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,footnote1 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.’footnote2

A classic example of this interpretation is Richard Evans’s survey of the history of international suffragism, The Feminists.footnote3 The demand for woman suffrage, he argues, was rooted in classical liberalism and first emerged around 1848. However, inasmuch as the enfranchisement of women was so long delayed (or, as we might say, so fiercely resisted), its achievement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century coincided with and participated in the decline and exhaustion of liberalism. (George Dangerfield titles his history of England in this period, in which the woman-suffrage movement plays a major part, The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910–1914.) Evans shares the common assumption that woman suffrage was an essentially ‘bourgeois feminist’ demand. Led by elite and conservative ‘ladies’, he argues, the turn-of-the-century movement abandoned its roots in universal-suffrage traditions, and struck a Faustian bargain in which it accepted property restrictions in order to get the vote for privileged women. In Germany, he contends, woman suffrage was deliberately adopted as a tool against the upsurge in proletarian political challenges. ‘The enfranchisement of women was seen,’ he writes, ‘both by politicians and by the suffragists themselves, as a means of controlling society in the interests of the “stable” part of the population, the middle classes.’footnote4

A slightly modified version of this interpretation acknowledges that socialists advocated woman suffrage but emphasizes the irreconcilable conflict between the bourgeois woman-suffrage movement and proletarian socialism, particularly in the 1890–1920 heyday of both.footnote5 Such accounts characteristically begin with classic texts to demonstrate that Marx and Engels recognized the existence of women’s oppression, for which they prescribed the overthrow of capitalism. Then the story moves on to August Bebel’s Woman in Socialism (1879), a much reprinted book which clarified and advanced socialism’s commitment to women’s emancipation. From there, the leadership shifts to Clara Zetkin, in response to whose urgings the Second International welcomed in working-class women. The socialist women’s movement that she commanded rejected all collaboration with the bourgeois suffrage movement—‘correctly’, it is claimed, since main-stream feminism sought to split the working class politically and lure its women away. Socialist parties nonetheless supported women’s suffrage, often before bourgeois parties, even though they recognized that women’s oppression was fundamentally economic. Despite socialist support—which in countries like Germany was crucial to the enfranchisement of women—when women voted, it is claimed, they voted disproportionately for conservative parties.

I want to review this history from a self-consciously socialist-feminist perspective; by which I mean both that I intend to highlight the centrality of a kind of politics I shall call ‘socialist-feminism’ to the history of woman suffrage, and that I will do so on the basis of a modern perspective which calls itself ‘socialist-feminism’. The classic socialist account of the history of woman suffrage summarized above insists on the fundamental antagonism of feminism and socialism, and the necessity for women activists to choose one over the other. By contrast, contemporary socialist-feminists reside at the point of the hyphen, tolerating the tension between socialism and feminism and making of it a creative and powerful progressive politics.footnote6 The politics I am calling ‘socialist-feminism’ has long been a self-aware wing of modern feminism, playing a major role in the women’s liberation revival of the late 1960s, as well as providing the dominant perspective for much women’s history scholarship since then.footnote7 While modern socialist-feminism is uniquely self-aware and self-defined, I believe that it is possible to trace such politics back at least to the mid nineteenth century and to argue that they have consistently been a radicalizing force in the larger history of feminism. This article can be read, therefore, as a contribution to the reconstitution of the socialist-feminist tradition, as part of a contest with other kinds of feminism for control over the meaning and political direction of the contemporary women’s movement.footnote8 At the same time, it is addressed to a socialist audience, in the spirit of sisterhood and comradely education. I invite all readers to join me, in other words, in temporary suspension of unnecessary oppositions, at the point of the hyphen.

The course of this political reconstruction is as follows. I begin with a brief consideration of the origins of the woman-suffrage demand in conjunction with the revolutions of 1848, and its temporary disappearance in the conservative decades that followed. During these years, socialism itself was marked by hostility to women’s rights. My primary focus, however, is on the 1890–1920 period, in which suffragism resurfaced and during which both socialism and feminism flourished as international, multi-tendency movements for social change. Under the category ‘socialist-feminism’, I examine two kinds of politics produced by the complex intersection of those movements: the women’s movement within the Second International; and the independent left feminists, often called in those years ‘militants’, who were influenced by and sympathetic to socialism but remained independent of party discipline. Both groups led the way to the reinvigoration of the demand for woman suffrage in the early twentieth century. In other words, I argue that in the 1890–1920 period woman suffrage was a ‘left’ or ‘militant’ demand, and that it reflected the existence and vigour of both the socialist and feminist movements.footnote9

While the demand for woman suffrage was inspired by movements for universal manhood suffrage, the classical individualism that underlay the democratic tradition resisted the inclusion of women. Indeed, as modern feminist political theorists have demonstrated, the independent, virtuous citizen was entirely male in conception, with the labour of women, like that of servants, obscured by (though necessary to) the appearance of men’s independence.footnote10 If individualism and independence were prerequisites for the safe exercise of the democratic franchise, women—the essence of dependence—could not conceivably be trusted (or rewarded) with the vote. Men represented their dependents as well as themselves; women, within the family, expressed themselves politically indirectly, through their husbands, fathers and brothers.footnote11

In other words, extending the notion of political democracy to women required a distinct, feminist logic to challenge the conventional notions of gender and of the family underlying individualist thought. When women first began to advocate the idea of political equality, about mid century, it was a way to symbolize their desire for independence, especially from men and in particular with respect to the family. The demand for equal suffrage also represented women’s concrete aspiration for political power, their desire to act in their own interests, and therefore the spectre that these might be antagonistic to men’s. Underlying both the political and symbolic challenge of women voting was the ultimate feminist claim: that women’s individuality was as fundamental as that of men. This assertion ran counter to widely held ideas that women’s unique service to others formed the ethical and emotional core of the family, and therefore of society. Indeed, the conviction of women’s essential selflessness was a necessary corollary to men’s individualism, the means of reconciling the pre-eminence of the self-determining man with the requirements of social order. Moreover, the emphasis on women’s individuality implicitly undermined the idea of categorical sexual difference, because if women were not all the same as each other, neither were they as a class different from all men. As such, the demand for woman suffrage posed a radical challenge to the social organization of gender, faced great opposition from men of all political persuasions, and required a movement of women for its advance.