This article has been written by Oishika Banerji of Amity Law School, Kolkata. This article provides a detailed analysis of women’s right to vote thereby highlighting the scenarios both in India and in the international domain.
This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.
Table of Contents
A political right, exercising which is a necessity for every citizen of a nation, is known as the right to vote. The right to vote relates to the right of making a choice. Empowerment is all about the choices one makes, but to exercise those choices, one needs to know their rights. Knowing rights comes from being educated, and therefore, the foremost ground that upholds the right to vote is education, which empowers an individual to recognise their political right to vote. It is concerningly obvious that as we are talking about women’s right to vote, there has been disparity with this gender and discrimination has been the only matter that they have been subjected to over the ages. This article, therefore, aims to discuss the subject matter of women’s right to vote and brings along stories in simple language that contributed to the development of the subject of voting, specifically for females around the world.
Why is voting necessary
Voting is necessary because an effective democracy depends on citizens using their right to vote. Our ability to elect leaders who uphold our beliefs and who can actually come up with the solutions we require to live well in our nation, thereby allowing us to move closer to the ambitions and aspirations we have for our family, is a necessity. Voting is both a right and a duty in many ways, because there is no other option to exercise political rights in a democratic setup.
Suffrage, or the right to vote, denotes a crucial human right, particularly in the modern democratic world. A democracy’s fundamental political right is the right to vote. People, especially women, have had to endure enormous hardship in several societies to achieve and exercise this political right. Women gained this political right far later than men in practically every country, and only after a protracted struggle. When it comes to India, after India gained independence from British colonialism, the new Constitution gave women the same voting rights as men.
Suffrage, in its simplest form, indicates the civil right to enfranchisement or the ability to vote. The phrase refers to a person’s freedoms and democratic rights, including their constitutional right to vote in their country of residence. Suffrage, in a larger sense, also refers to the right to vote. Although having a legal claim to vote does not automatically give a person the opportunity to vote, having a legal claim to vote also does not imply that everyone has the practical right to vote (in relation to the application of the right).
Speaking out strongly against any candidate or elected leader of any legislative assembly or parliament has long been a tradition. The focus of the blame then turns to the system and how democracy isn’t working properly. The question of “what the people can do” to strengthen democratic foundations and effect systemic change, however, has gotten very little attention. The elected official has a duty to carry out the preferences of the electorate, just as the Indian populace has a duty to participate in choosing the most qualified representative.
Election is the process through which the citizens of a nation elect the government that will be responsible for governing the nation. Therefore, the election process is important in a democracy. The fact that it is a government of, by, and for the nation’s citizens is one of the main arguments. All citizens of India who are 18 years of age and above are able to cast ballots in elections to choose their leaders. The nation may revert to a monarchy, a dictatorship, or authoritative rule if elections are not held.
It will therefore be correct to note that the only place where a beggar is equal to a billionaire and individuals irrespective of their gender are considered to be equal is in the voting booth.
History of women’s right to vote / women’s suffrage
The expression ‘women suffrage’ refers to women’s ability to cast ballots under the same conditions and circumstances as males. The term ‘suffragettes’ or ‘suffragists’ refers to the women who battled for this cause (the right to vote). The concept of women’s suffrage and its significance have evolved with time and are still progressing alongside the voting rights of men. A layout of such evolution has been provided in pointers hereunder:
- Ancient Greece, republican Rome, and the limited democracies that had developed in Europe by the end of the 18th century all forbade women from voting. Women remained to be denied all voting rights even when the voting age was increased, as it was in the United Kingdom in 1832.
- In the nineteenth century, the topic of women’s voting rights finally arose, and the battle was particularly fierce in Great Britain and the United States. However, those nations were not the first to give women the right to vote, at least not on a national level.
- Women had gained the right to vote in national elections by the early 20th century in New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), Finland (1906), and Norway (1913). They were allowed to vote in several local elections in Sweden and the US. Women’s suffrage in Europe and other nations was accelerated by World War I and its aftermath.
- Women gained the right to vote in national elections or equal voting rights with men in 28 additional countries between 1914 and 1939. Those countries included Soviet Russia (1917); Canada, Germany, Austria, and Poland (1918); Czechoslovakia (1919); the United States and Hungary (1920); Great Britain (1918 and 1928); Burma (present-day Myanmar) (1922); Ecuador (1929); South Africa (1930); Brazil, Uruguay, and Thailand (1932); Turkey and Cuba (1934); and the Philippines (1937).
- Women were initially allowed the right to vote in municipal, other local, or possibly provincial elections in a number of those countries. The ability to vote in national elections was only granted later.
- France, Italy, Romania, Yugoslavia, and China were subsequently included in the alliance following World War II. In India, the Constitution of 1949 granted women absolute suffrage, while, in Pakistan, the national elections of 1956 were responsible for providing women with absolute voting rights.
