114 years ago, most women in Australia won the right to vote. But it wasn’t just handed to them – they had to demand it.
The first international votes for women came sporadically during the 19th century. Women in Sweden and Scotland won some local voting rights, and Great Britain opened local elections—but only to unmarried women who also owned property.
Australia became the first country in the world to give most women the right to vote and the right to stand for the Commonwealth Parliament. Indigenous people as a group were not granted suffrage in federal elections until 1962, although South Australia granted suffrage to Aboriginal women as early as 1894.
Our neighbours in New Zealand were the first country to grant voting rights to all women, the result of years of suffragette meetings across the country.
Australian suffragettes [Image: National Library of Australia]
Every time a nation’s women won voting rights, it was a significant victory; but it didn’t usually mark the end of the fight for equal political rights in their country. Even in countries where women won suffrage comparatively early, the victory wasn’t always for all women—early laws often reinforced existing racial and class hierarchies.
Though the 19th Amendment made it legal for women to vote in 1920, Native Americans weren’t considered citizens until 1924, and couldn’t vote in every state until 1957. African American women couldn’t vote in the South before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And then there were the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, which the 19th Amendment didn’t apply to. (Women won suffrage in Puerto Rico in 1929, and Filipino women won it after the country gained independence the 1940s.)
Crowd of women's suffrage supporters demonstrating in Chicago in 1916 [Image: Shutterstock]
But real political power isn’t always so simple as having or not having a vote. In Saudi Arabia, not everyone thinks the recent milestone for women is a complete victory. According to Ali H. Alyami, the founder and director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, the local officials that Saudi women and men will elect this December “have no power.” He says that all the people with real power are appointed by the king.
Still, Alyami believes that women’s participation “is a very good step, because psychologically speaking it will empower women,” many of whom are already registering to vote and planning their candidacies. Hopefully, this will lead to expanded rights for Saudi women—who can finally go to the polls, but still can’t drive themselves there.