How women got the vote — elsewhere

Women’s suffrage, like socialism, should be considered a political subject in its own right, according to feminist Ellen DuBois.

Discussing female suffragist efforts between the First and Second World Wars, DuBois told a women’s studies seminar at Penn in April that historians often view the fight for women’s voting rights — a fight that has been won country-by-country — through the lens of British and American politics. But that lens blinds them to a rich feminist heritage in countries such as France, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Iran and even Afghanistan, she said.

A writer and professor of U.S. history at UCLA whose specialty is female suffrage, DuBois is editor of the The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader and the recipient of a Guggenheim grant to research the work of feminists throughout the world. Her talk was sponsored by the women’s studies program and co-sponsored by the department of history.

Like socialism, the female suffrage movement “appears in different countries at different times, with different degrees of success,” DuBois said following the seminar.

In India, where women and men were both enfranchised when the country obtained its independence from Britain in 1947, for example, the battle for women’s suffrage took place behind the scenes more than a decade earlier. “The crucial victory is in 1931, when the Indian National Congress — which is the leading force for nationalism — votes in favor of women’s suffrage, even though that doesn’t get enacted for the next 16 years,” DuBois said. “That’s the victory.”

Such organizing often goes unremarked in the political histories of nations other than the United States and the United Kingdom, leading people to believe that women in South America, Africa and Middle Eastern countries were awarded voting rights rather than having achieved them through strategy and effort, DuBois said.

In fact, everywhere in the world “women pretty much have to organize to get whatever political (rights) that are going to make a difference,” she said.

Once women achieve suffrage, they develop power over their lives differently from country to country, in accordance with their national culture.

In Iran, for instance, the rise of fundamentalism has meant that large numbers of women returned to the veil — but still vote, she said.

For her, the vote itself is the universal bedrock for equality. She believes it carries “a feminist significance” that addresses the status of women wherever they live. And studying what happens when women enter a democratic arena in large numbers, she said, reveals what women consider important in improving their lives and society.

“It’s as if winning the right to vote is a sort of ‘prehistory’ for women’s activism,” she said.


Originally published on May 4, 2000