- In another ten years, practically every nation that gained independence following World War II guaranteed equal voting rights for men and women in their constitutions, bringing the total number of nations that had granted women the right to vote to more than 100. In most cantonal and federal elections in Switzerland by 1971 and in Syria in 1973, women were given absolute voting rights. According to the United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women, which was approved in 1952, women “should be entitled to vote in all elections on equal terms with males, without any discrimination.”
Why women’s suffrage received importance in the 19th century
Suffrage has been a political sensation from its inception. It became entangled with the numerous types of viewpoints articulated by the various ideologies that had by then arisen and were gaining traction in feminist and women’s movements around the world, including radicals, liberals, Marxists, and socialists. How and why suffrage got to be such a contentious subject in the 19th century’s fight for women’s rights is a key concern. The reason for this may be found in the fact that women are treated inferiorly to men, particularly when it comes to legal issues and rights. Nothing about this was typical of a particular area or nation; it was a global occurrence.
Women had to deal with injustices everywhere. They were denied access to higher education, denied the right to vote, and given little to no power over the family’s financial resources. Men were fiercely opposed to the idea of women’s advancement because they thought the ‘new woman’ would demand equal opportunities in all spheres, including politics and education.
A petition for change with more than a quarter of a million signatures was compiled by British women’s organisations before the end of the 19th century and delivered to Parliament. The fight for women’s suffrage grew as new professions, just like teaching and working in department shops. The International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, which was founded in Berlin in 1904, established provisions governing women’s right to vote. The movement’s moderate wing was led by its President, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Vice-President, Millicent Fawcett.
Cooperation between American and British women increased as the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum. Elizabeth Stanton addressed the audience at a gathering honouring Susan Anthony and Susan B. Anthony in June 1883 at the Prince’s Hall in London. She discussed the social, educational, political, and religious status of women in America. The second generation of suffragists continued the fight for equal rights for women in the United States and Great Britain. Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, and Harriot Stanton Blatch (1856–1940), daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (their mothers having become close friends when Blatch stayed in England), worked closely together to support the cause of suffrage.
Voting rights of women across the world
The extensive list provided hereunder shows not only when women first received the right to vote, but also how they did it and how they are currently seen politically around the world. Let us have a look at when women around the world were granted the right to vote by looking at the timeline provided hereunder:
- 1893 (New Zealand): The late 1800s saw a push by New Zealand women for the right to vote, spearheaded by suffrage activist Kate Sheppard, who gathered numerous petitions. Although the ladies faced a lot of criticism since many cabinet members feared that women would vote in favour of the prohibition of alcohol, their lobbying efforts finally paid off and the bill was passed as a statutory law on September 19, 1893.
- 1902 (Australia): The women’s suffrage movement in Australia was first split between South Australia and Western Australia. The Adult Suffrage Act, 1894, which gave women the ability to vote as well as to run for office in Parliament, was approved by the South Australian Parliament in 1894 after decades of the fight for equal rights. Western Australia adopted a similar policy in 1899, and in 1902, the Australian Parliament approved the Commonwealth Franchise Act, 1902, guaranteeing all Australian women the right to vote. Unfortunately, indigenous Australian women were not included in that; they did not get the ability to vote until 1962.
- 1906 (Finland): Finland became the first nation in Europe to allow women the right to vote in 1906. Finland’s Parliament was to be founded on universal suffrage after political instability in 1905 caused a countrywide strike against the Czarist Government. Finland’s first parliamentary election in 1907 saw the election of 19 women, and women still hold significant political positions in the nation today.
- 1913 (Norway): Despite having a long history of setting the bar high for equality, Norwegian women had to fight for the right to vote for almost 30 years. The subject was first discussed in Norway’s Parliament in 1890, when it was argued that voting may cause women to lose their identities, would degrade them, and would upend their homes and families. However, in local elections by 1910, women had gained parity with men, and by 1913, the Norwegian Constitution had been changed to grant all citizens the right to vote.
- 1915 (Denmark): Only men above the age of 30, who were the heads of their homes and made up 15% of the population of Denmark, were permitted to participate in politics in the 1800s. In 1871, activist Matilde Bajer founded a group dedicated to securing women’s voting rights. She later rose to prominence as the head of the Women’s Progress Association’s political arm.
- 1917 (Canada): Women struggled for the right to vote for decades, and the battle for women’s suffrage in Canada cut across all of the provinces. With the exception of male and female indigenous Canadians, who did not obtain the right to vote until 1960, the majority of Canadian women were granted the right to vote in 1917.
- 1917 (Russia): Russia had granted the right to vote to females after 40,000 women marched through St. Petersburg. The Russian League for Women’s Equality, founded in 1907, organised the march, which happened after Prince Georgy Lvov assumed power in 1917. Women’s suffrage was not among the new government policies that Lviv had announced. Following the outcry, Lviv changed its laws to grant women the right to vote.
