The Early History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

What was the women’s suffrage movement? And how did the early history of women’s suffrage movement play out in the context of the great revolutions, such as the American Revolution and the French Revolution?

A group of women suffragettes with flags and banners, San Francisco, 1915.
The American Revolution failed to address the question of women’s rights.
(Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The History of Suffrage Movement

In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, determined women demanded the right to vote, which had always been denied to them earlier. They demanded it in ways that were more dramatic and forceful than before. In Britain, the suffragettes, as these most militant activists were called, engaged in increasingly dramatic clashes with authority.

They threw eggs at politicians; they chained themselves to fences and lamp posts in protest; they smashed the windows of fancy downtown stores; and they started fires on public trains. Once jailed, they went on hunger strikes. All of this was done to to call attention to their cause. Yet, the real breakthrough came by less dramatic means—women first gained the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893 by a sophisticated campaign of argument.

In thinking about that often-elusive term ‘modernity’, a prominent badge of what it means to be modern has also been the acceptance of a political and social voice for the individual, whether that individual is male or female. Yet the self-evident and crucial step of recognizing women’s right to vote actually came remarkably late, long after the revolutionary developments like the American Revolution and the French Revolution. For most of human history, half of the human race was mostly excluded from political power and participation.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Demand from Women’s Political Voices

In essence, two global trends, the demand for women’s political voice and the growth of settler societies intersected to create a crucial turning point, which spread from New Zealand to rest of the world.

The international movement for women’s votes can be seen as beginning in earnest with the Enlightenment ideas, which emphasized individual freedom and personal sovereignty. In spite of this core idea and its universality, very few male Enlightenment thinkers championed women’s rights, so it became the responsibility of remarkable women to argue vigorously for this cause.

One example was Mary Wollstonecraft in England, who in 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She has been seen as one of the founders of the feminist movement. In later decades, many activists for women’s rights also drew inspiration from the anti-slavery movement, as well as other reform movements active at the same time.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

Women’s Voices in the American Revolution

A portrait of Abigail Adams, the first lady of United States, by Gilbert Stuart.
Abigail Adams was an advocate of women’s rights. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

As the American Revolution was unfolding and a new American state was being created in 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, then a member of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, with the request: “I desire that you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors”. If this did not happen, she warned of dire consequences: “If particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound to obey any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Unfortunately, Abigail Adams’s request was disregarded, and the cause had to be advanced in other ways. For a time, from 1776 to 1807, women had the right to vote in the state of New Jersey, but even these concessions were eroded over time.

Learn more about the French Revolution.

Women’s Voices in the French Revolution

A French pro women suffrage poster from 1934.
The French Revolution, just like the American Revolution, failed to pave the way for women’s rights. (Image: USFD (French Women’s Suffrage Union), 1934/Public domain)

At about the same time, the French Revolution pursued a trajectory that seemed to many to be full of radical possibilities for remaking society. Just as before the outbreak of the Revolution women had hosted the salons where Enlightenment ideas were actively discussed and where men and women could mix, so the revolutionary events saw the establishment of women’s clubs and discussion groups, like the Society of Republican Revolutionary Women.

Women were also active on the opposite side of the growing radicalism of the revolutionaries. Olympia de Gouges, for instance, was both a royalist opposed to the radical revolutionaries and an activist for women’s rights. Such spirits were disappointed by the constitution of 1791, which turned women into merely ‘passive citizens’.

Olympia de Gouges was critical of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen‘, a founding document of the early stages of the French revolt in August 1789. She wrote an impassioned counterargument, entitled the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen‘.

In her text, she argued, “Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights. The principle of all sovereignty rests essentially with the nation, which is nothing but the union of woman and man”. She went on to state, “Liberty and justice consist of restoring all that belongs to others; thus, the only limits on the exercise of the natural rights of women are perpetual male tyranny; these limits are to be reformed by the laws of nature and reason.”

The very outspokenness of Olympia de Gouges and her independence of mind ended up alarming the fanatical revolutionaries, and de Gouges was sent to the guillotine in 1793.

Common Questions about the Early History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Q: What was the women’s suffrage movement?

The women’s suffrage movement was a voting rights movement that went on for decades before eventually succeeding in providing equal voting rights to women.

Q: Why was the women’s suffrage movement so important?

The women’s suffrage movement or the women’s voting rights movement was important because it directly led to the granting of voting rights to women.

Q: Who started the women’s suffrage movement?

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are considered as the pioneers of women’s suffrage movement.

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