The issue of the vote has become burned into the feminist psyche. Even when asked to name issues facing women in the West today many feminists name the vote and have to be reminded that women born in the 20th century always had the vote. Why is the vote still such a popular issue for feminists? And how do feminists use myths about the vote to spread their hatred of men?
Feminists present the issue of the vote as a symbol that women were oppressed by men throughout history. They say the absence of the vote was substantial discrimination and they point to "winning" the vote as a symbol of heroic women victorious against evil men. All three of these statements help to spread the feminist propaganda view of the sexes.
In fact the history of the development of voting rights shows that even early feminists themselves had little interest in the vote for women and "patriarchal" legislators often raised the issue before women's groups did. The gap between men and women gaining the vote was often a few decades and in many cases men and women gained the vote at the same time. Further back in history women often had the vote on the same basis as men --- wealth and power. But as with most of the comments on this site this essay will consider only the history of the vote in the west in relatively recent history (since 1750).
Views on the vote at the birth of feminism.
Writing in 1897 Jessie Cassidy of the the National-American woman suffrage association commented:
The first organized demand by women for political recognition was made in the United States in 1848, at the memorable Seneca Falls Convention. That suffrage should be included had not beforehand entered the minds of those who issued the call for the convention, but it was suggested during the preparation of the Declaration of Independence and incorporated in the list of grievances submitted by the committee. It came like a bombshell upon the unprepared convention, and after long discussion was passed by only a bare majority. Lucretia Mott was one of those who at that time could not see her way to support it.
Lucretia Mott, of course was the senior co-host of this convention, recognized as the "birth" of feminism (in the US at least!) If the vote was really seen as such an important issue why had these feminists not even thought about it? And when they had thought about it many were not interested in supporting it. As a report in the Seneca County Courier said,
THE FIRST CONVENTION EVER CALLED TO DISCUSS THE Civil and Political Rights of Women,
Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19, 20, 1848
Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
The only resolution which met opposition was the 9th, demanding the right of suffrage which, however, after a prolonged discussion was adopted. All of the meetings throughout the two days were largely attended, but this, like every step in progress, was ridiculed from Maine to Louisiana.
These men and women at the forefront of women's rights and all unanimously in favor of every other much ridiculed resolution at the convention did NOT all feel that women's vote was worth pursuing. Lack of a vote was not seen as necessarily meaning inequality for women. Women's suffrage was the least of the issues. It is not surprising that the rest of the population, both men and women, were largely against women's suffrage.
Jessie Cassidy continues to comment on the state of women's suffrage in mid-19th century Britain:
It was not still 1869 that public agitation for suffrage was begun in England. In that year John Stuart Mill presented the subject in Parliament. Considerable local franchise has been secured, and the cause of the admission of women to full parliamentary suffrage steadily gains.
In fact between 1866 and 1884 eight proposals for some sort of women's vote were put before the British parliament. This was at a time when most men could not vote in England and years before Emmiline Pankhurst, the British suffragette leader formed the Women's Franchise League in1889.
Interest in women's suffrage amongst feminists grew and by the1870's or so was replacing the more practical rights and privileges which had been the priority of earlier feminists. One reason for this was that legislators were very quick to listen to women's groups on these genuine issues, and they were quickly addressed. Another was that the vote was seen as a way of gaining further advances and privileges for women. Feminists mistakenly assumed women would vote en masse for their increasingly sexist ideas. This was despite the reality that women often were the biggest opponents of women's suffrage.
Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to address a congressional committee in 1871, and her subject was women's suffrage, but she had opposition:
A group of women numbering one thousand, including Catherine Beecher, General Wiliam Sherman's wife, and the wives of senators congressmen, and prominent businessmen, had signed a petition against female suffrage. They claimed to represent the majority of the women in the country in the belief that the "Holy Scripture inculcates for women a sphere higher than and apart from that of public life; because as women they find a full measure of duties, cares and responsibilities and are unwilling to bear additional burdens unsuited to their physical organization."
Notorious Victoria (p83)
By 1893 a feminist speaker would declare that,
It is often said that the chief obstacle to equal suffrage is the indifference and opposition of women, and that whenever the majority ask for the ballot they will get it.
What Women Want: The Ideas of the Movement
How long was the gap between the majority of women wanting the vote, and men handing it to them? When precisely did women "ask"? Apparently in the US, not quite by 1903, although men were almost of a majority opinion for women's suffrage.
"I am surprised beyond all things to find how many men are favorable," Harriet Taylor Upton informed a friend while campaigning for suffrage in Ohio. "Now if only stupid women would get awake and yell we might make it." But feminine silence remained smothering. As a fair belle told one ... organizer in Mississippi, "You know we women do not desire to be other than we are." From a train chugging across the "dead level prarie" of South Dakota, Anna Howard Shaw angrily wrote home to Susan Anthony that, "The women don't want the ballot...that is true here and no mistake."
The Myth of the Monstrous Male (p211)
How big was that gender "vote gap" anyway?
Ask someone if they know when women "won" the vote and there's a fair chance they will know that the 19th amendment was passed in 1920. It's easy to look this information up for many countries. But in researching this essay I've discovered how hard it is to find the same information for men. It's almost as if someone wants you to think men have always had the vote --- men have always been "the patriarchy" --- in power.
In fact for the countries where I've been able to find a source for the date at which time the majority of male citizens of a country could vote and compared it to the same date for women the date is often the same (often the country simply didn't exist until recently). For example in Britain a majority of men first had the vote after the Representation of the People Act 1918. The same act enabled the majority of women to vote too! This is hardly the tale of woe and oppressive discrimination that feminists have been using to berate men with for decades. The reality is that women's voting rights came as the result of a natural progression of democratization in Western countries. Typically the majority of women would gain the right to vote in a country a few decades after the majority of men, but as I say it is very hard to tell when men "won" the vote.
In Australia women "won" the vote in 1902. But Australia has only existed as a country since 1901. The individual states either had no voting prior to federation (in which case women "won" the right to vote a year after men) or conformed to the pattern of women gaining the vote a few decades after men.
In 1867 the British North America Act created the state of Canada and at that time most men could not vote. With the Wartime Elections Act of 1917 most women could vote for the first time (this is an estimate it might be a year or two years latter).
New Zealand proudly boasts of being the first country to give women the vote in 1893. A slightly harder date to track down is when New Zealand became a country - 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi, but for our purposes a better date might be the first popularly elected prime minister after self-government was achieved, 1856. Did the majority of men have the vote from the countries inception?
Finland counters New Zealands claims by saying in 1906 Finnish women could not only vote but also stand for election -- the first in the world. But what about the men? A recognizable country since 1809 and an independent state since 1917, Finland had its first real parliament in 1863. But when did the majority of men have a vote?
As for the USA it seems to have one of the worst gaps of all (hard to tell but I suspect France might be the worst 1848-1944). Even though many states had given women the vote by 1920 most were the smaller, newer Western states --- states where the ratio of men to women was often high because of immigration. Women had high status in the West. Trying to guess when the majority of men first had the vote is a lot harder. Black men, native American men, men between 18 and 21, and men living in territories not states could not vote before 1870. This census data for 1870 excludes most territories from consideration unfortunately. I'd have to guess a slight majority of male Americans could vote in federal elections by 1869 -- just prior to the 15th amendment. Most states in America eliminated other restrictions such as wealth or religion by around 1820-1840 which would make the USA gap a huge 80-100 years. Ironic for a country known for its record on women's liberties in the 19th century.
Right to vote expanded as a gradual process
Of course the reason for the large gap in the US was an early democratic tradition there. In other words it wasn't that women were given the vote late, but that men were given it early. 100 years must be gauged against a process which started, in the English tradition, as far back as Magna Carta 1215, or even earlier.
In addition whereas giving the poor or the Catholic or the ex-slave a vote was seen as vital to political representation of an entire cultural group, votes for women, (and later votes for 18-20 year olds) were more an expansion of the tendency of government to deal with individuals directly instead of through family groups. Individualism rather than justice. !8-20 year olds received the vote around 1960-70 (depending on country) but obviously this late date is not an indication of how oppressed that group of people were.
These differences were considerations for would-be reformers.
The strongest advocate of women's rights was the libertarian William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), editor of the Liberator, who insisted that antislavery was a battle for human rights, not male rights. Many of the abolitionists who opposed Garrison on this agreed that women were self-owners but resisted mixing woman's rights with antislavery for fear it would hurt the latter cause; Theodore Weld exemplified this position. Through his encouragement, Angelina Grimke, Sarah Grimke, and Abbie Kelley became the first women in America to do lecture tours before audiences that included men. Nevertheless, he admonished them to stop introducing woman's rights into their speeches.
"Is it not forgetting the great and dreadful wrongs of the slave," he asked Angelina, "in a selfish crusade against some paltry grievances of our own?"
But feminist hyperbole and rhetoric insisted that their condition was indeed fully as a horrific as actually slavery. And if it came down to basic human rights for blacks or an essentially symbolic (though deserved) right for women, feminist leaders Stanton and Anthony soon became racists.
The Fifteenth Amendment assured that the right to vote could not be abridged because of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It was objectionable to feminists because it made no reference to sex.
Male abolitionists almost universally rejected women's claim to suffrage, insisting that this was not the time to stress women's rights. "As Abraham Lincoln said, 'one war at a time," counseled Wendell Phillips, "so I say one question at a time. This hour belongs to the negro."
Feeling betrayed, Stanton and Anthony repudiated the Republican Party, thus breaking with many of their abolitionist friends. They began to court the traditionally pro-slavery Democrats and to associate with the prominent racist George Francis Train, who lectured with them and financed the initial issue of their periodical Revolution; its motto was "Men, their rights, nothing more; Women, their rights, nothing less."
Stanton and Anthony's activities split mainstream feminism in two. To the sharp criticism of their racist connections, Anthony replied, "Why should we not accept all in favor of woman suffrage to our platform and association even though they be rabid pro-slavery Democrats."
Today of course women vote more often than men, both in absolute numbers and by proportion (this is true overall but especially so the younger the age group - in older age groups men vote more often). Part of this may be to do with the remaining restrictions that apply to voting such as residency --- many US citizens are denied a vote because they have move into a new state recently --- but the difference by age seems to suggest that increasingly men are feeling that the political process just doesn't represent them any more.
The difference in gender registration and turn out shows a trend over the last 20-30 years with men steadily voting less and less. Incidentally even though the percent differences are small (around 2%) the result is highly significant --- these figures are not a poll of so many thousand people (with a margin of error) but an actual head count of every US citizen who voted. 2% represents one million male voters.