[This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 419-430.]
The Lost Context of ‘Women’s Suffrage’
Dwight D. Murphey
Wichita State University, retired
In this journal’s Spring 2017 issue, our article on “The Lost Context of ‘American Racism’” spoke to one of the issues most important to contemporary American thinking. Its importance lay in the fact that a prevailing lack of historical perspective about the role of race in American history has become the spearpoint for the alienated ideology toward the American past that has been taught to generations of American students. It is this failure of understanding that motivates the present-day excoriation not just of the Confederate South but of the Founding Fathers and indeed of most American history prior to the present day. With the present article, we hope similarly to explore the overlooked context of Women’s Suffrage. The historical myopia regarding it is not nearly as significant as that regarding race, because it has not been made a central feature of the sweeping anti-American ideology; but it is nevertheless worth pondering by anyone who cares to see historical movements in their context and free of the hype that so often surrounds them. The nearly universal perception has been that the nineteenth and early twentieth century movement for women’s suffrage in the United States was a lonely crusade against long odds that won because of the persistence and stridency of its proponents. To the contrary, we will see that the movement occurred concurrently with a vast expansion of popular participation throughout much of the world. Something that is little acknowledged is that most men did not have the vote in the United States, Britain and elsewhere until nearly the same time as women. The franchise was broadened for both within an epoch of democratization. Taken in its context, the drive for women’s suffrage was part of a much larger mosaic.
Key Words: Context of Women’s Suffrage, men’s right to vote, historical context of extended suffrage, history of suffrage.
An Alzheimer's Society – that would be an unfortunate but suitable description of the United States today as its people experience a limited and skewed memory of their own past. The epidemic of Alzheimer's affliction per se is so tragic that we hesitate to invoke the analogy, even though it so aptly describes the inability of Americans to remember their past and to place it in appropriate context.
In this journal’s Spring 2017 issue we discussed this loss of context with regard to the role race has played in American history. In 2017 there has been an enflamed agitation directed at the nation’s memory of the Confederate South, and this has spilled over to include an excoriation of the Founding Fathers, including such long-honored heroes as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It is important to notice that the agitation has been met by an intellectually and politically flaccid response. National and local politicians and others find within themselves no principled ground upon which to base a defense. There is confusion and emptiness in the minds and memories of those who might be expected to champion the country’s history and traditions. This loss of roots itself has a history: it comes from what is now generations who have been taught in school that the history Americans once revered is morally debased; and this in turn has reflected the very salient fact about American intellectual history that the “alienation of the intellectual” has for many decades set the tone in the arts, literature and academia.
In that earlier article, we surveyed the history of slavery to highlight the context in which the United States was founded. What we saw was that “two important truths stand out: first, that until the middle of the eighteenth century slavery existed, with only a few exceptions, throughout the world; and, second, that it was considered both normal and moral.” This led to an essential insight, that “everything that was fine and high-minded [throughout history], as well as all that was destructive and venal, was done within that context.” This had implications for our present attitudes: “If now we regard them [all prior peoples] as morally despicable for that reason, we arrive at a reductio ad absurdum through which we take an infantile view of human history. We stand on the shoulders of those prior generations, but without understanding, gratitude or appreciation.” The point is that an awareness of context makes an enormous difference in how something is to be perceived. Without considering context, people’s understanding suffers from something akin to dementia.
We have revisited the subject of race to illustrate the importance of historical context. The present article is prompted by this author’s long-felt sense that a dropping of context has similarly truncated our understanding of the nineteenth and early twentieth century crusade for Woman’s Suffrage. The memory of that crusade is cherished with virtually no appreciation of the fact that it was part of the much larger historical movement that carried civilization literally from the age of kings and landed aristocracies into the emergence of the modern democracies. A part of that movement was that males themselves came out of the shadows. Great masses of people of both sexes had been from time immemorial sunk in the involuntary servitude of serfdom, peonage or slavery. The anti-slavery crusade that just slightly preceded the women’s rights movement was itself a part of that historic transition. Even the great majority of free men had not had a role in the political life of their time. Part of the massive democratization was for men to gain the right to vote – and this took place not long before women gained that right.
