Women’s Suffrage and Rights

Women’s Suffrage
Women’s Suffrage

It took civil disobedience and a world war, but after 1900 new campaigns in the long struggle for woman suffrage finally succeeded. By 1950 most of the world's women could vote, although holdout nations remained. Legal restrictions and customs also discouraged women from seeking political office.

Success made some important changes in women's lives. Yet many feminist leaders in the United States and elsewhere viewed these changes as inadequate and proposed additional reforms to achieve true gender equality.

Despite bruising internal struggles, a new generation of suffragists attracted thousands of supporters, including working women. Mass demonstrations became more confrontational. After she was advised by Britain's prime minister to "be patient," suffrage leader Emmeline Gould Pankhurst (1858–1928) became less so, leading her adult daughters and throngs of supporters into confrontations that included hunger strikes and vandalism.

More peaceful rallies were mounted by Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847–1929), Pankhurst's movement rival. When World War I erupted in 1914, both organizations patriotically dropped their protests for the duration. In 1918 British women aged 30 could vote; men voted at age 21. The disparity ended 10 years later.

In the United States new leaders, including Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947), revived a splintered movement by reaching out to immigrant and working women. Stymied in many states, suffragists refocused their efforts on Washington, D.C., proposing what became in August 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Their hard-fought battle included protests in which women dressed in white, chained themselves to the White House gates, and held hunger strikes. When the United States entered the war in 1917, most suffragists supported the war effort, but pacifist Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, voted against the war resolution.

Suffrage for Canadian women, enthusiastically promoted by temperance groups, first succeeded in Manitoba in 1916. All Canadian women could vote in federal elections after 1918; not until 1940 did Quebec drop its opposition to women voting on provincial issues.

In North America the 1920s were nominally the era of the "flapper," a brash young woman who scandalized with her seeming freedom of dress, speech, and behavior. Although U.S. women college graduates doubled in the decade and a quarter of women held paying jobs, it soon became clear that voting was no magical passport to equality.

By 1923 U.S. feminist Alice Paul (1885–1977), who had been jailed in both British and U.S. prewar suffrage protests, was calling for an Equal Rights Amendment. Paul was not alone. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860– 1935), grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, advocated women's economic independence free of female stereotypes. English writer Virginia Woolf in her 1929 A Room of One's Own argued that managing money made women freer than did voting.

The meaning of equality was contentious. Some hoped that women and men would eventually be treated exactly alike. Others believed that women still occupied a separate sphere in modern society. Many nations enacted special protections for working women.

Newly elected Reichstag deputy Marie Juchacz told her Weimar Republic colleagues in 1919 that women's grievances should be considered resolved. Many women made their mark by continuing to bring femininity to bear on such issues as child welfare, education, healthful housing, and world peace.

By the 20th century, birth control and abortion had become issues of intense public controversy. U.S. nurse Margaret Sanger (1870– 1966), one of 11 children, was arrested for distributing information about contraception and opening a Brooklyn clinic in 1916.

Her movement, later named Planned Parenthood, remained controversial even though Sanger took pains to target only married women. Inspired by Sanger, Scots botanist Marie Stopes (1880–1958) wrote Wise Parenthood in 1918 and became Britain's foremost birth control advocate.

In Europe, where political parties and religions were closely tied, the movement struggled. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution initially promised Soviet women reproductive choices, but by 1936 abortion was recriminalized.

The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s and the subsequent outbreak of World War II had contradictory effects on women. Hard times prompted leaders in many countries to try to prevent married women from "stealing" work from men.

The idea that women should refocus on "Kinder, Kirche, Kuchen" (children, church, cooking), attributed to the emerging regime of Adolf Hitler, was broadly accepted by many conservative political parties.

Since women were paid less and their employments, like cleaning, teaching, and clerical chores, were not as endangered as "male" manufacturing jobs, depression-era women often became their families' main breadwinner.

In the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought women into important government positions. Frances Perkins, who had worked at Jane Addams's Hull-House and with Alfred E. Smith in the aftermath of New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, became secretary of labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet post.

Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, held no paid position but reached out to depression victims, including African Americans, in her role as first lady. Nevertheless, most New Deal programs heavily favored male workers.

This changed dramatically as the United States entered the war. Women in Europe and North America had played important roles during World War I, but World War II offered even more opportunity. As more men went to war, it fell to women to maintain or even increase their homelands' agricultural and manufacturing production.

In the United States an elaborate propaganda effort persuaded women that they could become "Rosie the Riveter," a pert and muscular young woman who could wield a welding torch as effectively as she could type a letter. Women, including married women, became a third of the U.S. workforce.

Although most female war workers continued to do "women's jobs," 350,000 joined the armed forces, and 3 million worked in defense industries. Despite problems with child care and other issues, most were proud of their work and pay. In 1945, as troops began mustering out to resume civilian lives, so did female defense workers. By 1950 Rosie seemed a distant memory as the United States (and most other nations) returned to gender "normalcy."