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Women in Parliament, a historical view

Voting rights

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Even in those parts of the world in which women’s quest for equality has been most successful, it took a long time before they began to hold any political positions. The first countries to accept women’s suffrage – generally defined as the combination of the right to vote and the right to run for office, but in some cases limited to only one of those rights – did so only at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries.

Awarding women the right to vote and be elected followed decades of political activism including that of the so-called suffragette movement which originated in France and then particularly marked British society. Very often voting rights were initially granted only to some categories of women e.g. those with a certain level of income or education, or enjoying a particular marital and social status. Sometimes women were granted electoral rights locally but not at national level.

New Zealand and Australia – at the time British Empire territories – were the first countries in the world to introduce women’s suffrage, respectively in 1893 and 1902. The right was granted however only to women of European descent. In New Zealand this involved the right to vote and limited rights to run for office. In 1893 Elizabeth Yates became Mayor of Onehunga in New Zealand, which was the first time a woman held such a post in the British Empire. Two years later women in South Australia (nowadays one of the country’s states) became the first to obtain the right to stand for their Parliament.

In general, colonial countries were often quicker to accept women’s suffrage than European ones. In most of them female suffrage became reality in the period immediately preceding or following independence. This often coincided with the establishment of a Parliament to represent the newly sovereign people.

On the old continent, parliaments remained closed to women until the beginning of the twentieth century. Nordic countries pioneered the establishment of women’s suffrage in Europe. In 1906, Finland (part of the Russian empire at the time) became the first European country to introduce women’s suffrage, which quickly led to the first female representatives being elected. Norway and Denmark soon followed and were then joined by Iceland. In Sweden, a movement to grant women local voting rights had begun as early as 1862, but only as of 1918 could women take part in national ballots. This right was then enshrined in the Constitution in 1921. However, it was not until after the First and then the Second World Wars that many countries in Europe allowed women to vote and stand in parliamentary elections.

Austria was the first of a relatively small number of countries to have ever elected a woman to preside over the Parliament or one of its chambers (with a female President of the Bundesrat in 1927-28 and in 1932). In the other countries concerned, this development took place only after the Second World War.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union at present 37 women preside over a house of one of the world’s parliaments, representing 13.5% of the total number of presiding officers of parliamentary chambers in the world.

Sources

Women’s Suffrage: A World Chronology of the Recognition of Women’s Rights to Vote and to Stand for Election / Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU);

Women in Parliaments 1945-1995: A World Statistical Survey  / IPU;

Women Speakers of national parliaments / IPU;

Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership  / Martin K.I. Christensen.

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