- 1918 (Poland): After being ruled by Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary for more than a century, Poland attained independence in 1918. With the achievement of that milestone came the independence of Polish women as well. Under the new administration, they were granted the right to vote and to run in the Sejm elections, which is the Polish Parliamentary election, thereby governing Poland’s Parliament as well. Later, women fought for and took their rights in areas including civil law, holding public office, and property ownership.
- 1918 (Germany): The drive for women’s suffrage in Germany started in the late 1800s, and women were granted the right to vote in 1918. One of the most well-known activists who worked to advance the women’s movement and plan the first international women’s congress was Clara Zetkin. The campaign gathered strength as Germany moved from imperial control to the Weimar Republic, and eventually, equality for all sexes was incorporated into the new Weimar Constitution.
- 1918 (Britain): Before women in Britain were granted the right to vote, suffragette organisations spent years lobbying, marching, rallying, and demonstrating. The Women’s Social and Political Union organised one of the biggest protests, which drew 250,000 people, in 1908. At the event, suffragettes broke windows and tied themselves to surrounding railings to express their anger at the system. The right to vote was extended to women over 30 in 1918, but it wasn’t until 1928 that everyone aged 21 and above was given the opportunity to cast a ballot.
- 1919 (Netherlands): The women’s suffrage movement in the Netherlands gained traction in the late 1800s when women there were motivated to join feminist groups happening in England and the United States. In 1917, women were given what is known as a passive right to vote, which allowed them to run for office and be elected in politics but prevented them from casting their own ballots. Women didn’t truly acquire the right to vote in elections until 1919.
- 1920 (United States): After decades of a women’s suffrage movement that started in the first half of the 19th century, women in the United States finally gained the right to vote in 1920. Women’s rights advocates like Susan B. Anthony had put in a lot of effort to persuade the government that women should be able to vote. Anthony, unfortunately, passed away before the vote for women became a legal right. President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned Susan B. Anthony on August 18, 2020. She was detained in 1872 for casting an illegitimate ballot.
- 1921 (Sweden): As of 1862, Swedish law allowed women to cast ballots in local elections, but even these rights were rare for women who also held property and paid taxes. Women were awarded universal suffrage in 1919, ending the concept of income-based voting, but they weren’t able to use this new freedom until the national elections in 1921.
- 1928 (Ireland): In Ireland in the late 1800s, women were denied the right to vote in local and parliamentary elections, were discouraged from pursuing higher education and employment, had any property they owned given to their husbands after marriage, and could only seek custody of their children up until the age of seven. When the Irish Women’s Franchise League was established in 1908, suffragists relentlessly and even brutally fought for the rights of women. In 1918, certain voting privileges for women over the age of 30 were granted, and in 1928, all women over the age of 21 received full voting rights.
- 1930 (South Africa): The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the first organisation to advocate for women’s voting rights in South Africa, was established in 1899, marking the beginning of suffrage for women there. With the help of Prime Minister Hertzog, the group eventually took the name “Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union” and succeeded in obtaining equal voting rights in 1930. Up until limited suffrage was extended to other non-Black racial groups in the 1950s, voting was only available to white people. Black people wouldn’t enjoy complete voting rights until apartheid ended in the 1990s.
- 1931 (Spain): Clara Campoamor, an activist who worked with the Spanish Social Party to better the lives of women and advocate for their right to vote, led the fight for women’s suffrage in Spain. Women gained the right to vote after the 1931 uprising and the establishment of Spain’s Second Republic, but it wasn’t until the 1933 election that they could really use that privilege.
- 1932 (Brazil): Although Brazilian women had been calling for equal rights since the late 1800s, the movement didn’t take off until activist Bertha Lutz published an article in a Brazilian newspaper urging women to seek the right to vote. Lutz later founded the Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women, which ran a successful campaign that resulted in the passage of the Suffrage Act in 1932.
- 1934 (Turkey): Seven years after the Republic of Turkey’s founding, women were given the ability to vote in local elections. However, nationwide suffrage didn’t occur until 1934, when legislation allowing women full political rights was passed. Following this, women started to participate more in politics, and in 1971 and 1993, respectively, Turkey elected its first female government minister.
- 1944 (France): When the French Union for Women’s Suffrage was established in the early 1900s, women in France began to campaign for the right to vote. With the beginning of World War II and the German occupation, suffrage activities came to an end. However, after the liberation, women were given universal suffrage.
- 1945 (Japan): Women in Japan were not only prohibited from voting until 1922, but also from participating in political activities and expressing their thoughts. Women gained increasing control over their participation in politics over time, although they didn’t receive full suffrage until 1945. In the first general election following World War II, more than 13 million women cast ballots. Since then, women have taken a more important role in politics, albeit they still hold less than 25% of the seats in the legislature.
