Wednesday marks the 95th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. At the same time, one of the last countries to deny women the vote is preparing to open its polls: this December, women will vote in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
This achievement, like the ones that came before it, wasn’t handed to Saudi women, who have been pressuring their government for years. Around the world, women have only won suffrage because they’ve demanded it.
“There’s no other movement for women’s rights that’s as international as votes for women,” says Ellen DuBois, distinguished professor of history and gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A century ago, American women were deep into their own chapter of the movement—and closing in on victory.
You Gotta Fight For Your Right
The first international votes for women came sporadically during the 19th century. Women in Sweden and Scotland won some local voting rights, and Great Britain opened local elections—but only to unmarried women who also owned property. Then, in 1893, women in New Zealand won the full right to vote.
By this time, American suffragists had been campaigning for decades (Susan B. Anthony was famously arrested for voting in 1872), and they had won suffrage in several western states. But for almost as long as they’d been fighting, anti-suffrage organizations had been fighting back—mocking the message and writing the women off as unattractive man-haters.
Suffragists responded with their own propaganda and well-publicized demonstrations. They burned copies of President Woodrow Wilson’s speeches outside the White House, and chained themselves to the gates. British activists, whom American women were allied with, were even more radical: they smashed windows, set fire to buildings, and planted a bomb in a chancellor’s unfinished house.
Through the power of their campaigning, U.S. suffragists developed support across class and race. But in order to win, they also needed to win the support of men, the only ones who could vote in favor of women’s suffrage. One of the best organizers on this front was Carrie Chapman Catt, who led the National American Women’s Suffrage Committee (NAWSC) in a systematic campaign.
“She and other women working in NAWSC had a list of everybody in every state legislature and a list of their female relatives,” says Bettina Aptheker, distinguished professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “They got in touch with the female relatives of the male legislators to pressure them to vote for women’s suffrage.”
It was through this kind of skillful organizing that women persuaded male legislators to adopt the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which secured their right to vote in 1920. Most European women won suffrage around that time too, followed shortly by victories in Latin America. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, women’s voting rights would circle the globe, until it became something that early suffragists could’ve scarcely imagined: normal.
It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over
Every time a nation’s women won voting rights, it was a significant victory; but it didn’t usually mark the end of the fight for equal political rights in their country. Even in countries where women won suffrage comparatively early, the victory wasn’t always for all women—early laws often reinforced existing racial and class hierarchies.
Though the 19th Amendment made it legal for women to vote in 1920, Native Americans weren’t considered citizens until 1924, and couldn’t vote in every state until 1957. African American women couldn’t vote in the South before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And then there were the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, which the 19th Amendment didn’t apply to. (Women won suffrage in Puerto Rico in 1929, and Filipino women won it after the country gained independence the 1940s.)
But real political power isn’t always so simple as having or not having a vote. In Saudi Arabia, not everyone thinks the recent milestone for women is a complete victory. According to Ali H. Alyami, the founder and director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, the local officials that Saudi women and men will elect this December “have no power.” He says that all the people with real power are appointed by the king.
Still, Alyami believes that women’s participation “is a very good step, because psychologically speaking it will empower women,” many of whom are already registering to vote and planning their candidacies. Hopefully, this will lead to expanded rights for Saudi women—who can finally go to the polls, but still can’t drive themselves there.
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