Women and Citizenship

In this blog, Natasha Walker explores the history of women’s citizenship and the push to have their voices heard as agents for democracy.

The front page of the first edition of Australia Woman’s Sphere, published by suffragist Vida Goldstein September 1900. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Vida Goldstein, the namesake of the Australian Women’s History Network’s blog, was a staunch advocate for the rights of women as citizens. Her newspaper, the Australian Woman’s Sphere (1900-1905), was published while the struggle for equal enfranchisement for women on both a national and state level was ongoing in Australia, and was heavily concerned with the rights of women. Time would tell that even when women achieved enfranchisement in Australia, it was not equal, nor open to all, and would remain that way until 1967.

The idea that only women who were citizens could raise their children into citizens was a strong argument of first-wave feminists in the Western world. The idea of motherhood and citizenship – the ‘citizen mother’ – was one used liberally by feminists to argue for social and political equality. It enforced the significance of motherhood and the role of women within familial structures, while maintaining that women deserved citizenship as women – fighting against the ingrained idea that citizenship was only ever referring to men. 

Origins of Citizens

Marie Olympe de Gouges (1741-1819) courtesy of Collection particuliere. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The idea of ‘citizens’ became embedded within democratic thinking from the eighteenth century. Citizenship became about belonging and participation within a community of people, a state, a nation, a country. It was the relationship between the individual and the state, and was originally considered to be a solely masculine role.

As citizenship became an idea, so too did equal citizenship. 

During the French Revolution, men and women fought for liberty, equality and fraternity. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) was a result of the French Revolution, as men outlined their rights as citizens. In response to the lack of acknowledgement of women’s efforts during the revolution, Frenchwoman Olympe de Gouges wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (1791), where she detailed the place of women as citizens within this same structure.

Influenced by de Gouges, as her work spread across the world, Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and further spread the idea of ‘woman citizenship’. The idea of woman citizens evolved steadily over the nineteenth century. Women had a lot to say on the subject, and so did men. Yet what steadily emerged within the late 1840s was an organised effort to gain enfranchisement for women. 

Charlotte Despard, Edith How Martyn and Emma Spronson. Circa 1914. Courtesy of LSE Library. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Citizenship was more than enfranchisement; it was also a significant step in furthering the social and political equality towards which women were aiming. Women struggled for the right to vote not just to participate, but to enact change. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939), prominent and vocal suffragist, wrote in her capacity of President of the Women’s Freedom League in The Vote in 28 October 1909:

‘To us the vote is not a mere shibboleth, a party cry. It is a thing of deep significance… For freedom, for progress, for righteousness, for the building up of a society in which the humanity of women equally with men shall be fully respected — for this we stand, and I earnestly hope that we shall receive such support as may enable us to go forward bravely, joyfully, usefully.’ 

Twentieth-century reformers were determined to change their own lives and thus the fabric of society, and that optimism is evident in their periodicals. It was not just about gaining the right to vote, it was also about using that right. 

The British suffrage newspaper, Common Cause (1909-1933), published by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, discussed the qualifications of citizenship within the current political order in their issue published 16 May 1912: ‘Democracy is the self-government of a people: everyone has an equal share in the collective voice that shall give expression to the collective will. If, at this point, woman is denied this share, we must admit either that we are giving up the principle of Democracy, or that it does not apply to woman.’

Who is allowed to be a citizen? What are the qualifications? Is citizenship based on land ownership, income, class, sex? Is it about where you were born or who you married? Is it based on your criminal record?

These are questions that were debated over the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Indeed, in some ways, these discussions continue today. The definition of who is a citizen remains as significant today as it was three hundred years ago. 

What is Citizenship?

For first-wave feminists, citizenship was about belonging. It was equality under law, the right to have their voices heard, and to enact meaningful change for women and children. Feminists agreed that citizenship and the right to vote would positively affect both their own individual lives, as well as the collective good of society. 

However, once the vote was won, first-wave feminists could not agree on how best to utilise their newfound rights.

Votes for Women yellow pendent. Courtesy of LBJ Library. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

What would citizenship entail? The right to vote? The right to stand for election in local, state and national governments? The ability to serve in a courtroom as judge or jury? When did people get to become citizens? When did they stop?

Within feminist, gender, and women’s history, understanding how citizenship has evolved over time and been understood by women through various points of history provides insight into both collective and individual activism. 

Activist women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were determined to enact change on issues that concerned them, and to make their voices heard as active agents of democracy. Citizenship was essential to their efforts. It seeps into understanding collective identities, migrant experiences, legislative change, suffrage, print culture, community culture and notions of belonging. 

This blog is the first of a new series that will explore these aspects of women and citizenship.

Natasha Walker is a postgraduate student completing a Doctor of Philosophy (History) at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research focus is the transnational influence of the first-wave feminist press in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. She plans to further investigate how women communicated their aims for social and political equality on a transnational scale through feminist print media during her candidature. She co-authored the book chapter “Virtually a Victory”: The Australian Woman’s Sphere and the MainstreamPress During Vida Goldstein’s 1903 Federal Candidature in Voices of Challenge in Australia’s Migrant and Minority Press (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

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