Since the time of primitive tribal societies – where everybody’s voice was more or less equal (determined in part, I suppose by seniority or the size of one’s club) – to modern and all inclusive democracies, man has struggled to find the ideal form of government.
The ancient Athenians made early inroads with a system that recognized the right to vote. It applied to all male citizens, 20 years of age or older. Women, immigrants and slaves didn’t count.
Elected officials also led the Roman Republic. Wealthy Roman patricians, however, perverted the process until it resembled a plutocracy and alas, the Republic died with Caesar.
During the feudal times, the rare election was mostly restricted to a privileged minority. There were some notable exceptions, such as the Icelandic Althing (assembly).
The short lived Corsican Republic was the first state to enshrine in a constitution (1755) the universal right to vote. France bayoneted the concept when they annexed the island in 1767. During their revolution, the French briefly had an all-male suffrage. It became the norm in 1848. French women, however, had to patiently wait out another century (1944).
In the United States, in the early years after independence, only white male property owners were allowed to vote. We had to fight a civil war to grant nominal voting rights to the country’s former slaves. Furthermore, we needed the example set by a remote British dominion to extend the right to women (1920).
On 19 September 1893, the persistence and the determination of women activists in New Zealand, forced the Governor, Lord Glasgow, to sign the Electoral Bill. This extended the right to vote to women. Thus, 27 years before United States of America, New Zealand had the first true, all inclusive democracy in the world. Britain, the mother country, procrastinated until 1928 before women were allowed access to the polls.
Today, democracy and the rule of law are ubiquitous in the vast majority of the developed countries. USA is promoting and encouraging democratic transition throughout the world. With elections around the corner, we need to remember to vote and to cherish this right.
It was so hard to get.
Timeline of women’s right to vote in the USA: