Celebrating over a century of women's suffrageWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
It was a longer and harder road than it ever should have been.
The first women’s rights convention in the United States was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” For the next 70 years, generations of women, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and others, fought with eloquence and passion for women’s rights, including women’s suffrage.
They were rebuffed at every turn until finally, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted – thanks in large part to the efforts of suffragist Alice Paul – guaranteeing American women the right to vote.
But there’s much more to the story of women’s suffrage, not just in the U.S. but around the world. America wasn’t the first country to allow women to vote, nor was it the last. From a 21st-century perspective, the history of women’s suffrage raises some awkward questions: How could Western democracies built on Judeo-Christian ethics have denied this basic right to women for as long as they did? How could they have squared it with the Bible’s teaching about women and men, equally made in the image of God?
Democracy and women’s rights
The ancient Greek city-state of Athens is credited with creating the world’s first democracy, but for the Athenians, democratic voting rights were restricted to native-born Greek male citizens who owned property. Women, slaves, the poor, foreigners and “barbarians” (non-Greek speakers) were excluded.
As democracy in its modern forms emerged in Western nations, discussions about women’s suffrage within the larger framework of women’s rights emerged along with it. In England, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her seminal work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792. During the Regency Period that followed, Jane Austen addressed the social restrictions faced by women in her popular novels.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, various states in Europe and the colonies gave limited voting rights to women and then rescinded them a few years later. In some cases, they had inadvertently given women the vote by declaring universal suffrage before “correcting” their mistake and redefining universal to mean only men.
New Zealand became the first self-governing country to give women the vote in 1893, largely due to the efforts of suffragist Kate Sheppard. Australia followed in 1902, as did Finland in 1906, both also becoming the first countries to allow women to run for office.
Controversy on both sides of the Atlantic
In the United States, the suffrage and abolitionist movements walked hand-in-hand, at least for a time. Suffrage for black women got its initial spark from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, both of whom had escaped slavery, and was later taken up by well-educated women of colour such as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell. Even so, as women’s suffrage became a heated political issue, white women began to marginalize and even oppose their black sisters to attract support in Southern states. Despite this, African American women continued to fight for women’s suffrage and were integral to its eventual adoption. Sadly, they had to wait another 45 years after the 19th Amendment, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 secured their right to vote as African Americans.
Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom paralleled the American movement in many ways but also had some unique features. In both countries, by the turn of the 20th century, the movement had risen to a fever pitch of public controversy. The suffragists were attacked in misogynistic political cartoons as ugly, unfeminine subversives who were destroying the fabric of family and society. In the U.K., they were labelled “suffragettes,” a term of derision they adopted as a badge of honour. When they sought to present their case in the halls of government, they were refused admittance. Taking to the streets in protests and marches, they were accosted by police and arrested. While in jail, they went on hunger strikes which often resulted in brutal force-feedings.
A branch of the movement in the U.K., led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, took a more militant approach to suffrage activism. They smashed windows, chained themselves to fences, cut telegraph lines, lit mailboxes on fire, and set off bombs outside (and sometimes within) empty buildings.
On both sides of the Atlantic, suffragists met opposition from large groups of their fellow women who organized anti-suffrage movements. These anti-groups argued that women had no place in public life, that their proper sphere of influence was limited to the home, and that they lacked the physical and intellectual capacity to engage in politics. Some went so far as to claim that women’s suffrage was contrary to the laws of nature and of God.
Impact of the First World War
And then, the First World War changed everything. The suffragettes laid aside their cause to support the war effort. They stepped into the world of industry and other traditional male roles while the men were off fighting. This turned the tide of public opinion in their favour, and with millions of men lost to the war, there was no going back. Women had proved their ability to function in public roles as well as men, and could no longer be denied the vote.
Two years before the 19th Amendment in the United States, the British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, granting the vote to women over 30 who owned property or had a university education. This was amended 10 years later, in 1928, with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, to include all women over 21, without further qualification, just like the men.
The First World War was the final catalyst for adopting women’s suffrage in many countries, including Canada, where the Wartime Elections Act of 1917 granted the vote to war widows, women serving overseas and women who had male relatives serving overseas. It was further restricted, at first, to women who were British or Canadian citizens and met certain property requirements, and it excluded the “alien-born,” or naturalized Canadian citizens from other countries, as well as First Nations women. The latter group only received the right to vote, without losing their treaty status, in 1960.