One can read the voluminous literature on Women’s Suffrage as it is listed in hundreds of entries on the internet search engine Google, or the speeches of the leading feminists during the past two centuries, without finding the slightest acknowledgment of this context. This led Neil Lyndon to write his astonishing April 2, 2015 article for the The Telegraph in Britain that carried the heading “Why has everyone forgotten about male suffrage?” What he said about British thinking is identical to what can be said about American. “Everybody in this country is taught from infancy that the Suffragettes had to wrest votes for women from a brutal male establishment.” But, he wrote, this “is looking at history with one eye.” He pointed out that “most of the propertyless, working-class men who [in World War I] suffered in the mud and were blown to shreds… had no right to vote… Before 1918, the vote was restricted not just by sex but also by property qualifications. Roughly 60 percent of men were then entitled to vote.” He, too, pointed out that a Google search shows an overwhelming imbalance of stories as between female and male suffrage. “In my experience, not one person in 1,000 knows the full story.” Why is this so? Because “the whole truth is extremely inconvenient. It conflicts with the dominant feminist narrative….”
The loss of historic context through ignorance and ideology about Women’s Suffrage is not nearly so important, at least in the United States, as the loss relating to America’s racial history. This is because the issue of race has been made the instrument that the Left has in recent years most used to drive a stake through the heart of the American past. The charge is made that even now millions of Americans are racist (“deplorables”). The perception of a befouled America is advanced to in effect delegitimize past generations. The dropped context about Women’s Suffrage is not being used in that way. It plays an ideological role, to be sure, although a lesser one. It is, as Lyndon said in his Telegraph article, to bolster the feminist worldview. It elevates the heroic singularity of the leaders of the women’s movement and underscores the premise of victimhood that the Left applies to so many of its sought-after constituencies. If militant feminism were ever able to create a consensus that most, if not all, men were depraved, it might then have the sweep that the near-consensus about race has. There are, however, reasons to think that a consensus of that sort is a virtual impossibility.
The rest of this article is informational, to flesh-out our earlier summary of the vote-granting democratization of those centuries. A brief synopsis of the women’s suffrage crusade will be followed by a longer section giving the little-known details of the nineteenth and twentieth century growth of male suffrage.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement – a Brief Synopsis
It isn’t surprising that there were stirrings about women’s rights, including the right to vote, as part of the late eighteenth century’s ferment that made up that period’s vast movement of social and political change. In Britain, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s book A Vindication of the Rights of Women appeared in 1797. The stirrings found voice in the next century through the efforts of Fanny Wright, a Scot who at age 30 became an American citizen; Margaret Fuller, a journalist and associate of the New England transcendentalist movement; and a man, Samuel May, who took part in several of the reform movements that Ralph Waldo Emerson described as “a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world.” In England, Parliament received its first petition from a woman for voting rights when in 1832 it was presented by MP Henry Hunt.
A number of “women’s rights conventions” were held in the United States in the late 1840s, continuing until the Civil War began in 1861. The first of these is said to have been the one convened by Elizabeth Cody Stanton and Lucretia Mott in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. One of the initial documents of the women’s movement, a “Declaration of Sentiments,” was adopted there. It wasn’t long before the first national convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. These continued annually between 1850 and 1860.
There were set-backs early on. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1875 held that a woman’s right to vote could not be drawn by implication from the Constitution, and in 1878 Congress overwhelmingly defeated a proposed Constitutional amendment for the purpose.
At first, two main groups were formed to conduct the crusade. The National Woman Suffrage Association was led by Elizabeth Cody Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, while Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell initiated the American Woman Suffrage Association. The two came together in 1890, resulting in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. It is interesting that the country’s women’s clubs withheld their support until well past the turn of the century.
Although Americans generally think of the Nineteenth Amendment as the basis for the right, a number of states and territories gave women the vote well before that Amendment proclaimed it nationally. The Wyoming territory acted as early as 1869. Utah followed, but a federal law reversed that in 1887. In the 1890s and early twentieth century, there was a cascade of states: Colorado (1930), Utah again (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Oregon (1912), Illinois (1913), Nevada (1914), and Montana (1914). The women’s movement formed an alliance with the trade union movement (such as with Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL)) in 1910, and for the first time became a mass movement. There was the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913. The example set by Britain’s “Women’s Social and Political Union” led to mass demonstrations and militancy.
Finally, President Woodrow Wilson called for a federal Constitutional amendment in 1918 as a “war measure.” The Nineteenth Amendment was then quickly approved by Congress and the states, resulting in women having the vote in time for the presidential election in 1920.
The History Most of Us Haven’t Known – Men’s “Right to Vote”
Seen globally, the right of all or most men to vote is another product of the democratizing tsunami that carried all before it. We will give specifics about the United States, but first it will lend perspective to survey the history of other countries. The resulting sketches, though brief and hardly enough to do justice to complex histories, show how recently the right was acquired – in historic terms, not long before women also received the vote.
Around the world
Ancient Greece. Athens has long been considered a prime example of democracy in action. Male citizens 18 and older who had completed their military training could sit on juries and vote on city issues. While the Athenian experience has shone like a star for over two thousand years, it is well to understand that the democracy existed in compartmentalized form. A census taken in Attica between 317 and 307 BC showed 21,000 citizens as against 400,000 slaves. Since we no longer ignore slaves as inconsequential, we can see what a small percentage even of men had the vote.
Ancient Rome. Although the plebeians won voting rights in the third century BC, the patricians continued to control the Roman assemblies by applying property qualifications (similar to those we will see limited men’s voting in the United States). Estimates vary about the percentage of slaves in the Roman Empire, but they numbered in the millions – and, of course, did not have the right to vote.
Australia. Three of the self-governing colonies in Australia enacted universal male suffrage in the 1850s. The Australian federal structure was created in 1901, and soon adopted universal adult suffrage (except for the aborigines, who gained the right in 1962).
Bahrain. The universal male suffrage that was adopted in 1973 was nullified for some thirty years when parliament was dissolved in 1975.
Belgium. All men 25 and above have had the vote since 1893, and this was expanded in 1918.
Brazil. After independence from Portugal in 1822, the country went through a long and checkered history that mixed attempts at democracy with military rule. After the military seized power in 1964, it allowed a Congress to exist, albeit with very limited powers. In 1985, it turned the government over to civilians. Under the constitution of 1988, there is compulsory voting for all citizens 18 to 70.
Canada. The 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for universal adult suffrage. Voting is considered an obligation.
Chile. Men of any race received the vote in 1888, provided they could read. The literacy requirement was removed in 1970. Women gained the suffrage for municipal elections in 1931 and national elections in 1949.
Colombia. The Supreme Junta in Cartagena provided in 1820 for suffrage for all men regardless of race, and this was followed by the same in the constitution of the state of Cartagena in 1812 and by the Constitution of Gran Colombia in 1821. Property and income requirements, however, limited the right significantly. Further actions were taken in 1853, with some restriction added in 1886. Women’s voting started in 1954.
Denmark. The king gave property owners limited voting rights in 1834. This was extended in 1849 to “men over 30 of good reputation.” Near-universal adult suffrage came into being in 1915.
Finland. 1921 seems the pivotal date here, with the Constitution of 2000 providing the vote to every citizen and permanent resident 18 years old or older.
France. All men 25 and over could vote for the Convention held in 1792, but the turmoil in France during much of the nineteenth century produced a widely mixed picture on suffrage. All men had the vote in a referendum called by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851. It was the Constitutional Law of 1875 that provided universal male suffrage. Women’s voting rights came in 1944.
Germany. The North German Confederation, followed by the German Empire until the monarchy ended in 1918, featured universal male suffrage after 1867/71. (Women received the franchise in 1918.) The Weimar Republic after World War I had universal suffrage for people 20 and older. Elections were held in Nazi Germany in 1933, 1936 and 1936, but were held within a dictatorial setting. In the Federal Republic of Germany now, there is universal suffrage for all German nationals over 18 who have lived in the country for at least three months.