- 1947 (Argentina): In 1947, the Congress of Argentina gave women the right to vote. President Juan Domingo Peron, whose wife Eva Peron had played a significant role in the push for women’s suffrage, signed this right into law. After founding the Peronist Women’s Party, Eva served as its leader until her passing in 1952. Until 3.5 million women had cast ballots in the general election of 1951, women were unable to utilise their newly acquired rights.
- 1947 (Pakistan): In 1947, Pakistan granted women the right to vote, which was later upheld in 1956 with the addition of a clause establishing a certain number of reserved seats in the Parliament. The first Muslim woman to be elected Prime Minister was Benazir Bhutto in 1988, and more Pakistani women are now registered to vote than ever before.
- 1947 (India): The fight for women’s suffrage began when India was a British colony, and after reforms were enacted in the 1920s, some women were granted the right to vote. But when India attained independence in 1947 and the Constitution getting adopted in 1950, universal suffrage started to take hold. Presently, even after 75 years of independence, the majority of the parliamentary seats in India’s Parliament are held by men, despite the fact that women have continued to grow more politically active.
- 1952 (Greece): In the late 1800s, Greek women began to advocate for universal suffrage, although the country did not fully provide voting rights to females until 1952. During such time, educated females and those who were older than 30 could vote in local elections only and not in national elections. Greece elected Katerina Sakellaropoulou to be its President in 2020, giving her way to become the country’s first female President.
- 1953 (Mexico): In Mexico, women were first granted the right to vote in local elections in 1947, but it took another six years for them to be granted the same right to vote in national elections. Although a law granting women full political rights was passed in 1937, it was never formally implemented, and women didn’t acquire universal suffrage until President Adolfo Ruz Cortines was elected in 1952.
- 1956 (Egypt): Egypt gave its women the right to vote in 1956 after a long fight led by the Huda Sharawi-founded Egyptian Feminist Union. Sharawi is well known for taking off her veil in a Cairo train station as a form of protest, inspiring other Egyptian women to follow suit. Sharawi fought to improve women’s personal status, education, and voting rights.
- 1963 (Iran): In Iran, women gained the ability to vote, seek office in the Parliament, get a divorce, and retain custody of their children in 1963. The 1979 revolution put an end to the situation when 22 women held seats in the Parliament and more than 300 held municipal council positions. Women were barred from holding office positions, forced to adhere to the Islamic dress code, and limited to careers in more stereotypically feminine sectors. Despite the fact that they can now run for government, women are still sadly underrepresented.
- 1972 (Bangladesh): After women participated in the Liberation War alongside males, aiding in the country’s independence, Bangladesh granted women the right to vote in 1971. Women have played a larger role in Bangladeshi politics over time, with female prime ministers being elected on a regular basis since 1988. Sheikh Hasina Wazed has been Prime Minister since 2009.
- 2005 (Kuwait): In 1973, a measure was introduced to Parliament in Kuwait with the intention of granting women the ability to vote and run for office, but it was swiftly rejected. Women’s suffrage campaigns persisted, and in 1999, the Emir (sovereign) issued a proclamation that was later reversed. After numerous protests and public gatherings, the ability to vote was ultimately granted in 2005.
- 2011 (Saudi Arabia): In 2011, King Abdullah signed a decree allowing women to run for office and cast ballots in local elections, granting Saudi Arabian women the ability to vote. Their first chance didn’t present itself until December 2015, nearly a year after the King’s passing of the progressive decree. In Saudi Arabia, women hold 20% of the parliamentary seats as of 2021.
Women’s right to vote in the United States
Women have been nearly generally denied the right to vote since the United States’ founding. But it wasn’t until women started to object to this limitation that their exclusion became clear. During the uprising against slavery at the beginning of the 19th century, the campaign for women’s suffrage was born. Women like Lucretia Mott, for example, demonstrated a strong interest in the antislavery campaign and excelled as public speakers.
They called for a convention to discuss the issue of women’s rights in July 1848; this convention was convened in Stanton’s hometown of Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19–20 of that year, and produced a declaration that demanded women’s suffrage as well as the right to education and employment opportunities. It was followed in 1850 by the first national convention of the women’s movement, which was hosted by Lucy Stone and a number of important Eastern suffragists in Worcester, Massachusetts. Together, Stanton and the charismatic suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony led the American suffragist movement for the following 50 years. Their first collaboration took place at a conference in Syracuse, New York, in 1852.
The National Woman Suffrage Association was established in 1869 with the stated goal of winning the right to vote for women through a Constitutional amendment. This group, which conducted a convention each year for 50 years following its founding, was led by Anthony and Stanton. With the intention of attaining women’s suffrage by winning amendments to that effect in the constitutions of several states, Lucy Stone created another organisation, the American Woman Suffrage Association, in 1869. The two organisations collaborated for almost 30 years after joining forces in 1890 to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
In several states, efforts were also made to grant women the ability to vote in municipal and local elections as well as in presidential elections. Over the course of the following 25 years, a number of states gave in to the movement’s demands and granted women voting rights. As a result, the number of women elected to Congress grew in each of these states. Thus, these representatives were at least in part compelled by the makeup of their constituency to support a woman’s right to vote on an amendment to the US Constitution. By 1918, 15 states had granted women the same voting rights as men.
