The Struggle for Women's Suffrage History This Week
By Winston McGowan
Stabroek News
October 26th 2006

Related Links: Articles on history
Letters Menu Archival Menu


Suffrage from the Latin 'suffragium,' meaning 'vote,' is defined either as the 'civil right' to vote or the exercise of that right. In that respect, it is called political franchise or just the franchise a term which originated during the Middle Ages when the Franks of ancient France were free men.

Almost two months ago today, Guyanese, in keeping with our democratic tradition, had an opportunity to exercise our franchise. However, in what is described in a Stabroek

News editorial as possibly "the lowest for an open election in this country ever," only 69% or 336,375 persons chose to exercise their franchise. Although I do not have the benefit of the breakdown of the percentage of men to women who voted, a crude sampling of persons (albeit in Georgetown) primarily women about a fortnight before the election as to whether they planned to vote and another (a different group) a week after the results were declared as to whether or not they had voted seemed to indicate that more women than men stayed home on August 28.

Moreover, I was startled by the disinterest and apathy among all classes, ethnic and age groups of women before the elections and even more alarmed by the reasons given by some women as to why they had not voted. Voting is one of the criteria for political participation which in turn is a first hurdle in the quest by our women for increased numbers in the halls of power and decision making, a goal which most Guyanese women seem to want achieved.

The next two articles is an attempt to remind our women in particular that the franchise which we now take for granted and is still denied to some women, came after a long struggle by courageous women who defied convention in an era when it was felt that women did not need the vote because they were empowered and had adequate representation through the votes of their husbands, fathers and brothers.

The suffrage struggle in Britain and elsewhere

Even though the active campaign for women's suffrage began in Britain in the third decade of the 19th century, it was in New Zealand that women were first granted the franchise. That achievement was due primarily to the hard work and dynamic leadership of Katherine Wilson Sheppard. Born in March 1847 in Liverpool to Scottish parents she was taken to Christchurch by her mother after the death of her father. In 1885, she helped to establish New Zealand's Women's Christian Temperance Union which was part of a larger temperance movement. Realizing that most of the support for temperance came from women, members of the temperance union became actively involved in the fight for women's suffrage.

A powerful speaker and skilled organizer, Sheppard quickly garnered support for the cause. In 1891, she took a lead role in organizing the petition which was sent to Parliament. Despite support from the Premier and a few MPS, it was the third Women's Suffrage Bill which was passed in 1893 that granted women full voting rights. Her work acted as a major fillip to the suffragette movement in Britain and the USA. In continental Europe and elsewhere, agitation by suffragettes led to women in Norway gaining full suffrage in 1913; Denmark and Iceland in 1915; in 1917 Russian women were granted universal adult suffrage by the Provisional Government at the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

Although the right to vote was one of the most important political issues in Britain in the first decades of the 19th century, the path to universal suffrage, especially for women, was halting and tortuous. The Great Reform Bill of 1832 should have extended the franchise but the word "male" instead of "people" was used thus excluding women from the vote.

The first leaflets advocating votes for women appeared in 1847 and suffrage societies began to appear countrywide. In 1867, the defeat of John Stuart Mill's attempt to secure the vote for women in the Second Reform Act, inspired the formation of the National Society for Women's Suffrage. In 1868, a Manchester MP, Richard Pankhurst attempted to win the vote for women. His wife Emmeline Pankhurst and daughters Christabel and Sylvia played significant roles in the struggle for the enfranchisement of women in Britain. In 1889, Emmeline founded the Women's Franchise League and in 1903 the Women's Social and Political Union. It became notorious for its militancy. Suffragettes chained themselves to railings and within a couple of years resorted to smashing windows. Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kennedy were jailed for refusing to pay the fines imposed for disrupting a Liberal Party meeting.

By 1911, the suffragettes were using arson as a tactic. In 1913, Emily Davidson died at the Epsom Derby when she rushed out to bring down the King's horse as part of a suffragette protest. The civil disobedience was widespread. Women all over Britain were prepared to and did go to jail

for the right to vote. They continued their civil disobedience behind bars.

The outbreak of World War 1 brought a temporary lull to the suffragettes' activities Emmeline Pankhurst became very involved in urging women to take over men's jobs in industry so that they could go fight in the war. She worked tirelessly in the enlistment of un-enlisted men by touring the country and making recruitment speeches. Her daughters were also involved.

Their Herculean efforts were rewarded with the passage in 1918 of the Representation of the People's Act. It gave all men over 21 the right to vote with no property qualification. It however, limited the franchise to women over 30 with a property qualification but women over 21 could sit in the House as MPs. Realistically, this meant that a British woman could be an MP even though she was not eligible to vote. In 1928, through the Representation of the People's Act, the right to vote was extended to all men and women over 21. In 1969, the Act reduced the voting age for all to 18.