Greece. Universal male suffrage was introduced in 1864. Women could vote in municipal elections after 1930, and in parliamentary elections after 1952.
Israel. The State of Israel came into being in 1948 and has at all times had universal suffrage.
India. Universal adult suffrage has been constitutionally guaranteed since the first general election in 1951-2.
Ireland. Because Ireland was not self-governing in the nineteenth century, its provision of the vote for male owners of property over 40 shillings was hardly meaningful. The amount of property required was changed from time to time during the century. Even at the very end of the nineteenth century, only approximately 30 percent of male adults had the franchise. The sacrifices the entire public was called upon to make in World War I led to universal suffrage, for both men and women, a few years later (1918). The Irish Free State that came into being in the early 1920s followed suit.
Italy. Universal male suffrage, for men 30 and older, started in 1912 (and this was extended to army veterans 21 and over in 1918). Women got the vote at the end of World War II in 1945.
Japan. There was universal male suffrage for those 25 and over starting in 1925. The post-World War II U.S. occupation brought in universal adult suffrage (i.e., including women) in 1946.
Mexico. As Mexico emerged from the 35-year regime of Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican Revolution was waged over the decade of 1910-1920. Men thereafter enjoyed universal suffrage, with women added in stages in 1947 and 1953.
Netherlands. A few men acquired the right to vote during the revolutionary year of 1848 – but only 10.5 percent of men qualified because of onerous requirements about payment of direct taxes. This was greatly expanded for men in 1887 and 1896. As in so many countries, it was World War I that brought about universal suffrage (1917 for men, 1919 for women).
New Zealand. Under the British government’s Constitution of 1852, men who were 21 or over, were British subjects, and who met certain property requirements had the vote. In 1867, Maori men gained suffrage, without qualification. The property requirements for European men were taken off in 1879. Then in 1893, universal adult suffrage was adopted, making New Zealand the first country to extend the vote to women.
Norway. All men received the vote in 1898, followed by women in 1913.
Ottoman Empire. The first general elections were held after the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, but with less than one-fifth of men over 25 considered qualified. The Empire, which had existed since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, was dismantled at the end of World War I. The Republic of Turkey came into being in 1923 (see item on Turkey below).
Philippines. Subject to property and tax restrictions, men over 25 got the vote in 1907. All men were constitutionally assured the vote in 1935, all women in 1937.
Poland. Before the 1795 Partition of Poland, political participation was restricted to men in the nobility. World War I brought universal suffrage in 1919. Poland, of course, was under the thumb of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union after their joint invasion in 1939, and under Communist rule after 1945 until the end of the Cold War. There was no meaningful suffrage for either sex during those periods. Today, there is universal suffrage for everyone 18 and over.
Portugal. In 1878, 72% of men could vote, but this and some limited rights for women to vote became subject to the various vicissitudes of Portuguese history until finally Estado Novo’s dictatorship from 1933-1974 negated them. Universal suffrage came in when the 1974 Carnation Revolution overthrew the dictatorship.
Russia. The more than 23 million serfs were emancipated in 1861, and among other rights could vote in local elections. There were very limited voting rights, even for males, during the Tsarist period, and no meaningful voting for either sex during the Communist rule. The CIA World Factbook indicates universal suffrage for those 18 and older today.
Spain. Men’s right to vote began in 1869 and continued to 1923, and also between 1931 and 1936, with women acquiring the right in 1933. During the Franco era (1939-1975), heads of families voted in two referenda, but otherwise there was no vote. There has been universal suffrage since the new Spanish Constitution was enacted in 1977.
Switzerland. Universal male suffrage has existed since 1848. Women’s suffrage was adopted in 1971 for federal elections, but the last canton did not feature it for its elections until a court order in 1990.
Turkey. There is universal voting for those 18 and over.
