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Offen provides insight into women's suffrage in U.S., France and Britain

head shot of Offen
Jan 27 2020

Karen Offen, a senior scholar of the Clayman Institute, agreed to a question and answer interview with Gender News to share her research on women's suffrage in the U.S. and Europe.  The recepient of many fellowships and grants, including Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and NEH, she holds an honorary doctorate in humane letters from her undergraduate alma mater, the University of Idaho. The author of many works in European and comparative women's and gender history, Offen most recently published two books in 2018: The Woman Question in France, 1400–1870 and Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920 as well as Women’s History at the Cutting Edge, ed. Karen Offen & Chen Yan (2019). Her landmark article, "Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach" (Signs, 1988), has been translated into five languages. Her many publications are available on her web site at  www.karenoffen.com. Offen’s lecture “Seeking Suffrage; The Pursuit of Women’s Right to Vote in America, France, and Britain” is available for public presentations.  Please contact her directly at kmoffen at stanford.edu. 

 
GN: How was the path to women’s suffrage different in the United States than it was in other countries?
 
KO: American women obtained the federal vote on August 26, 1920, the date of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to our US Constitution, which read as follows: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.  Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” It was ratified by 37 states and became law on August 26, 1920.  Every year we celebrate the centennial of this landmark achievement, which gave all American women the right to participate in determining the rules of the community in which they live and electing their representatives.  This constitutional amendment was the result of decades of hard fought campaigns, initially at the state level, then finally at the federal level.   
 
Each democratizing country in the West followed its own path to including women as citizens, for which the highest privilege was the right to vote.  My research  compares the campaigns in several other countries with that in the United States.  
 

The path to enfranchizing women ran through the development of the notion of individual citizenship (citizens, not subjects) and equality (one man, one vote), notions that date from the European Enlightenment, primarily in England and France, but also in the works of other political philosophers, from Plato to Condorcet to John Stuart Mill.  The success (or not) of ensuing campaigns depended to a very considerable extent on freedom of assembly, of speech, of the press – and those freedoms did not exist in many countries until relatively recently.

In earlier times, there were few-- if any -- functioning democratic institutions in any part of the world.  Rule and government were authoritarian, established initially by military force that produced dictators and tyrants, kings and emperors.  The notion of sovereignty of the people is relatively recent.  But in the beginning, only men who were heads of households and who owned real estate were considered worthy.  The idea that every man could vote was an invention of the nineteenth-century; that was the way the framers of most constitutions saw it.  Generally speaking, women had to fight their way into full citizenship.
 
The path to enfranchizing women ran through the development of the notion of individual citizenship (citizens, not subjects) and equality (one man, one vote), notions that date from the European Enlightenment, primarily in England and France, but also in the works of other political philosophers, from Plato to Condorcet to John Stuart Mill.  The success (or not) of ensuing campaigns depended to a very considerable extent on freedom of assembly, of speech, of the press – and those freedoms did not exist in many countries until relatively recently.
 
GN: The United States ratified the 19th amendment 100 years ago, in 1920. Was the vote extended to all U.S. women at that time?
 
KO: Yes, it was – at least in theory.  In fact, it proved to be more difficult for black women, native  American women, and other minority women to access the vote, due to local practices such as Jim Crow.  What is also interesting is that women in many of the western United States obtained the vote much earlier.  Wyoming Territory enfranchised women in 1869, for example, and Utah Territory in 1870.  California women actually won the vote in 1911, thanks to a state referendum in which only men voted.  In other states, the legislatures made these decisions.
 
GN: In Europe, what role did political revolutions – such as the one in France – play in extending the right to vote to women? 
 
KO: Political revolution, via the overthrow of kings and tyrants, became a major factor in stimulating public thinking about representative government, and who should be allowed to participate.  Although in 1648 an English woman who had migrated to Maryland, Margaret Brent, had broached the notion of having two votes in the Maryland assembly, her pleas were not answered. When in 1783 the British colonists in North America won their war of independence and began to deliberate the terms of a federal constitution, the subject of voting and who was eligible ultimately became a prerogative reserved to each of the new states– neither women nor black slaves were considered eligible, because dependent.  
 
In France, in 1788 when the king convened the Estates-General (which had not met for more than 100 years), and called for elections from the three estates (clergy, nobility, and everybody else – the Third Estate), the subject of women’s inclusion came up almost immediately.
 
The Marquis de Condorcet argued in a 1788 publication that there was no reason why women should not vote in those elections: “The facts prove that men have or believe they have interests that are very different than those of women, because everywhere they have made oppressive laws against them, or at least have established a great inequality between the two sexes.”  Condorcet ranks among the most important early male feminists.
 
A woman (whose identity remains obscure even today) argued that women should only be represented by women and have their own assembly.  Yet another document from that time argued that all male privileges should be abolished.  Political revolutions bring out the most radical ideas, some of which began to seem common sensical after a century or two.
 
GN: How did women’s right to own property and rights in marriage relate to their seeking the right to vote?
 
KO: In England, by comparison to the U.S., the marriage laws (since the 13th century) subordinated wives to such an extent that the early women’s suffrage campaigns were focused on single or widowed adult women who owned property.  The first important legislation on women’s behalf in England (in the 1870s and 1880s) was to enact Married Women’s Property Laws.  When the first contingent English women obtained the vote in 1917 (during the war), it was restricted to women over 30.  At that same time, all men got the vote; only in 1928 did all women get the vote.  Reform of marriage laws to give wives more equal rights in marriage was a primary objective in many suffrage campaigns; another major objective was to stop violence against women and children – that was the primary objective of women’s demands for prohibition of the sale of hard liquor in the United States and in many countries in northern Europe.
 
In France and in Switzerland, both of which were constituted as republics in 1848, all men obtained the vote without property restrictions, so there was no question of partial campaigns.  Women in 1848 Paris campaigned eloquently for the vote but lost that battle.  Perversely, as it turned out, French women did not obtain the vote until 1944, and Swiss women did not gain the federal vote until 1971.  A majority of their menfolk were exceedingly reluctant to give up their male privileges – and so those suffrage campaigns dragged out for many decades. 
 
In concluding, I want to share this assessment of the importance of women voting.  The speaker is Hubertine Auclert, who was the most outspoken suffrage advocate in France for many decades.  In her words, “the weapon of the vote will be for us, just as it is for man, the only means of obtaining the reforms we desire. As long as we remain excluded from civic life, men will attend to their own interests rather than to ours.”  This remains the most important reason for women to vote, even today.  
 
GN: You’ve studied more campaigns for women’s suffrage, in Germany, in Switzerland, and even more recently in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. What is happening around the world today in women’s suffrage?
 
KO: The answer to your final question would take many more pages than we have available in this short interview.  Women have the vote in most democratic countries today.  Even the situation in Kuwait, where women now vote, and in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, where women can now can vote in municipal elections only, would take pages to describe.  
 
What I would like to leave readers of Gender News with, though, is a reflection on how we American women had to struggle to obtain the vote --  from the compelling 1924 account by Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader of the American suffrage movement and also a very active president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in the early 20th century. “To get the word male in effect out of the constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign thereafter.  During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to urge Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to induce State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into State constitutions; 277 campaigns to persuade State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to urge presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.  Millions of dollars were raised, mainly in small sums, and expended with economic care.  Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could.  It was a continuous, seemingly endless, chain of activity.  Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began.  Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended.”

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