Women’s suffrage-related amendments to the federal Constitution were proposed in Congress in 1878 and 1914, but both were soundly defeated. The 1914 amendment just fell short of obtaining even a simple majority of votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate (a two-thirds majority vote in Congress was needed for the amendment to be sent to the state legislatures for ratification). However, by 1918, all major political parties were dedicated to granting women the right to vote, and in January 1918 and June 1919, the House and Senate, respectively, passed the amendment with the required two-thirds majority.
The secretary of state officially recognised the Nineteenth Amendment as a part of the US Constitution on August 26, 1920, and women received formal voting rights on an equal footing with males. Although the United States was among the first nations to give women the right to vote, it was far from the first; nations like New Zealand and Australia were setting the bar for equal rights for women in terms of voting. Many nations during this time-lagged significantly behind many others in allowing women the right to vote, and many are still up against prejudice and gender bias against women.
Women’s right to vote in the United Kingdom
Woman suffrage in Great Britain was originally requested by the Chartist movement in the 1840s and was first supported by Mary Wollstonecraft in her book “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)”. From the 1850s onward, prominent liberal intellectuals in England, most notably John Stuart Mill and his wife, Harriet, began to take up the cause of women’s suffrage with great interest. The first woman suffrage committee was established in Manchester in 1865, and Mill brought this society’s petition to Parliament in 1867 with roughly 1,550 signatures calling for women to be given the right to vote.
Few women had been granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections by property ownership prior to the Great Reform Act of 1832, although this was uncommon. Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, women were denied the ability to vote in local government elections. The Municipal Franchise Act of 1869 granted the right to vote to single female ratepayers. The Local Government Act of 1894 confirmed this power and expanded it to some married women. More than a million women in England had registered to vote in municipal elections by the year 1900. In the exceptional set of border elections conducted from 1915 to 1916 under the Welsh Church Act of 1914, women were also granted the right to vote on the same terms as men.
The idea that women were political beings with the right to an opinion, let alone the right to vote, was unheard of in early Victorian Britain, where a woman’s role had been primarily focused on raising children and taking care of the home. But the effects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain also gave rise to a new and rising role for women as they entered the world of public life, along with significant economic and technological advances in the workplace.
The type of job that women could find in the early 19th century was typically domestic service, such as working as a cook or a maid. However, increasingly other women were finding employment in industry, primarily working in factories, frequently in the textile industry. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the renowned Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, and this sector of the economy was primarily dependent on women to survive.
At the beginning of World War I, the protesters’ momentum was subjected to changes in Britain. Due to the grim realities of war, suffrage convicts were freed and encouraged to help with the war effort. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), on the other hand, kept up its much less combative efforts to foster gender equality and advocate for women. Many women were compelled by the First World War to fill the voids created by the men who enlisted to fight in the conflict. Women found work not only in fields they had prior skill in, like textiles, but also in munitions factories (anything needed for the war meant that women were suddenly crucial to the nation’s everyday industries, transportation, and infrastructure).
Now that the men had returned from the war, many of the women who had done so admirably throughout the conflict were expected to quit their jobs and go back to their homes. Social norms were still changing. Further, it is necessary to note that post-1928, the voting age for women was reduced to twenty-one years of age in tandem with male enfranchisement.
Representation of the People Act, 1918
The Representation of the People Act, 1918, which was established in 1918, granted the right to vote to women over 30 who met certain property requirements. Even though approximately 8.5 million women fit this description, they made up just around 2/3 of all women in the UK. The same law also made almost all men above the age of 21 eligible to vote and repealed property and other restrictions on men. Men in the military were permitted to vote from the age of 19 as well. Even though the number of voters rose from 8 to 21 million, there was still a significant gender gap.
Equal Franchise Act, 1928
Women who were above 21 years old were not given the same voting privileges as men until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. Due to this law, 15 million more women were then entitled to vote. Without any resistance from other parties, the Conservative Party was able to approve the legislation.
After being introduced in March, the bill was passed on July 2nd of that year. Millicent Fawcett, the founder of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who had led the campaign for the vote, was present at the parliament session to see the vote. The same evening, she noted in her diary that “it is nearly exactly 61 years since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20, 1867. I have therefore been extraordinarily fortunate to have witnessed the conflict from its inception.” Millicent Fawcett received a letter from Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, on August 5, 1928. He noted that despite challenges, he always had faith that the law would be approved in “the basic and full shape it ultimately assumed.” He ended his letter by expressing the hope that the United Kingdom would benefit from equal voting and that it would be for the greater good.
