Suffrage Movement

Today most of us assume that we are all entitled to vote in our country's elections as soon as we've reached the right age. But has it always been this way? The short answer is a big "NO!"

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Table of contents

    This article will look into the concept of suffrage and the suffrage movement. Firstly, we will explore the historic reasons people haven't been able to participate in elections in the past. We will then focus on the Women's suffrage movement and its causes and effects.

    Suffrage movement meaning

    When using the word suffrage, we mean the right to vote in public elections or referendums. Suffrage ensures representation and allows participation in your country's political life.

    Suffrage

    The right to vote in a public election or referendum.

    The suffrage movement is the political movement that campaigned for universal suffrage. Universal suffrage is suffrage everyone is entitled to, irrespective of gender, race, religion, wealth, health, or education.Universal suffrage isn't the same as equal suffrage: there have been times in history when one individual was allocated more than one vote due to wealth or status. Equal suffrage implies each person gets one vote only.

    From the 15th to the 19th century, voting in Britain depended on ownership of a freehold property worth at least 40 shillings per year. Those who owned multiple properties in multiple boroughs, ( mainly men, but in some cases women too) were entitled to one vote for each of the boroughs where their properties were located.

    Why do you think suffrage is important?

    In democracies, suffrage ensures that a government is representative of the people it governs. Therefore, within democratic structures, universal suffrage is considered to be one of the foundational elements which informs the wider political system.

    Today in the UK, general elections typically take place every 5 years. These elections allow the UK voting population to elect Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent them and act on their behalf to make political changes.

    Given the significance of suffrage within democracies, suffrage is not just a privilege but considered an inalienable right protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Suffrage Movement: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is the right to participate in government and states that "the will of the people shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage."1

    Suffrage Movement, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, StudySmarterFig. 1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    Suffrage movement's main goal

    The main goal of the suffrage movement is to achieve universal suffrage on the basis of equality between all human beings. But it took humanity a long time and a lot of struggles to safeguard this fundamental right.

    Let's have a closer look at categories of people who, despite being excluded in the past, are today able to vote. Then, we'll shift our gaze to some categories of people who, still today, are, in some circumstances, excluded from voting.

    Historic suffrage limitations

    • Gender

    As far back as the first democracies in Ancient Greece, gender has been a reason for exclusion from suffrage. In Ancient Athens, for example only adult, male landowners were allowed to vote.

    However, history has seen matriarchal societies too, some of which still exist today. In a matriarchal society, such as the First Nations Iroquois society in Canada and the Akan people in Ghana, women, rather than men, are the leading force in all the main elements of society: social, political and economic.

    • Ethnic Background

    In countries with ethnic minorities, these have historically been excluded from voting, either directly through legislation, or indirectly through the application of property or literacy requirements, or through intimidation.

    • Religion

    After the Reformation, many European countries excluded people adhering to minority religious denominations from voting and standing for office. Even in more recent times, some minority religions have been excluded from political life, for example, the first constitution of Romania (1866) allowed only Christians to be citizens.

    The Reformation

    A 16th-century religious movement that challenged the authority of the Catholic Church.

    • Wealth

    Property qualifications have been used historically to exclude poor people from voting. In some countries, people were charged to be able to cast a vote, thereby excluding those who couldn't afford it.

    The Brazilian constitution of 1824 allowed all men over 25 to vote only if they had a yearly income over a certain amount.

    • Education

    In many states, up to relatively modern times, a certain level of education or a literacy test was required to be allowed to vote. This was often an indirect way to exclude disadvantaged minorities from the vote.

    According to the Civil Rights act of 1964 (USA), to qualify for federal elections citizens had to submit a literacy test in writing and had to have had at least 6 years of formal education.

    • Health

    People who were hospitalised in psychiatric wards were historically excluded from voting.

    In 1972, on the Creedmore Hospital grounds (N.Y.), the Queens Board of Election set up a polling site, thereby reinstating the right to vote for psychiatric patients.

    Modern suffrage limitations

    • Residency/Naturalisation

    Modern countries differ when it comes to whether immigrants are entitled to the vote. Residency doesn't always allow the right to vote in national elections though it can allow individuals to vote in local elections. Naturalisation will sometimes exclude people from voting in their new country for a number of years.

    Residency

    Defines the country where somebody usually resides, even if they weren't born there (i.e. they are not citizens of that country).

    Naturalisation

    Is the legal process by which someone born in a different country, gains citizenship in a new country.

    • Age

    All modern countries have a minimum age requirement to be allowed to vote. Minimum ages vary from 16-21. Demeny voting has been introduced in some countries. Demeny voting is when parents can vote on behalf of their underage children.

