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New Left Review I/186, March-April 1991


Ellen Carol DuBois

Woman Suffrage and the Left: An International Socialist-Feminist Perspective

It is difficult to imagine a richer subject for a comparative history of democracy than the enfranchisement of women. Despite casual remarks about various governments ‘granting’ women the vote, enfranchisement in the overwhelming number of cases was preceded by a women’s movement demanding it. Indeed, extending over more than a century and including most nations of the globe, the cause of woman suffrage has been one of the great democratic forces in human history. Whereas manhood suffrage, for instance, or the breaking of the political colour bar, have occurred more erratically, with limited links between national experiences, woman suffrage has been a self-consciously transnational popular political movement. As such, it resembles nothing so much as international socialism. Notwithstanding the subject’s richness, much of the history remains to be explored. This is especially true in the Third World, where enfranchisement, measured by numbers of countries in which women vote, has actually been accelerating since the 1940s. One factor that has discouraged scholarship, especially from a left perspective, is the assumption that the enfranchisement of women has been, on balance, a conservative development. This notion, which predates not only the actual enfranchisement of women but even the heyday of the woman-suffrage movement itself, [1] During the 1875 debate over whether to include woman suffrage in the founding document (the Gotha Programme) of the German Social Democratic Party, opponents cited the allegedly reactionary political tendencies of women, to which Wilhelm Liebknecht responded: ‘Opponents of female suffrage often maintain that women have no political education. But there are plenty of men in the same position, and by this reasoning they ought not to be allowed to vote either. The “herd of voters” which has figured at all the elections did not consist of women. A party which has inscribed “equality” on its banner flies in the face of its own words if it denies political rights to half of the human race.’ Quoted in Werner Thönnesson, The Emancipation of Women: The Rise and Decline of the Women’s Movement in German Social Democracy 1863–1933, London 1969, p. 32. has left, right, and even feminist versions. However, all are based more on prejudice than serious analysis. As Carole Pateman has observed, ‘Remarkably little attention has been paid by either theoretical or empirical students of politics to the political meaning and consequences of manhood and womanhood suffrage.’ [2] Carole Pateman, ‘Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy’, in Anne Phillips, ed., Feminism and Equality, London 1987, p. 12. Similarly, Vicky Randall, in her overview, Women and Politics: An International Perspective, Basingstoke 1987, observes that ‘the generalization of female conservativism requires careful qualification’ (p. 73).

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