Women’s right to vote in India
In a sense, India’s entrance onto the global stage was announced by the first general elections held in 1951. It was the beginning of India’s journey toward becoming the true global and South Asian champion of democratic values. However, getting there wasn’t a simple procedure for India. In comparison to the country’s actual population, Indian natives’ total voting percentage was far lower before 1946.
The ability to vote was restricted to anyone who met certain requirements, including paying income taxes, owning property, including land, and owning property. This aided landowners and those with significant counterbalance in keeping power in check.
Under Article 326 of the Indian Constitution, universal suffrage has been in place since the country’s first general election, which took place in 1951–1952. The 61st Amendment, which went into force on March 28, 1989, lowered the voting age requirement to 18 years old from that of the previously introduced 21 years.
The British government granted limited suffrage to women who owned property in 1918, but despite petitions being filed around the globe, this law (Representation of People Act, 1918) did not apply to British citizens living in other countries. The joint committee of the House of Lords and Commons heard arguments in favour of granting women the right to vote in 1919. The Government of India Act of 1919 permitted the provincial council to decide whether women could vote if they met strict property, income, or educational requirements, despite the fact that they were not given the power to vote or to run in elections.
All of the British provinces and princely states gave women the ability to vote between 1919 and 1929, and some even permitted them to run for local office. The first triumph in this regard was in Madras, which was followed in 1920 by the states of Jhalawar and Travancore. Rajkot state received full suffrage in 1923, and two women were chosen to serve on the legislative council. Complete suffrage was granted in the Madras Presidency, the Bombay Presidency, and the Rajkot state in 1921.
Representation of the People Act, 1918 in the Indian context
- Beyond the British Isles, the Representation of the People Act, of 1918, which granted voting rights to some British women over 30, had a significant impact. For instance, many British suffragettes and suffragists had made references to India during their campaigns, and after 1918, they focused more intently on India. Up to India’s separation from Britain in 1947, decisions on Indian women’s voting rights were made in the House of Commons. In 1919 and 1935, there were two key Acts of Parliament on this subject.
- The Government of India Act of 1919 gave Indian men who held a specific amount of property the right to vote, as well as expanded and reformed the country’s legislatures. Indian women were expressly denied the new franchise despite campaigns spearheaded by both Indian and British women. Sarojini Naidu, Herabai, and Mithan Tata, three Indian suffragists, attempted to convince the British government to step in on this issue by setting up hearings in the House of Commons and meeting with British MPs in the autumn of 1919.
- The government did permit a concession even though women were not given the right to vote. Indian provincial councils were allowed to decide whether to provide Indian women with the right to vote under the 1919 Act. All of British India’s provinces had granted women the right to vote by 1930, but only if they complied with the stringent property rights that equally applied to men. This meant that in most provinces, fewer than 1% of adult females had the right to vote, and India’s voter ratio was roughly 25:1.
- The Government of India Act, of 1935 granted voting rights to the wives and widows of registered male voters and instituted a literacy requirement as a substitute for this requirement.
- This first group of British female MPs was essential in expanding the voting rights for Indian women because they refused to be exclusive in their feminism or politics and actively worked with Indian activists in both Britain and India. Indian women had high expectations and were actively involved in initiatives for complete adult suffrage.
Struggle in Indian for women’s right to vote
Women began clamouring for Indian women’s political representation between 1917 and 1937. The 1919 and 1935 constitutional reforms served as the backdrop for the women’s suffrage movement. Additionally, throughout the second decade of the 20th century, this activity coincided with the growing national movement. The push for women’s suffrage ran concurrently with the fight for political rights, such as in the liberation struggle, due to the colonial environment and men’s severely limited suffrage.
The Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, and Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montague, toured the nation in 1917 to implement political reforms known as the “Montague- Chelmsford Scheme of Reforms for India.” This was one of the planned reforms that called for a wider electorate and increased representation of Indians in the legislative councils.
However, there was no mention of women’s right to vote, and the issue of their rights seemed to be completely disregarded. As a result, a number of women and women’s organisations, including the Bharat Stri Mandal (normally Stree), the recently established Women’s India Association, Margaret Cousins, and Dorothy Jinarajadasa (the latter two having also worked for women’s suffrage in England), seized the chance to foster support for women’s suffrage. In December 1917, Sarojini Naidu was the leader of an all-Indian women’s delegation that informed the imperial representatives (Montague and Chelmsford) of the awakening of Indian women (something akin to the West) and registered the demand of women to have the status of “people,” including representation in legislative councils.
The delegation’s first request was that “when the terms of the Indian franchise were drawn up, the word ‘people’ should be understood as including women” and that “the entire document should be worded in such terms as will not disqualify our sex, but allow our women the same opportunities of representation as our men”, the fight to win political and civic rights for all women in India officially began. The Indian women’s suffrage movement encountered opposition from both nationalists and British officials from the outset, which made things difficult for them. While the latter did not agree with their criticism of patriarchy and accused them of being unfaithful to their culture, the former accused them of disregarding the poor masses of Indian women.