The last major Western nation to grant women the vote was Switzerland in 1971. Its smallest canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, didn’t fully comply for another 20 years, until compelled by the Swiss supreme court in 1991.
Cultural bias versus biblical truth
The deeper one dives into the complex story of women’s suffrage, the more insistent the question becomes: How could democratic societies, built on the biblical conviction that all people are created equal, deny that conviction in practice, in how they treated women and minorities for as long as they did? The reasons are complex, but at their heart is a tendency to mistake cultural biases for biblical truth – or worse, to justify those biases with a thin veneer of faulty biblical exegesis.
Beliefs about women being inferior to men, physically and mentally incapable of engaging in public life and suitable only for child-bearing and housework have been endemic in many cultures but are foreign to the Scriptures. From the beginning, God created men and women in his image and gave them a shared mandate to exercise authority over his creation (Genesis 1:27-28). When God created woman, he described her as a helper corresponding to man, the two complementing one another in their joint role as God’s representatives (Genesis 2:18). The Hebrew word for helper, ezer (pronounced ay-zer) is most often used of God himself. It carries no sense of subordination, but of powerful, effective help.
The Scriptures are filled with women who embodied this ezer principle. Deborah was a war leader who saved Israel from foreign invasion (Judges 4-5). King Josiah sent a delegation of his chief officials to Huldah the prophetess, to inquire about the kingdom of Judah’s future (2 Kings 22:14-20). Sheerah of Ephraim built three cities, including one bearing her name, Uzzen-Sheerah (1 Chronicles 7:24). Lydia was a wealthy CEO who provided the Apostle Paul with a bridgehead for the Gospel into Europe (Acts 16:11-15). Phoebe was likewise a patron of Paul, entrusted as an envoy to deliver (and likely read) his letter to the Roman church (Romans 16:1-2). Priscilla partnered with her husband, Aquila, as prominent leaders in Paul’s ministry team (Acts 18; Romans 16:3-5). These portraits are a far cry from the Victorian notion of women being incapable of public service.
Jesus and women
Throughout his time on earth, Jesus welcomed and affirmed women in ways that would’ve scandalized both the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures of his day. He neither avoided women nor treated them as less than, but empowered them as valuable members of his ministry community. A group of well-to-do, socially connected women travelled with him and his disciples and supported them out of their means (Luke 8:1-3). Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’ feet as a disciple, an honour that rabbinical tradition reserved exclusively for men (Luke 10:38-42). And in a culture where women’s testimony was inadmissible in court, Jesus chose Mary Magdalene, and the women with her, to be the first witnesses of his resurrection (Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18).
Slow to believe, slow to change
When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they told him how the women had claimed the Lord had risen, but the story had sounded implausible to them. Jesus replied, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:22-26)
To be honest about it, we all have our blind spots. We all process new information through the filter of our biases, shaping or ignoring it to fit our preconceptions. We’re slow to believe, slower to act, slower still to change.
It’s a phenomenon that plays out in the pages of the Book of Acts. Before his ascension, Jesus told his followers that they’d be his witnessing in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. What they heard was that they’d be witnesses to the Jews in these regions. God had to use radical means – persecutions, visions, angelic intervention, a heated church council, Hellenistic Jews, prominent Greek women – to convince the apostles that the Gospel was for everyone, even the despised gentiles.
There’s a striking parallel here to the excruciatingly slow, halting acceptance of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, to say nothing of racial equality, in the Western world over the past several centuries. Modern democracies were founded on the biblical truth that all people – women and men of all races – are created equal in the image of God. However, these nations ignored and suppressed that truth for generations in order to maintain their status quo and avoid having to change their beliefs or practices.
In the popular film, Enola Holmes, there’s a scene in which the title character’s brother, Sherlock Holmes, has a conversation with an undercover suffragette, a black woman named Edith. The great detective assures her that he has no interest in politics. “You don’t know what it is to be without power,” Edith replies. “Politics doesn’t interest you because you have no interest in changing a world that suits you so well.”