In the United States
As we place the American “Women’s Suffrage” movement in historic context, it is of course the development of suffrage within the United States that is most pertinent. Here are details of the slow growth of the right of men to vote:
In the colonies, property requirements kept more than half from being eligible, although the percentage increased toward the end of the eighteenth century. When the United States was established, the Constitution left it to the states to set qualifications for voting; and before 1800, three states (Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Vermont) enacted full adult male suffrage for whites. By 1830, all white men could vote without restrictions in ten states, while taxpaying or property qualifications were applied in fourteen others. The latter limits were dropped in all but seven states by 1860. Steven Mintz, in Winning the Vote: A History of Voting Rights, says the democratization “occurred gradually, without violence and with surprisingly little dissension, except in Rhode Island, where lack of progress toward democratization provoked an episode known as the Dorr War.”
After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment, enacted in 1870, granted black men suffrage nationwide. In our review of women’s suffrage earlier, we saw that women began receiving the vote state-by-state, starting with Wyoming in 1869.
The country was primarily agricultural until after the Civil War, but following the war there was a growing population of industrial workers. This demographic change stimulated a renewal of property restrictions, with a long trend of tightening men’s voting rights that continued until World War I. Even though slowed in this way, the gradual enfranchisement of men came much earlier in the United States than it did in Europe.
Several reasons were cited for the restrictions while they lasted. Alexander Keyssar, in his The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, quotes John Adams as saying in 1776 that the granting of voting rights to “men who are wholly destitute of property” would lead to a slippery slope by which other dependents, such as women and children, would have an equally valid claim. A few years earlier, England’s Sir William Blackstone had reasoned that people who are dependent would come under the control of wealthy men, who would then have “a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty.” Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine agreed with this, at least for a time. For their part, the Federalists, followed later by the Whigs, “clung,” Keyssar says “to a more organic and hierarchical social vision, believing … that it was best for public affairs to be conducted by society’s ‘natural leaders.’” James Madison was neither Federalist nor Whig, but even in the early nineteenth century foresaw the eventual rise of an industrial proletariat and favored property requirements as a way to restrict its political power. After the Civil War, millions of immigrant workers, many with “an inclination toward radicalism” and with a willingness to give themselves over to big-city political machines, caused “old-stock Americans” to support the tightening of voting rights that we noted above as occurring in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Universal voting rights
for both sexes have existed since World War I.
The Suffragette crusade, with its drama and pathos, had attracted the
attention, and continues overwhelmingly to do so if we judge by the nearly
incredible imbalance of coverage given to the suffrage rights of the respective
sexes that can be found on the internet.
But throughout the world, including the United States, women gained the
vote as part of the same democratizing movement as men did. A few years seem like a lot in the lifetime
of a given person, but in the sweep of history the separation is
negligible. The fact that we have lost
sight of the historic context, or perhaps never did grasp it, tells us how much
our perception of the world is formed by ideology, sentiment and
1. Similar drives to “cleanse” history and start anew have occurred many times before in a variety of settings. Those who would pull down the Confederate statues and take the names of Washington and Jefferson off of schools have much the same mentality as the Taliban in their destruction of Buddhist statues, Mao’s use of Red Guards in his drive to obliterate the memory of China’s past, and the nineteenth century Russian nihilists such as Nechayev who wanted to destroy in order to start from a blank slate.
2. We remember a similar phenomenon in the late 1960s, when on college campuses very few students felt themselves morally armed to defend the country from the likes of Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Herbert Marcuse. At such a time, one has a palpable sense of the vulnerability of the society.
3. It hardly seems necessary to include an endnote to mention the obvious, that there are many exceptions to the generalizations we are making, even though the generalizations are accurate and important as descriptions of the larger reality.
4. Why “astonishing”? Because so few people have the insight and courage to say anything so “politically [i.e., ideologically] incorrect,” no matter how true.
5. We say these details are “little known,” and have in mind the essential ignorance of the public in general so far as they are concerned. As we will see, however, there are scholars in this area, as in all others. The details are not unknown to them.