The franchise struggle in the United States of America

In the United States of America more so than in Great Britain the struggle for women's suffrage was interlinked with the development of feminism. Feminist writers like Vicky Ramdall credit the acquisition of the right to vote as one of the main achievements of the first wave of American feminism.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were the leading lights in the American suffrage movement. Both were active abolitionists - Stanton, the social activist and Mott the Quaker Minister met at the Anti-Slavery convention in London in 1840. It is said that the 19th century suffrage movement in the USA was born out of the abolitionist movement. One writer stated that, abolition provided the spark that caused the original cadre of suffrage leaders to form organisations. It also proved to be quite divisive. In 1848, Stanton, Mott and a handful of women organized the first women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls.

It was Stanton who drafted a "Declaration of Sentiments" which, among other things, demanded voting rights for women. That controversial resolution was passed due to the support of Frederick Douglas a friend of Stanton's who attended and spoke at the convention.

After the civil war both women lobbied against the 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution granting African American men the right to vote because they felt it would militate against the granting of the franchise to women.

Angry that her former abolitionist colleagues would not join her in demanding that the writing of the two amendments be changed to include women, she declared "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever write for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman." Her rhetoric became racist in tone and she wanted to restrict the vote to wealthy and educated white women. According to one writer, she and other suffragettes felt that white women should be enfranchised to help maintain white supremacy. She is said to have declared that it would be "a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk into the Kingdom first." On the other hand, her friend and colleague Lucretia Mott tried to reconcile the differences between the two factions into which the American Equal Rights Association had been split over the question of "women suffrage and black male suffrage and the difference between Elizabeth Stanton and Lucy Stone as to whether the immediate goal of the women's movement should be suffrage for freedmen and all women or suffrage for freedmen first. Mott herself after 1865 advocated that the franchise should be extended to black Americans. Ultimately in the USA where the decision to grant or not to grant the suffrage was a state and not a federal right the US constitution was changed five times by the amendments 15th (1870), 19th (1920), 23rd (1961), 24th (1969) and 26th (1971) to prevent states from limiting suffrage. The final of those amendments extended the franchise to those 18 years and over.

In the next article the focus would be on the struggle for the suffrage regionally and nationally and an assessment of how Guyanese women have voted in political and other elections over the decades.


In the previous article the struggle for women's suffrage in Europe especially Britain and the United States of America was examined. Eventually with the passing of the 19th amendment to the US constitution in 1920 and the Representation of the People's Act of 1928 in Britain, universal adult suffrage was granted to the women of those countries. The history of the fight for the suffrage in the region specifically the English speaking Caribbean was totally different. In the almost one century which it took women of Britain to win universal adult suffrage, the women and men of the British Caribbean were chattel slaves, then apprentices and Creole peasantry whose numbers were increased by the addition of indentured immigrants. As non white peoples, their struggle was influenced by Victorian notions of race and the perceptions of their ability to understand and appreciate the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship which included the right to exercise their franchise. It is against this background that the struggle for women's suffrage in the region and Guyana will be discussed.

The Struggle for the Franchise in the Rest of the Caribbean

The passage of the great Reform Bill in 1832 which saw the first unsuccessful attempt to extend the franchise to British women had significance for the Caribbean. That act brought into prominence in the House of Commons a new group mainly of Industrialists whose wealth had not been derived from the slave colonies of the Caribbean. The emancipation act passed in 1833 brought chattel slavery to an end. The Colonial office and the anti-slavery lobby were persuaded by the plantocracy that the emancipated peoples were "barbarous" and "uncivilized" and would benefit from the civilizing influence of the plantation. It was therefore necessary to continue to bolster the sugar economy and with it the dominance of the planter class in the decision making institutions of the colonies. Most of the colonies were governed under the aegis of the Old Represen-tative System of government where members of the Assemblies were elected by those eligible to vote. Prior to the emancipation of the slaves the right to vote was based on the ownership of at least 25 slaves and this now became the ownership of land, property, annual income and the payment of taxes.

But the colonial office soon found itself in the horns of a dilemma. The strenuous resistance of the plantocracy to abolition and emancipation indicated clearly that they had little intention of helping to prepare the masses for the responsibilities of citizenship or sharing its benefits with them. The Colonial Office presumed that the bulk of the society owned little property, were illiterate and uneducated and therefore not of black or white". The notion of "Imperial Trusteeship" emerged as the means of dealing with the dilemma. Under the aegis of Crown Colony government, the crown through the governor and a nominated majority would continue to be the controlling authority while the bulk of the population acquired the education to understand the intricacies of representative institutions. More importantly, with the control over finance the governor would not only ensure that the masses received the necessary education but also improved socio economic conditions.

