Who Won Suffrage? An Interdisciplinary, Transnational Debate

AHA Session 318
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Paul Smith, University of Nottingham
Political Origins of the Female Franchise
Dawn Teele, University of Pennsylvania
Suffrage, the Democratic Project, and the French Exception
Jean Elisabeth Pedersen, University of Rochester
Paul Smith, University of Nottingham

Session Abstract

This interdisciplinary international panel of historians and political scientists from the United States and the United Kingdom places the trajectory of women’s suffrage movements in the context of broader debates over political reform in five countries on three continents.

For Dawn Teele, a comparative political scientist, the extension or denial of voting rights to women in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Argentina and Chile was inherently political. Where elected leaders believed they stood to gain from including women in the electorate, they did so, but only if they could not win without women’s votes. Yet by forming strategic alliances of interest with politicians, suffragists could conspire, even in infelicitous political environments, to shape the political agenda toward suffrage reform.

For Jean Pedersen, a modern European historian, the reasons behind the so-called “French delay” of almost one hundred years between the inauguration of universal manhood suffrage in France in 1848 and that of universal womanhood suffrage in France in 1945 are best understood in light of other nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates over equally controversial reforms such as proportional representation and father-centered voting. Analyzing not only reformers’ views on women and gender but also their views of revolution and political progress, she argues that many French liberals’ and republicans’ concerns about granting women’s suffrage stemmed from their ideas about the nature of democracy itself.

For Johanna Neuman, a historian of the American women’s suffrage movement, what is striking about a comparison of the campaigns in the United States and the United Kingdom is their divergence over tactics. While both movements engaged in spectacle in the public square -- conducting soapbox speeches, exuberant parades and theatrical tableaux -- militant British suffragettes smashed windows and planted bombs while American radicals confined their zealotry to picketing the White House. She argues that what characterized political culture in the United States in the 1910s was a different experience of capitalism, a view that led U.S. suffrage leaders to privilege femininity.

Collectively, this panel’s comparative cross-national investigation illuminates the conflicting gender politics at the heart of any debate over female political empowerment. How suffragists, and anti-suffragists, viewed the doctrine of separate spheres, the moral and social influence of women in the polity, the expectations of chivalry, and the progress of the democratic project itself were often more telling in predicting the outcome than party affiliation, religious belief, class standing, gender stereotype or any of the other categories that scholars have often used to analyze men’s and women’s political behavior. 

Our shared focus on comparative women’s suffrage movements contributes to new understandings of the import of gender and political culture in analyzing the complex process of national political reform in any country. Steering the debate is chair and commentator Paul Smith, author of one of the earliest studies of French women’s fight for suffrage. His participation adds an additional geographical and chronological dimension, based on his recent research and teaching on contemporary French and German history, politics, and culture.

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