6. The fact that the precursors of liberal institutions existed only within a compartment of a given society has been seen as a reason to charge those earlier peoples with hypocrisy. The charge reflects the present assertion of a “holier than thou” attitude toward the past, and tells us more about the childlike comprehension of our ideologues than about the past.
7. It should be noted that the various sources on male suffrage vary in recounting this history. For example, the article “Rise of Democratic Politics” in “Digital History” says that “by 1840, universal white manhood suffrage had already become the reality. Only three states – Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Virginia – still restricted the suffrage to white male property owners and taxpayers.” The entry on www.massvote.org says that in 1856 “North Carolina becomes the last state to eliminate its property requirements.” We are making no effort to resolve these differences, since they don’t matter for the point we are making about the overall growth of male suffrage having only slightly preceded the extension of the franchise to women.
Central Intelligence Agency
2017 World Factbook, Field Listing on Suffrage
Chute, Marchette G.
1969 The First Liberty: A History of the Right to Vote In America, 1619-1850
Dinkin, Robert J.
1977 Voting in Provincial America: A Study of Elections in the Thirteen Colonies, 1689-1776
Dinkin, Robert J.
1982 Voting in Revolutionary America: A Study of Elections in the Original Thirteen States, 1776-1789
2000 The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books, revised edition)
2017 “Why Has Everyone Forgotten About Male Suffrage?,” www.telegraph.co. uk, issue of April 23
2017 “A History of Voting Rights,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.Gilderlehrman.org
Porter, Kirk H.
1918 A History of Suffrage in the United States (Chicago)
2017 “The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787-1828,” pennpress, Internet, May 19
United Kingdom National Archives
2017 Entry “The Struggle for Democracy: Getting the Vote,” www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
2017 Entry on “History of Ottoman Empire”
2017 Entry on “Suffrage”
2017 Entry on “Voting Rights in the United States”
2006 The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
2007 The Rise of American Democracy: The Crisis of the New Order, 1787-1815
2007 The Rise of American Democracy: Democracy Ascendant, 1815-1840
2007 The Rise of American Democracy: Slavery and the Crisis of American Democracy, 1840-1860
1960 American Suffrage from Property to Democracy, 1760-1860 (Princeton, NJ).
 Similar drives to “cleanse” history and start anew have occurred many times before in a variety of settings. Those who would pull down the Confederate statues and take the names of Washington and Jefferson off of schools have much the same mentality as the Taliban in their destruction of Buddhist statues, Mao’s use of Red Guards in his drive to obliterate the memory of China’s past, and the nineteenth century Russian nihilists such as Nechayev who wanted to destroy in order to start from a blank slate.
 We remember a similar phenomenon in the late 1960s, when on college campuses very few students felt themselves morally armed to defend the country from the likes of Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Herbert Marcuse. At such a time, one has a palpable sense of the vulnerability of the society.
 It hardly seems necessary to include a footnote to mention the obvious, that there are many exceptions to the generalizations we are making, even though the generalizations are accurate and important as descriptions of the larger reality.
 Why “astonishing”? Because so few people have the insight and courage to say anything so “politically [i.e., ideologically] incorrect,” no matter how true.
 We say these details are “little known,” and have in mind the essential ignorance of the public in general so far as they are concerned. As we will see, however, there are scholars in this area, as in all others. The details are not unknown to them.
 The fact that the precursors of liberal institutions existed only within a compartment of a given society has been seen as a reason to charge those earlier peoples with hypocrisy. The charge reflects the present assertion of a “holier than thou” attitude toward the past, and tells us more about the childlike comprehension of our ideologues than about the past.
 It should be noted that the various sources on male suffrage vary in recounting this history. For example, the article “Rise of Democratic Politics” in “Digital History” says that “by 1840, universal white manhood suffrage had already become the reality. Only three states – Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Virginia – still restricted the suffrage to white male property owners and taxpayers.” The entry on www.massvote.org says that in 1856 “North Carolina becomes the last state to eliminate its property requirements.” We are making no effort to resolve these differences, since they don’t matter for the point we are making about the overall growth of male suffrage having only slightly preceded the extension of the franchise to women.