As support for women’s suffrage grew across the nation in 1918, the provincial conferences (legislatures) of former Bombay and Madras (now Mumbai and Chennai) voted resolutions to remove sex discrimination from the reform bill that was being considered at the time. They were swiftly followed by the Muslim League, the Bombay Special National Congress, the Indian Home Rule League, and the Andhra Provincial Conference.
In the same year, Sarojini Naidu attempted to persuade the 5,000-strong audience at the Bombay Special Session of the Congress of the merits of granting women the right to vote by highlighting its political and scientific soundness, compatibility with tradition, and adherence to human rights. Naidu emphasised that this would instead assist establish the foundation of national character in the hearts of youngsters and would implant in them values of national life, dispelling the anxieties of men that this may mean interference by women in their official, civic, and public obligations.
In 1918, at the 33rd session of the Indian National Congress, Sarladevi Chaudhurani introduced a resolution in favour of giving women the right to vote. Beyond Sarojini Naidu’s claims, she argued that the “sphere of women” encompassed cooperation with males in all areas of life, including politics. All of the resolutions were made with the intent that when the word “people” or “persons” is used, it should be understood to include both men and women as well as men.
Meetings and get-togethers commenced one after the other across India owing to the need to implement women’s right to vote in elections. Women’s groups were extremely significant in showing support for women’s franchises, and they received unwavering assistance from notable women from both Britain and India. British suffragists like Millicent Fawcett came out to support the Indian women in their cause, promoting petition politics as the best strategy.
The Indian suffrage movement experienced a lot of activity in 1918. Two committees were established by the government to look into the ideas put forth by diverse groups of people in order to carry out the reform strategy. Out of these two, the Southborough Franchise Committee was tasked with gathering for the British Parliament all available criticism on the Franchise plans as well as learning Indian views on the subject of reforms. Taking advantage of the occasion, Indian women did everything in their power to present the Committee with any and all proof that the inclusion of women in the new electorate was necessary.
Women’s right to vote in the Madras legislature
Madras was the first legislature in British India to pass a resolution in favour of women’s suffrage with a sizable majority back in 1921. As a result, women received their first official state recognition as “people” and were granted the same conditions for voting as men. The women of Madras secured the attention of the globe as the news spread. Messages of congratulations came in from all across the world.
Lady Constance Lytton, a well-known British suffrage crusader, said in an article published in The Hindu on July 2, 1921, “please convey my sincere congratulations to the ladies of South India on obtaining the right to vote. The way the experience in our own Island (Britain) has produced fantastic results excites me and makes it seem like a dream.”
The series of events that contributed towards the Madras legislature being the first to pass a resolution supporting women’s right to vote has been laid down hereunder:
- 1917: In connection with the women’s suffrage movement, Annie Besant, Dorothy Jinrajadasa, and Margaret Cousins founded the Women’s Indian Association (WIA).
- 1918: The British government dispatched the Montagu-Chelmsford committee to India, where the WIA under Sarojini Naidu petitioned for women’s voting rights.
- 1918: In order to gather information, the Southborough Franchise Committee visited India. It determined that Indian women did not want the right to vote after only accepting women’s petitions from two provinces.
- 1918-1921: After persistent advocacy with the Joint Select Committee, the Parliament resolved to let elected legislatures determine the matter.
- 1921: Madras was among the first states to give women the right to vote.
In addition to extending their greetings, the Women’s Service Guild of Australia, Action Speciale de la Femme in France, and the British Dominion Women’s Citizen Union expressed their hopes that other provinces would soon do the same. Similar resolutions were soon adopted by the United Provinces and Bombay Presidency. Surprisingly, compared to other resolutions, the Madras Council’s resolution reflected the most firm mandate. Of the 90 or so members of the Council present, 40 voted in favour of the recommendation, 10 against it, and 40 abstained.
Development in women’s right to vote from 1927-1937
There were discussions over the conditions under which women’s franchises should be expanded in the years 1928–1937. The British government favoured creating distinct electorates, reserving seats for women, and relaxing the requirements for obtaining a franchise. However, the majority of women’s movement leaders advocated adult franchises and rejected separate electorates and the reservation of seats for women.
The Simon Commission’s appointment in 1927 as the first stage in the creation of a new Indian Act marked the beginning of the second phase of the fight for female suffrage, which began 10 years after the Montague Chelmsford Reforms. Numerous groups, including the WIA and the Indian National Congress, boycotted the Commission since there were no Indians in the team.
Some of the newly formed All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) members, led by the Rani of Mandi, met with the Commission and expressed their requests for giving votes to literate women and reserving seats for women. A Round Table Conference (RTC) to be held in London to explore the next step toward Dominion Status was announced by the Viceroy as yet another Statement of Purpose (SOP) in 1929. The INC and the WIA once more boycotted this. Begum Shahnawaz Khan and Mrs. Radhabai Subbarayan, however, attended the conference in their own capacities and did not represent any women’s organisations.
