Tuesday, April 22, 2014

History of Women’s Suffrage – Fighting for the Right to Vote

By Raakhee Suryaprakash

This post is the first in a series devoted to the ongoing Elections in India

Image from Pixabay
Election fever is on in India and with 814 million people scheduled to pick the leader of over a billion Indians it totally makes sense! As of this writing 5 phases of polling is over and there was phenomenally high turnout...the writing on the wall is change. India has voted for 232 of the 543 seats of its sixteenth parliament. The fate of my country has basically been decided before my state goes to polls on April 24th! The fifth phase on April 17th was the largest covering 121 constituencies in 12 states. The numbers alone are mind-blowing. Hat’s off to the Indian democratic process and the Election Commission (EC) despite all niggles.
 What first got me hooked to this topic was Tata Tea’s latest Jaagore (which in Hindi means Wake Up!) campaign which calls for Indian women to harness the power of 49 (the fact that we are 49% of the population eligible to vote) and vote for a government that will help and empower us. I especially like the “kala tika” (black dot) bit where the women clients in the beauty parlour mistakenly think the manicurist/pedicurist is referring to the black spot people use to ward off evil to protect herself instead of a pepper spray when actually the savvy young worker implies that she votes responsibly and chooses a candidate who’d ensure her safety. I guess the copywriters behind this ad campaign had a pretty solid grasp on the pulse of the nation as its been predicted and witnessed in the polling till now that women are turning up in large numbers to exercise their franchise. Or maybe like the riddle of the chicken and the egg this and other campaigns (e.g., Indian MNC Aditya Birla group’s Idea Cellular “No oolloo banaoing – meaning no making a fool of us – ads for its pan-India integrated GSM operations) cause-effect is indistinguishable and it’s impossible to say for sure what/who influenced and what/who was influences! The high turnout of women coming out of their homes to exercise their franchise is also a result of many measures taken by the EC as well as a natural consequence of the need for change.

Suffrage & Representation: India
With Indian women being a major part of the freedom struggle right alongside their menfolk – be it civil disobedience, the Dandi March, the Quit India Movement, or training alongside Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA – the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, women managed to secure the right to vote and shape India’s constitution right when the nation was born in 1947. Nearly 67 years down the line, despite poor representation and the repeated shelving of the Women’s Reservation bill we’ve had a woman president, a woman prime minister, multiple women chief ministers, a significant number of women politicians although a minority of members of parliaments and state legislative assemblies (MPs & MLAs).  Personally I think our greatest victory other than securing the right to vote has been securing 33% reservation in Panchayati Raj institutions – India’s local grassroots institutions. A victory celebrated annually since 1994 as Women’s Political Empowerment Day to commemorate when the 73rd Constitutional Amendment with the provision of “not less than one-third seats reserved for women” became Part IX of the Indian Constitution on 24th April 1993. I guess it’s appropriate that it’s the date of the sixth phase of polling when my home state Tamil Nadu goes to polls!

Women’s Right to Vote – The World’s Oldest Democracy and Beyond
Women in America – the world’s oldest democracy – got the right to vote through the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed by the U.S. Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920. This was half a century after it passed the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869 which gave black men the right to vote but ended the hopes of feminist activists to vote alongside African American men. According to Sarah Roth the Chair of the History Department in Widener University “This emphatic reiteration of women’s formal exclusion from the American political system severely tested the alliance between black male and white female activists that had persisted up through the Civil War. White women who had fought for emancipation and black men who had supported women’s rights no longer seemed to have the same interests at heart, once black men were at least technically welcomed into the polity and allowed to exercise rights that were deemed manly by American society.”

Stephen Kantrowitz in the book Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War gives a plausible excuse “Martial manhood, once a critical but missing component of the African American struggle for full civil equality ... had become the sine qua non of political citizenship, and the full enfranchisement of men left women ... behind.” 

Lily Maxwell was the first woman to vote in Britain in 1867. Wikipedia’s entry on Women’s Suffrage gives a pretty comprehensive list on when women across the world first secured the right to votes. It’s sad to note that in Saudi Arabia, where even women driving cars is a crime, predictably women have yet to gain the right to vote or represent their fellow citizens.  “Women were denied the right to vote or to stand for the local election in 2005, although suffrage was slated to possibly be granted by 2009, then set for later in 2011, but suffrage was not granted either of those times. In late September 2011, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud declared that women would be able to vote and run for office starting in 2015.” It is to be hoped that this promise at least is fulfilled!