In 1865, two years before John Stuart Mill made an unsuccessful attempt to secure the franchise for women in the Second Reform Act, the Morant Bay Rebellion by the mainly black masses of Jamaica caused panic among the white and coloured elites who dominated the colony's political institutions. They were persuaded to give up their representative institutions. Many of the older colonies except Barbados soon followed suit. Within a decade or so, it was clear that despite the controlling authority of the crown, the promises made could not be delivered. As early as the mid 1870's in Jamaica, then in Trinidad and British Guiana, there were first cautious but - as the economic depression of the 1880's took hold - increasingly strident demands for constitutional reform. The extension of the franchise was an integral part of the demands for constitutional reform.

The literature is silent on the role of women in the agitation for constitutional reform including the extension of the franchise. Unlike their counterparts in Britain and the USA, middle class Caribbean women did not become suffragettes or establish associations specifically for the purpose of gaining the franchise for women.

However, in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, while Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters and other British suffragettes were chaining themselves to railings, committing arson and being thrown in jail, they were establishing women's organizations to assist needy women and children. It was also quite clear the Caribbean men who dominated political decision making, shared the same negative perceptions in respect of the role of women in society and their participation in public life including the right to exercise their franchise. For example, in Jamaica, in the proposals for the extension of the franchise it was agreed that large numbers of "illiterate" and "ignorant" voters should not be enfranchised. To this end it was decided to enfranchise "all males of full age" with certain property qualification. Initially, a literacy qualification was included but later abandoned but again reimposed in 1893. This requirement further disadvantaged women. Clearly there was no desire to extend the franchise to women.

Prior to the implementation of universal adult suffrage in Jamaica in 1944, the major property and income qualifications were designed to exclude women from acquiring the franchise. Where payment of rents on property was a requirement, men had to pay 10 shillings per annum and women £2, in the case of taxes for men it was £1.10 shillings, for women £2. The same thing happened in the several other colonies. Some women were totally debarred from registering as electors. In fact the 1938 Royal Commission declared that all such disabilities between the sexes should be removed but felt that even the grant of rights to women on the same terms as men would not result in the enfranchisement of large numbers of women. Hence, the recommendation for the gradual introduction of universal adult suffrage

The Struggle for the Suffrage in Guyana

The struggle for the suffrage in Guyana was different in certain important respects. Mainly because Guyana was governed by its Dutch inherited political institutions the College of Electors, the only of the three institutions whose members were directly elected by those who had the franchise; the Court of Policy where a system of indirect elections was used and the Combined Court which consisted of the Court of Policy plus six Financial Representatives. This system prevailed with slight modification in 1891 until Crown Colony government was introduced in 1928. In a bid to reduce the influence of the Dutch, Lieutenant Governor Carmichael, instead of restricting the vote to ownership of 25 slaves, extended it to persons paying income tax on an annual income of 10,000 guilders. By not specifically stating men, the proclamation allowed any woman (albeit - white women) the opportunity to exercise the franchise but it was still beyond the reach of the emancipated classes. However, under Ordinance No. 15 of 1849 the franchise was granted to all male inhabitants thus disfranchising women. This was further underscored by a literacy test.

As in the other West Indian colonies the extension of the franchise was an integral part of a more wholistic agitation for constitutional reform in order to increase the participation, first of the black masses and later time-expired immigrants in the decision making process. To this end, there were several abortive attempts at constitutional reform during the 1840's and 50's. All of them retained the restrictive franchise of 1849, as in Trinidad and Jamaica after 1881 there was renewed agitation for constitutional reform viz: the abolition of the Court of Policy, the College of Electors and Combined Court and the introduction of a Legislative Assembly. The change made by Ordinance No 1 of 1891 was the abolition of the College of Electors, the constituting of an Executive Council and direct elections of members of the Court of Policy. The income qualification for the franchise was reduced to $480 and further reduced to $300 in the first decade of the 20th century but continued to be enjoyed only by men. It was not until 1928, the same year that universal adult suffrage was granted to British citizens, that the franchise was once again conceded to the women of British Guiana but with an income and property qualification.

As earlier mentioned the Moyne Commission recommended the gradual introduction of universal adult suffrage. In 1941 the British Guiana Franchise Commission was set up. It recommended a further reduction of the franchise. This was affected under Ordinance No 13 of 1945.

In the post World War period, the whole question of granting the suffrage to women was overtaken by the campaign for universal adult suffrage. This became an integral part of the campaign by the Women's Political and Economic Organisation whose mandate included raising the political consciousness of Guyanese women. Another concession for women in 1945 was the right to run for political office on equal terms with men. Several women including our only woman President Mrs. Janet Jagan stood in that election. Universal Adult Suffrage was introduced by Ordinance No.2 of 1952.

The struggle for women's suffrage had been long and sometimes brutal; the way in which Guyanese women have used that hard won right will be the subject of a future article.