    Across the globe, there is an ongoing suffrage movement to lower voting ages to ensure greater representation of young people's voices in political systems.

    For instance, the Youth Rights movement includes campaigns to lower the minimum voting age in the US.

    • Criminality

    Most convicted individuals maintain the right to vote. However, in some countries, when convicted of some serious or specific crimes the right to vote can still be denied.

    Examples are convictions for a felony (USA), or a crime against the electoral system (France or Germany).

    Women's suffrage movement

    The women's suffrage movement is the political movement that campaigned and fought for the right of women to vote.

    In the United Kingdom, the women's suffrage movement was formalised by the creation of the National Union for Women Suffrage Society (NUWSS), founded by Millicent Fawcett in 1897 and the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Christabel and Sylvia.

    The NUWSS focused on legal methods of campaigning and awareness-raising and were referred to as the suffragists.

    The WSPU escalated the campaign through more violent methods such as shouting down speakers, damaging property, and hunger strikes and were referred to as the suffragettes.

    Arguably, the WSPU's methods attracted more media attention while being detrimental to the cause. Both campaigns slowed down at the outbreak of World War I, though the NUWSS continued peaceful lobbying.

    The women's suffrage movement period

    Formally the women's suffrage movement lasted from the mid-19th century up to its success in achieving suffrage in 1918. However, the novelist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication to the Rights of Woman, earlier than this, in 1872. Here she argued for women's emancipation on rationalistic grounds. She put special emphasis on the importance of education and on women's capacity to attain it.

    Rationalism is the school of thought at the basis of Liberalism, Rationalists hold all knowledge can be attained through logical thought and that human beings are inherently rational creatures, able to think and decide for themselves.

    Liberalism is the political philosophy based on the freedom of individuals, protected by the rights recognised by the state.

    Liberalism emerged from the age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Mary Wollstonecraft's thinking is considered the origin of liberal feminism, which is based on the inherent rationality of women and on the equal distribution (between men and women) of legal and political rights as well as civil liberties.

    Suffrage Movement Mary Wollstonecraft StudySmarterFig. 2 Mary Wollstonecraft

    Causes and Effects of the women's suffrage movement

    The women's suffrage movement was caused by the social inequalities between men and women inherent in many western countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was catalysed into action by the liberal thoughts that emerged from the Enlightenment age.

    During the first World War, due to a shortage of male workers who had been conscripted, many women were employed to fill in the employment gaps. The fact that women were able to carry out traditionally male roles, was further proof of equality between the sexes.

    The pressure this put on the UK Government, coupled with the campaigning and activism that predated the war led to the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918.

    The 1918 Representation of the People Act granted the right to vote to some women over the age of 30. In 1918, this change meant 8.5 million women in the UK were able to vote.

    Ten years later, in 1928, the Equal Franchise Act was passed, granting suffrage on equal terms to all men and women over the age of 21.

    The main effect of the success of the suffrage movement was that women's expectations of themselves, and of womanhood in general, were raised. Women saw themselves, and society saw women, as being able to pursue different life paths and engage actively in Parliamentary politics.

    Suffrage Movement - Key takeaways

    • Suffrage is the right to vote in elections and referendums.
    • The main goal of the suffrage movement is to achieve universal suffrage.
    • Historically people have been excluded from suffrage on the basis of gender, religion, ethnic background, wealth, education and health.
    • Today some people are still excluded from suffrage on the basis of nationality, residency and naturalisation, criminality and age.
    • The women's suffrage movement originated in the mid-18th century with the liberal thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft.
    • The women's suffrage movement was formalised in the UK by the creation and the campaigning and activism of the NUWSS and the WSPU.
    • Women's suffrage was achieved in 1918 and further extended in 1928.
    • Women's suffrage led to the raising of women's expectations on their lives and to women being able to play more elevated roles in society.

    References

    1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nation General Assembly, 1948
    Frequently Asked Questions about Suffrage Movement

    What are the causes and effects of women's suffrage movement?

    The causes of the women's suffrage movement were the inequality in society between men and women and the liberal thinking of the Enlightenment age. The effects of the women's suffrage movement was suffrage for women and a shift toward equality between men and women.

    What is the meaning of suffrage movement?

    The suffrage movement is the movement that fought for universal suffrage.

    Who started the suffrage movement?

    The suffrage movement started with the Enlightenment ideas that all humans are equal and therefore have the same rights.

    What is the main goal of the suffrage movement?

    The main goal of the suffrage movement is universal suffrage.

    Who started the women's suffrage movement?

    The women's suffrage movement started with the thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft.

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