Different paths to women’s votes followed around the world

FILE - In this September 1916 file photo, demonstrators hold a rally for women's suffrage in New York. The Seneca Falls convention in 1848 is widely viewed as the launch of the women's suffrage movement, yet women didn't gain the right to vote until ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. (AP Photo/File)

This year, American women are celebrating 100 years of having the right to vote.

But did you know there are many places around the world where suffrage cakes could have even more candles? More than 100 years before the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in 1734, women in Sweden were allowed to vote in local elections.

The 18th century did see a few lucky American women get to vote–those who lived in New Jersey, were unmarried, and had 50 pounds (of British currency, that is). That state’s first constitution allowed all property owners, including women and African-Americans, to vote.

It didn’t last, though. In 1807, the state legislature changed the rules, restricting suffrage to white men. Why would they do that? According to a historical report from the National Park Service, the goal was to help James Madison win the presidential election of 1808, because women tended to vote for the opposing Federalist party. Their plan worked, and the women of New Jersey didn’t get to vote again for more than 100 years.

Meanwhile, a host of other places were granting women the right to vote, including South Australia in 1861, Argentina in 1862, and Finland in 1863. The earliest laws often had limitations, for example, only allowing single women to vote or limiting their participation to local elections.

In 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing colony (because it was still part of the United Kingdom) in the world where all women could vote in national elections. Some parts of the U.S. were keeping up–Wyoming brought women voters along when it was incorporated as a territory in 1870. Utah tried, too, but its female residents were stripped of their right to vote by an 1887 federal law targeted at reducing the power of the Mormon church.

A whole pile of countries followed New Zealand, including places as farflung as Australia, Finland, Russia, Uruguay, and Canada. 1919 brought a lot more women to voting booths, in Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Jamaica, and believe it or not, Afghanistan.

As we all know, Afghani women have had ups and downs in their path toward equality since then. That raises the important point of how much political power for women follows from the vote. Clearly it worked in New Zealand. Their current prime minister, Jacinda Ahern, became the world’s youngest female head of government when she was sworn into office in 2017 at age 37. (To add to that, she had a baby the next year!)

She doesn’t have much company. Only 19 of the 193 countries in the United Nations are headed by a woman, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). (You might recall that the U.S. has never been.) There are only four countries where at least half of the national legislature is female, and they are a very unexpected group: Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, and the United Arab Emirates.

In the U.S., just under a quarter of Congresspeople are women, which is average for the world, but puts us pretty low on the CFR’s political parity ranking. Our score for representation of women is below most other developed countries, tied with Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Somalia, among other countries.

But progress continues, here and around the world, on the role of women in politics. In 2018, more American women won elected offices than ever before. This year, 100 years after women gained the right to vote, we can all celebrate that achievement, by voting on Nov. 3.


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