Christianity is radically pro-women
Apologist Rebecca McLaughlin argues that from the start, Christianity was the most multicultural, multi-ethnic, and radically pro-women movement in history. And she’s right. Following the Lord’s example, the early church welcomed and affirmed women in a way that scandalized the cultures of the ancient world, both Jewish and pagan. Christianity’s early critics sneered that it was a religion of women, children, the poor and the ignorant.
Nevertheless, women persisted in embracing it in large numbers. Many of them were women of high social rank. No one was forcing them to do this. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that for the first couple of centuries, women made up two-thirds of the church.
It’s not hard to understand why. Pious Jewish men of the era had a morning prayer, thanking God that they weren’t slaves, gentiles or women. Pagan philosophers had a similar prayer, thanking the gods that they weren’t beasts, barbarians or women. In sharp contrast, the Apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
But as Christianity grew from persecuted sect to state religion, the biases and prejudices of the surrounding culture crept into the church. Over many centuries, cultural Christianity developed a knack for ignoring or reinterpreting inconvenient scriptural truth to justify misogyny, slavery, racism and any number of other ingrained social ills.
The legacy of women’s suffrage is worth commemorating for several reasons. First, it reminds us of our difficult and often sinful past. As followers of Jesus, we’re committed to the truth, wherever it may lead. We must not minimize, rationalize or dismiss the shameful treatment of women and minorities in our culture or in our churches, past or present. Like the men and women of faith in the Bible, we need to own our sin and repent of it, not only on a personal but also on a corporate level.
Second, this legacy is a cause for celebrating, with gratitude, the courageous women (and many men) who stood up against injustice and suffered for it. They weren’t perfect. They were often inconsistent, at times resorting to actions we cannot condone. Yet for all that, they fought with passion and intelligence to be heard and respected, convinced of the biblical truth that all people are created equal. Many of these women were our sisters in Christ, and though they’re long gone, they still speak.
Third, the complicated legacy of women’s suffrage serves as a reminder that we have a long way to go. More than a century after the fact, misogynistic and racist attitudes are alive and well, not just in our culture but tragically too often in our churches. As citizens of God’s kingdom and members of his family, we need to cultivate our love for the things he loves. And God loves justice. His heart is tender toward the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. As at the beginning, his church should be a place where women and outsiders are welcomed, loved and affirmed in a way that makes the culture around take notice.
The faces and stories of these women from a century ago call to mind the well-known words God spoke to his people through his prophet, Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Sources and further reading
Jessica Brain, “Votes for women,” Historic UK, accessed November 10, 2020.
Imogen Calderwood, “8 things you probably don’t know about women’s suffrage,” Global Citizen, February 5, 2018.
Melissa de Witte, “The 19th Amendment is a milestone, but not the endpoint, for women’s rights in America, says Stanford historian,” Stanford News, August 12, 2020.
Kara Fox, “100 years ago (some) British women got the vote,” CNN, February 6, 2018.
Erica Gonzales, “How the term suffragette evolved from its sexist roots,” Harper’s Bazaar, August 18, 2020.
Nicole Hemmer, “The loudest voices against women’s suffrage were women too,” CNN, August 7, 2020.
Monica Hesse, “Women’s suffrage was a giant leap for democracy. We haven’t stuck the landing yet,” Washington Post, August 3, 2020.
Jen Kirby, “How the radical British suffragettes influenced America’s campaign for the women’s vote,” Vox, August 19, 2020.
Susan Philpott, “Suffragette and suffragist: The influence of the British suffrage movement,” Women’s Vote Centennial, accessed November 10, 2020.
Fern Riddell, “Suffragettes, violence and militancy,” British Library, February 6, 2018.
Jennifer Schuessler, “The complex history of the women’s suffrage movement,” New York Times, August 15, 2019.
Katy Steinmetz, “Everything you need to know about the word ‘suffragette’,” Time, October 22, 2015.
Veronica Strong-Boag, “Women’s suffrage in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, August 25, 2016.
Susan Ware, “Leaving all to younger hands: Why the history of the women’s suffragist movement matters,” Brookings, May 2020.
Barbara Winslow, “Sisters of suffrage: British and American women fight for the vote,” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed November 10, 2020.
“Women’s suffrage: Pictures of suffragists and their activities,” Library of Congress, accessed November 10, 2020.
“Votes for women,” Smithsonian, accessed November 10, 2020.
“Women’s suffrage,” Wikipedia, accessed November 10, 2020.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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