This blog post was authored by Alexandra Bro, research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Delphi Cleaveland, intern with the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This month marks the centennial of the nineteenth amendment. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the constitutional amendment that prohibits states and the federal government from denying a U.S. citizen the right to vote on the basis of sex. While some U.S. states and territories had already recognized women’s suffrage at the time, the nineteenth amendment extended voting rights to female citizens nationwide.
Yet many women remained disenfranchised. Native Americans and Asian Americans were barred from participating in elections due to citizenship restrictions. And, despite a legal right to vote, Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation kept many African American women unable to cast their ballot. It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that racial discrimination in voting became legally prohibited.
By the time the United States ratified the nineteenth amendment, it lagged behind several other nations. Most of Eastern and Northern Europe had already recognized women’s right to vote in 1920. But in other countries, women had to wait much longer. To this day, women are not allowed to vote in the Vatican City, where only members of the College of Cardinals of the Catholic Church—which women cannot join—elect the Pope, the country’s head of state.
As we remember this important, but imperfect, milestone in women’s suffrage in the United States, here are stories of when women won the right to vote in five other countries around the world.
1893: New Zealand
New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to extend voting rights for women in 1893. The victory came after years of campaigning by women’s suffragists who drew inspiration from afar, including from British and American women’s rights advocates. In 1887, Kate Sheppard became the head of the U.S.-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union branch in Christchurch and organized the campaign for women’s right to vote as one of the movement’s most prominent leaders. Activists coordinated meetings, held speeches, and petitioned parliament. In 1893, with close to 32,000 signatures, they presented the largest petition to have ever been presented to parliament at the time. The Electoral Act passed both houses and was signed into law on September 19, 1893, thereby extending the right to vote to all adult women.
Calls for women’s right to vote in Finland were linked to the broader demands for equal suffrage for all. Some women’s rights advocates were part of the workers’ movement that organized the 1905 General Strike that led to the creation of the modern Finnish parliament. One year later, in 1906, Finland became the first European country to recognize universal suffrage, and the first in the world to extend to all women the right to both vote and stand for election (with Australia’s 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act, white women could vote and run for office, but the same rights were not extended to Aboriginal women until 1962). The first Finnish parliamentary elections were held the following year, in 1907. Approximately 60 percent of women voted, and Finnish voters became the first in the world to elect a woman to parliament: a total of nineteen female members were elected.
Women in Japan had fought for the right to vote long before World War II. In 1931, as a result of interwar activism, suffrage legislation—albeit limited to municipal elections—passed in the House of Representatives, but failed in the upper house. World War II drastically transformed gender relations as more Japanese women attended higher education, postponed their marriages, and entered the workforce. On December 17, 1945, women finally won the right to vote and the following year, 67 percent of eligible women voted. Thirty-nine women were elected to the House of Representatives, representing 8.4 percent of all members. Women’s parliamentary representation in Japan has remined under 12 percent since.
With a voter turnout of close to 85 percent, Liechtenstein became the last country in Europe to recognize women’s right to vote in 1984. Narrowly victorious, with just 51.3 percent in favor of women’s suffrage, the small mountain principality with a population of less than 27,000 people at the time, had remained staunchly opposed to women’s right to vote, even as its neighbors gave way. Women’s suffrage referendums were held in 1968, 1971, and 1973—the latter two which were only accessible to male voters—but to little avail. Perhaps of surprise to many feminists, when women finally exercised their newly won right at the ballot box in 1985, they promptly shot down two motions calling for sexual equality to be written into the constitution.
2015: Saudi Arabia
In 2015, Saudi Arabia became the latest country to recognize women's right to vote. In 2011, after deliberate women’s rights campaigns, King Abdullah announced by royal decree that women would be able to vote and run for office in the 2015 municipal elections. Despite these advancements, many argue suffrage for women exists in name only: the documentation required is onerous, time allotted to register is brief, and the oversight of a legal guardian is still mandated. As a result, only about 130,000 women registered as voters, a feeble 3 percent of the 4.5 million eligible female voters. Nevertheless, activists have continued to push for reform and today, women make up close to 20 percent of parliament.
The Fight Continues
Half a century after women in New Zealand won the right to vote in 1893, women still could not vote in most parts of the world. And in some countries, governments initially restricted suffrage based on race, wealth, or education level, which meant that only some women benefited from voting rights extensions in practice. Even today, as women have gradually won the formal right to vote around the world, they remain drastically underrepresented in political institutions. Despite significant progress, only sixty-six nations have ever had a woman head of state or government—of the countries mentioned above, only Finland and New Zealand make that list—and women make up just a quarter of parliamentarians worldwide.
As we commemorate the nineteenth amendment this month, let us remember what has been won, but not forget what remains—both at home and abroad.