable advances in granting political and legal rights to women" or even to all men.[footnoteRef:3] Early feminists in France like Desiree Gay, and Pauline Roland were most often allied with the radical and socialist movements of Saint Simon and Fourier movements of the 1830s and 1840s. They generally assumed that most women would continue to follow domestic roles, but should also be free to participate in the public sphere, particularly as a moral and religious influence. In France, the U.S. And Britain, of course, labor and socialist movements were often suspicious of middle and upper class women's movements because they were often allied with religious and moralistic movements, and conservative churches that promoted prohibition and similar causes. [3: Planert, p. 109.]

As in Britain, early supporters of women's suffrage often claimed to be moderate and pacifist, and argued that women's biological nature was domestic and family-oriented. Hubertine Auclert was the leading proponent of this type of 'difference' feminism in France in the 1880s and 1890s, although is in Britain women's rights supporters also eagerly engaged in war work during World War I in hopes of winning the franchise afterward. Few of the early feminists publicly engaged in cultural issues related to divorce, birth control and the traditional family, and instead argued that the family would be strengthened by giving women equal rights in the public sphere.[footnoteRef:4] In France and other continental European nations, a common assumption was that women would also vote the way their husbands directed, or perhaps the way the priests and bishops of the Catholic Church directed. This would always prove to be a stumbling block when it came to advancing women's suffrage for liberal, labor and socialist parties on countries like France, Spain, Italy and Austria. [4: Offen, Karen, "Citizenship and Suffrage with a French Twist, 1789-1993" in Daly and Nolan, p.152.]

Germany and the Hapsburg Empire

Democracy in Germany was always weaker and more limited than in Britain or other Northern European countries, while in Austria-Hungary, universal voting rights for men did not exist before 1907. In both countries property and social class restrictions also weighted the votes of the wealthy and the aristocracy more heavily than those of the workers such as in Prussia's three class voting system. Given the weak liberal and democratic traditions of Germany, Austria and Hungary, the power of traditional aristocracies and of course the Catholic Church in the Hapsburg Empire, women's suffrage made very little progress in these nations before World War I, when the monarchies collapsed. In both Germany and Austria-Hungary, the parliaments and political parties also had very limited control over the emperors, military and aristocracies, although the Social Democratic parties were the first to officially endorse women's suffrage. Even so, there was always considerable class division between liberal, moderate and left-wing feminists and their supporters, and in the Hapsburg Empire, constant tensions between various nationalist groups. Liberal and moderate feminists were particularly weak in…

Sources Used in Document:


Bader-Zaar, Brigitta, "Women in Austrian Politics, 1890-1934" in David F. Good et al. (eds). Austrian Politics in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. Berghahn Books, 1996, pp. 59-90.

Flanz, Gisbert H. Comparative Women's Rights and Political Participation in Europe. Hotei Publishing, 1983.

Nordstrom, Byron J. Scandinavia since 1500. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Offen, Karen, "Citizenship and Suffrage with a French Twist, 1789-1993" in Caroline Daly and Melanie Nolan (eds). Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives. NY: University Press, 1994, pp. 151-70.

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