Although the Abbess of Quedinburg, shown in this picture lived in medieval times, she had the right to sit and vote at national assemblies in Medieval Germany. Centuries later most European women were still not allowed that basic right. Meanwhile, in North America, Marie Guyart, a French nun wrote in 1645 that women of the Iroquois tribe could serve as chieftains and vote in councils. Why was it that women in countries that today we would call “the developed countries” had to struggle so long to get the vote?
Many of the reasons for opposing suffrage for women were more about money and property than about individual rights. During much of the 19th century married women could not own property, so they would not be eligible to vote in many countries. There were some suggestions that spinsters and windows who did have property might vote, but that would anger all the men who were not allowed to cast a ballot. Even in 2014, male voters are considered more reliable defenders of property rights while women have a deplorable tendency to vote for social programs. Fox news commentators in recent weeks have been quoted as saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote—a feeling that is surely held by many enthusiastic Republicans. We usually talk about votes for women as a purely individual, social benefit, but feelings about it are just as often motivated by economic interests as social ones.
For almost 200 years American women, along with women from many other countries, have been fighting for the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony wanted to vote in 1872 and was tried and found guilty of breaking the law. Here are some of her responses to the judge at her trial;
As a matter of outward form the defendant was asked if she had anything to say why the sentence of the court should not be pronounced upon her.
“Yes, your honor,” replied Miss Anthony, “I have many things to say. My every right, constitutional, civil, political and judicial has been tramped upon. I have not only had no jury of my peers, but I have had no jury at all.”
Court—”Sit down Miss Anthony. I cannot allow you to argue the question.”
Miss Anthony—”I shall not sit down. I will not lose my only chance to speak.”
Court—”You have been tried, Miss Anthony, by the forms of law, and my decision has been rendered by law.”
Miss Anthony—”Yes, but laws made by men, under a government of men, interpreted by men and for the benefit of men. The only chance women have for justice in this country is to violate the law, as I have done, and as I shall continue to do,” and she struck her hand heavily on the table in emphasis of what she said. “Does your honor suppose that we obeyed the infamous fugitive slave law which forbade to give a cup of cold water to a slave fleeing from his master? I tell you we did not obey it; we fed him and clothed him, and sent him on his way to Canada. So shall we trample all unjust laws under foot. I do not ask the clemency of the court. I came into it to get justice, having failed in this, I demand the full rigors of the law.”
Court—”The sentence of the court is $100 fine and the costs of the prosecution.”
Miss Anthony—”I have no money to pay with, but am $10,000 in debt.”
Court—”You are not ordered to stand committed till it is paid.”
Matilda Joslyn Gage to Editor, 20 June 1873, Kansas Leavenworth Times, 3 July 1873, SBA scrapbook 6, Rare Books, Library of Congress
Anthony’s arguments may impress us in 2014, but they did not help to change the law. It was more than forty years later that women in the United States were given the right to vote.
You might think that with all the effort that went into gaining the right to vote, women would flock to the polls but that hasn’t always happened. Voter turnout is still a major issue in the United States, where fewer citizens vote than in many other countries. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2012, during an important presidential election, only 63.7% of eligible women and 59.8% of eligible men reported that they had voted. What can we expect in a non-presidential year like 2014?
The Abbess of Quedinburg and the Iroquois chieftains of earlier centuries would look on in wonder if they knew how carelessly we treat voting.
As for poor Susan B. Anthony, she must be weeping for the failures of her example to inspire us today.