Not quite so universal suffrage

Yesterday saw the 2019 Australian Federal Election. In honour of this, we’re publishing a piece on historical suffrage because, like in so many other areas, feminists have been spreading lies about this for decades. –Ed

Suffrage, or the right to vote, is an important right in any democracy. Societies routinely exclude some sectors of the community from voting and this is entirely consistent with international norms. Normally voting in a democracy is open to citizens that have reached the age of majority. In many countries today that is 18 years. The rules vary by country, and even subnational jurisdiction. Voting is generally restricted to citizens but even they may be excluded from voting if they have resided outside of the country for an extended period, if they have been convicted of or incarcerated for serious offences, or for other reasons. Prohibiting individuals from voting in this manner is considered to be consistent with international standards today. This is generally called universal suffrage even though segments of the community are excluded from voting.

What is not considered acceptable by democracies today is to exclude someone from voting on the basis of gender. It is widely believed today that women were disenfranchised from voting until recently. This is true, but what is often not stated in this narrative is that the same was true for most or all men. A survey in 1780 in the UK, for example, revealed that only 3% of the population were entitled to vote.

Britain had no less than three acts of parliament during the 19th century that enfranchised a growing proportion of men – and yet a significant proportion of the male population remained unable to vote. The right to vote in the UK, as in most nations, was initially based on land ownership. This often meant that landowning women could vote but men without land could not. There is documentary evidence that British women who owned land were voting as early as 1843 – decades before most men obtained the the right to vote.

Many men were still disenfranchised when conscription was enacted in the UK in 1916 as the number of volunteers prepared to fight in World War I waned. Many of these men drafted and forced to war against their will were unable to vote. During 1918, the year the war ended, the UK finally granted the franchise to men. At the same time many women over 30 were permitted to vote. Had women received universal suffrage in 1918 along with men they would have constituted a majority of voters, due to the significant number of men killed during World War I. Women were finally fully enfranchised in 1928, only 10 years after men. In the UK we see a pattern repeated around the world. The franchise was held by a small group of people which grew over time. Common men and women in the UK had little political power until the 18th century.

A different situation existed in the United States. The Nineteenth Amendment of the US Constitution made it illegal to deny a US citizen the right to vote on the basis of their gender. Feminists will often claim that universal male suffrage was achieved in the US in 1856 and universal female suffrage in 1920. The reality though is that many citizens, men and women alike, were still being denied the vote. US states have significant latitude in establishing voter eligibility. This was used in some states to disenfranchise black and poor white Americans. Universal suffrage in the United States was only achieved following the civil rights movement of the 20th century. As a result American men and women effectively achieved universal suffrage at the same time rather than decades apart as feminists will often claim.

The situation in Australia was similar to the US. Men started to receive the franchise in the 1850s. This allowed them to vote for colonial parliaments. Women in Australia started receiving the franchise in the 1890s. Interestingly any Maori who happened to be living in Australia were entitled to vote decades before indigenous Australians were.

While much is made of the enfranchisement of women in many nations, such as the US and Australia, men of colour were usually enfranchised long after white women. The emphasis on gender as a primary determiner of voting rights is misleading and deflects attention from more important aspects.

Today it is common for gender to be over-emphasised as a defining characteristic. Culture, ethnicity, social class at birth, and many other characteristics are better determiners of the life a person will have than is gender. Historically most men and women were disenfranchised. Power rested with the ruling class, men and women alike. While it was generally true that men were more likely to wield hard power (and women soft power) even this was not universally true, and from time to time a powerful female ruler arose.

Feminists so often put the focus of enfranchisement on voting rights for women as if this was an event that occurred in a vacuum. The enfranchisement of women is in fact only a part of a greater story. Over a period of centuries, the body of electors grew. Impediments to enfranchisement included gender, property, age, and education. This process is in fact ongoing with increasing moves to enfranchise resident non-citizens and to further reduce the voting age in some nations. The enfranchisement of women was just one step among many, and not one that was easily separated from the enfranchisement of men in many nations.

The next time someone tells you how long women have had the vote in their nation, ask them how long men have had the vote. They probably won’t know.

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