Women & Political Rights

By Moa Jamir


When some women began agitating for the right to vote in 1840s, most observers expressed revulsion, contempt, or disbelief, wrote Susan Goodier of University of Illinois in 2012 analysing the Anti-Suffrage Movement in the United States. But when the movement known as ‘suffragettes’ gained momentum, extreme opposition arose, oddly from women themselves. Women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment, 1920 in US and in 1918 in United Kingdom after decades of struggle. It was a period of “intersection” of traditional and modern ideas, Goodier noted and women suffrage, conservative believed, was “dangers to the society in general.”  “Business and politics are fraught with troubles,” it was argued and the home – the traditional spheres for women was considered as a “refuge, a place from necessary evil of progressive outside world.”


Susan E Marshall (1986) wrote that during the heydays of anti-women suffrage in US (1911-16), the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) was formed in 1911 to coordinate and support the activities of the state associations which by 1916 claimed a total membership of 350,000 and over 25 state organizations working to defeat suffrage. In one pamphlets, it argued that it opposes women suffrage “BECAUSE” – 90% of the women either do not want it, or do not care; it means competition of women with men instead of co-operation; 80% of the women eligible to vote are married and can only double or annul their husband’s votes; and it is unwise to risk the good already in place for the evil which may occur etc. The most frequent argument against woman suffrage was that women were politically incompetent; dominated by heart rather than mind, they would “consider personalities above principles” and govern by impulse, intuition, and hysteria, Marshall wrote. Negative consequences for society (57%); incompetence of female electorate (17%), and destruction of the family (7%) were pre-dominant rhetorics.


An information manual prepared by California State Senator J.B. Sanford entitled, ‘Argument Against Women’s Suffrage, 1911’ stated that, “Suffrage is not a right. It is a privilege that may or may not be granted. Politics is no place for a woman consequently the privilege should not be granted to her (sic).”


“The men are able to run the government and take care of the women…To man, woman is the dearest creature on earth, and there is no extreme to which he would not go for his mother or sister. By keeping woman in her exalted position man can be induced to do more for her than he could by having her mix up in affairs that will cause him to lose respect and regard for her. Woman does not have to vote to secure her rights. Man will go to any extreme to protect and elevate her now. As long as woman is woman and keeps her place she will get more protection and more consideration than man gets. When she abdicates her throne she throws down the scepter of her power and loses her influence.”


The antisuffrage cause was motivated by both status and class concerns –  including a status defense of the homemaker lifestyle, fueled by fears of declining prestige, and also protected class interests, and an attempt to safeguard their own material privileges and prevent the proletarianization which paid employment represented, Marshall concluded.


In the UK, the Anti-Women’s Suffrage League was formed to oppose women’s right to vote. It was rooted in Victorian views about women’s position in society, Marij Van Helmond wrote in ‘Buy Votes for Women: The Events on Merseyside.’ “On the one hand women were considered too precious and innocent to become embroiled in public life, on the other they were thought too irrational and emotional to make an intelligent contribution. Whatever their abilities, their place was thought to be in the home.” Other arguments include that women are already represented by their husbands; It is dangerous to change a system that works; and women do not fight to defend their country.”


In India, at the heights of Women Reservation debates in Parliament, a well-known member reportedly posed in June 1997, “Do you think these women with short hair can speak for women, for our women…” The Women’s Reservation Bill (or 108th Constitution Amendment Bill) was first introduced in September 1996 and since then it’s been reintroduced 3 more times in Indian Parliament and managed to get only the assent of the Rajya Sabha in 2016 thus far. Opponents harp on larger issues of electoral reforms (such as measures to check criminalisation of politics, internal democracy in political parties, influence of black money, etc); “proxies” of female candidates; and empowerment of only “elitist women.”


While equality of sexes is inherently understood to be operative in day to day social existence of Nagas, in polity it is not the reality. Are the aforementioned characteristics visible in the present debate on women reservation?

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