February 14th – one century of women’s rights

February 14th 2002 marks the hundredth anniversary of the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage, launched in Washington DC in 1902. 100 years later, women in most countries around the world have the Constitutional right to vote and to play an active role in politics. This was not always so.

The International alliance for Women’s Suffrage (right to vote) was launched in Washington DC on 14th February, 1902, culminating in half a century of campaigning, and suffering, by the suffragette movement, women campaigners for the right to vote, regardless of sex.

In 1840, two American ladies, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, appeared at the first Anti-Slavery Convention in London, but were excluded from the works because they were women. At the time, the role for women was clear – that of a wife and mother. Women were regarded as “too hysterical” to vote and not having enough intelligence to form a measured opinion.

However, the message had been heard and from then on, the suffragette movement gathered pace in the United States and around the world. Back in New York, Lucretia and Elizabeth worked hard for their cause and in 1848, the first American Convention for Women’s Rights was held, in Seneca Falls (NY), a Convention at which the slogan “Votes for Women!” was launched.

By 1870, the feminist movements had multiplied around the USA, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Anthony, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe being the leading figures. These movements allied in 1890, forming the Association for Women’s Suffrage. Activists, the suffragettes, chained themselves to lamp posts outside the offices of political parties, shouting slogans.

This wave of contention culminated in Carrie Chapman forming the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage in 1902 and from here, the movement spread around the world. The first European initiative for the suffragette movement was in The Hague, in 1907, when a delegation of suffragettes was received by the authorities of the Netherlands, and handed in a petition with the signatures of 12 million women from various European countries. This had been organised by lady Aberdeen,, wife of the Vice-Roy of Ireland (then part of Great Britain).

The European activists were at the beginning mainly members of the aristocracy, Great Britain being the country taking the lead at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia had founded the Social and Political Union of Women in 1903 and for ten years, the suffragette movement campaigned relentlessly.

At first, demonstrations were held by large groups of women, but were soon broken up (often brutally) by the police. The result was short publicity time for the suffragettes. Therefore, they changed their strategy, infiltrating larger crowds at political meetings and shouting out their slogans individually. When one was arrested, another took up the cause, and so on, giving the movement some hours of public hearing.

When Emmeline Pankhurst began her hunger strike movement, the newspapers took up the cause, as the British nation became interested in the health of the women concerned and indirectly, in their cause. Journalists and men of culture began to be swayed over and more and more publicised events occurred, such as the suicide of a suffragette at Epsom horse races (a major event), when she ran in front of the King’s horse and was killed.

On 18th November, 1910, the police brutally repressed a demonstration and two suffragettes were killed. From then on, the pressure from the media was implacable and finally in 1918, the British parliament passed a law giving women over 21 the vote.

Russia followed suit the same year, the United States two years later. During the twentieth century, most countries altered their Constitutions to allow women the vote. Iraq had to wait for Saddam Hussein to come to power for its women to be given the vote, in 1980, while black women were only given this right in South Africa in 1994.

While people are sending soppy messages around the world on February 14th, remembering the Roman priest who refused to obey the Emperor Claudius’ orders not to marry soldiers of the Imperial legions, being executed for his disobedience and his allegiance to the ethos of love, the date has a much deeper political significance.


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