As a temporary solution, they suggested adult franchises as the best and most exclusive option for women. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact of 1931, by which Congress decided to attend the Second Round Table Conference, was another significant milestone. Under the leadership of Sarojini Naidu, the AIWC undertook the task of creating a memo that would be delivered to the Second RTC’s Franchise Committee. Eight women made up the drafting committee, namely, Rani Lakshmibai Rajwade, Hilla Fardoonji, Margaret Cousins, Taraben Premchand, Faiz Tyabji, and Hilla Fardoonji. The memorandum demanded equal adult voting rights, diverse general electorates, and no other option or nomination of women. The idea also received the approval of a number of women’s organisations. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur led a delegation of fifteen AIWC members to the Viceroy to request adequate women’s participation at the RTC.
Gender equality before the law and universal adult franchise were pledged by the Indian National Congress in its Karachi session in 1931 in response to the women’s movement’s demands for equal political suffrage rights and women’s active engagement in the freedom war. The free India’s Constitution upheld this vow.
A Franchise Committee was established with Lord Lothian serving as its chairman after the British Parliament approved the RTC’s suggestion for the enhanced franchise for women. A White Paper containing their suggestions was released in 1933. The Communal Award, which was also implemented that year, set aside seats for Muslims and Scheduled Castes. The AIWC opposed the idea of reserving seats for women because they believed that the Communal Award, which would separate women, would endanger the fraternity of womanhood in India. Once more taking up the cause, the women’s organisations reframed their demand for political rights.
The demand called for the enfranchisement of all men and women over 21 who lived in metropolitan areas. In order to represent the interests of women before the Committees, a delegation of women led by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, and Begum Hamid Ali were sent, and they renewed their demand for a universal adult franchise. They received the full backing of British women’s organisations that worked to influence public opinion in England in this endeavour.
The pace of the nationalist movement had sped up by the middle of the 1930s, and the AIWC in its 1933 annual session requested the right to vote and equal status for women in India’s future Constitution.
In a resolution from the 1934 session, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur acknowledged that the Joint Select Committee had given women more voting rights and a specific place in the new constitution, but she also expressed disappointment that it had disregarded many of their demands. When the Government of India Act of 1935 was made public and once more rejected the idea of a universal adult franchise, their displeasure increased. However, as only a few women had the right to vote until now, it did enhance the number of Indians who were granted voting rights and the proportional suffrage rights of women. Their numbers slightly grew as some of the prior qualifications were also relaxed and their qualifications, age, etc. were slightly dropped.
All women over 21 who met the requirements for property and education could now vote, however, the women’s organisations were upset with this and stated their dissatisfaction of the Act’s provisions. However, they soon realised that in order to give women the right to vote, they would need to be educated, as the majority of them could not even read. In addition to making quick attempts to address the schooling issue, women also enthusiastically supported the national campaign.
Women’s right to vote under the Indian Constitution
Hopes for the universal adult franchise were ultimately adopted by the new Constitution drafted in 1950, and Indian women received what they had been requesting since 1917. All Indian citizens are now eligible for equal political involvement under the country’s democratic Constitution, irrespective of their caste, class, colour, race, gender, or religious preferences. Following independence, the Gram Panchayat Act was passed, mandating the creation of gram panchayats at the local level.
The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution, which designated panchayats and municipalities as “institutions of self-government,” were ratified by the Indian Parliament in April and June 1992 in an effort to significantly expand the political rights of women.
The Act’s requirement that at least one-third of all seats, both at the level of functionaries and members, be reserved for women is its most significant component. While male politicians agreed to grant women one-third of the reservation in panchayats, there is persistent resistance and opposition to granting them a similar reservation in state legislatures and the Parliament. As you can see, women continue to fight for equal rights.
As we come to the end of this article, it is necessary to state that women have been subject to oppression in relation to their voting rights since time immemorial. Not to deny, till today, in many places across the world, viewing women as inferior is continuing as they keep rising not only in terms of being eligible to cast a vote but also themselves stand as a representative in the elections. Progressively, many female politicians are coming up across the world to govern nations, thereby being on equal footing with their male colleagues.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
When did the revolution surrounding women’s right to vote began?
The right for women to vote in elections was started when some people started attempting to amend the voting laws to allow women to vote in the middle of the 19th century.
Why did the women’s rights movement start?
During the uprising against slavery at the beginning of the 19th century, the campaign for women’s suffrage was born. Women like Lucretia Mott, for example, demonstrated a strong interest in the antislavery campaign and excelled as public speakers.
Which was the first country to promote women’s right to vote?
Although a number of other territories granted women the right to vote before 1893, New Zealand can legitimately claim to be the first independent nation to do so.
Which country has not given voting rights to women?
All nations and territories on the globe now allow women to vote, with the exception of Vatican City, where the Pope is solely elected by Catholic Church cardinals, all of whom must be men.
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