Women’s suffrage is currently valid in the vast majority of countries. The first in Europe to receive the right to elect and be elected in 1906 were women of Finland, who was then still part of the Russian Empire. In the rest of Russia, women received the opportunity to participate in the elections only in 1917.
Around the same time, in the wake of revolutionary transformations in Europe, women’s suffrage was also introduced in most Central European states. In the agrarian southeast of Europe, in countries with an authoritarian regime and powerful monarchist traditions, gender justice in the electoral system has triumphed after the Second World War. Switzerland and Liechtenstein were the last to equalize their women in suffrage.
Women’s suffrage in Europe
In Germany, women have not participated in elections for centuries. The role of women in a patriarchal society (kinder, kyuhe – cuisine, kirche) was considered obvious and was not the subject of discussion. This state of affairs remained until global emancipation pushed the Germans to fight for their rights.
Even during the reign of the Kaiser in Germany, an active women’s movement was formed, thanks to which Germany was at the forefront of European countries that equalized women with men in political rights. This happened after the defeat of the Kaiser empire in World War I, during the creation of the Weimar Republic.
Women’s suffrage: Step to democracy
Immediately after the victory of the November Revolution on November 12, the new interim Social Democratic Government of Germany proclaimed equal suffrage for men and women and secured this legal innovation in the form of a law on November 30, 1918.
The evolution of women’s suffrage in Germany from the beginning of the century to the present day is being reconstructed by a large-scale exhibition in the Frankfurt Historical Museum. The exhibition “Ladies choose! 100 years of women’s suffrage” opens a program of anniversary events dedicated to the centenary of women’s suffrage in Germany, which will be held throughout the remaining year and will continue in 2019. The exhibition was prepared with the assistance of the Archive of the German Women’s Movement in Kassel. Exposition curator Dorothee Linnemann noted in an interview with DW: “We decided that women’s suffrage is one of the most important steps towards the achievements of today’s democracy.”
Women’s rights and fashion
How limited was the socio-political life of women in Europe, in the literal sense of the word, fashion shows. For many centuries, the Frankfurt exhibition reminds us, women were chained in suffocating corsets, which gave their figures outlines that were pleasant to the male eye. But already in 1910 there were short dresses for playing tennis.
But women had to compete for the right to enter sports arenas. Some popular sports for a long time remained exclusively male prerogative. In 1955, for example, the German Football Association (DFB) banned women’s football because it “destroys the body and soul of a woman.”
Almost 450 exhibits – not only from the German archives, but also from all over Europe – show in Frankfurt how the brave pioneers of the emancipation of universal suffrage achieved. The struggle for the right to choose and be elected became a spark, from which the flame of the women’s movement ignited. The struggle was also for equal rights in choosing a profession, for the right of a woman in Germany to become a doctor, for the opportunity to obtain a degree.
The exhibition at the Frankfurt Historical Museum pays particular attention to the position of women at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, a female movement with centers in Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, Leipzig, Bremen and Frankfurt was gaining strength throughout the German Reich. “Already at the time of Kaiser Germany, German society began to undergo radical changes,” the curator explains. With the disappearance of corsets and dresses to the floor, social restrictions gradually disappeared: the shorter the skirts became, the more freedom of movement appeared for women.
Women’s suffrage: Is equality achieved?
The struggle on the political front was more difficult. Politically engaged women maintained contacts with like-minded people throughout Europe and exchanged news of their successes. In 1912, conservative forces, however, founded the German Confederation Against Female Emancipation, an open challenge to the emancipation aspirations of women.
For the first time, German women took advantage of suffrage in the general parliamentary elections in 1919. But already in 1933, passive suffrage from the Germans was taken away by the National Socialists. Hitlerite Germany abolished almost all of the democratic innovations of the Weimar Republic and revived with the help of propaganda the patriarchal notions of the superiority of men. Women had to give birth to new soldiers – that was what was considered during the “Third Reich” their main purpose.
Gender equality in the electoral system was restored in Germany only in 1949. In West Germany, the classical distribution of roles has continued for a long time: men went to work, women did housework and raised children.
And today, as Dorothee Linneman notes, not all the demands of the pioneers of the women’s movement have been fulfilled. “Although women’s suffrage has been around for so many years,” the curator concludes, “we’re still far from having women and men equally involved in the political process.”