DDBspotlight: 105 years of women’s suffrage in Germany

By Wiebke Hauschildt (Online Editor)

The Pitcairn Islands are one of the last British overseas colonies, lying in the middle of the Pacific, 5,000 kilometres away from New Zealand and 5,400 kilometres away from South America. Despite many efforts to settle more people on the island, there are now only 50 residents, all of them directly descended from mutineers on HMS Bounty. What makes this remote island in the Pacific so special is that in 1838 its women were the first in the world to be granted a permanent right to vote. In Germany, women had to wait for another 80 years, being first allowed to vote in November, 1918

A procession of women demonstrating on ‘International Women’s Day’ in the streets of Berlin for their right to vote. (19th March, 1912) Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

From the first demands for the right to vote till international women’s day

The French author and activist for women’s rights, Olympe de Gouges, was born in Montauban in 1748. She was forced into marriage at the age of 17 and gave birth to her first son at the age of 18. Shortly thereafter her husband died and she moved to Paris. The French revolution made her an activist for women’s rights then she wrote her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens) in 1791: ‘A woman has the right to mount the scaffold and should also have the right to mount a rostrum.’ Olympe de Gouges called for the full legal, social and political equality of women and declared the new French regime to be tyrannous. In the summer of 1793 she was jailed and in November of the same year guillotined.
About forty years later the first petition for women’s suffrage was filed in Great Britain, whereas in Germany the author and supporter of women’s rights, Hedwig Dohm, was one of the first to support their right to vote in her pamphlet Der Frauen Natur und Recht. Zur Frauenfrage (The Nature and Right of Women) in 1876.

These early voices mostly went unheard, and it was not till the end of the 19th century that the first women’s movements arose in North America and Europe, culminating in 1911 in the First International Women’s Day. In that year nearly a million women demonstrated in the USA and Europe for their rights, especially for the right to vote.

Leaflet on ‘Women’s Right to Vote’ by Clara Zetkin (2nd March, 1913) Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

The idea for an International Women’s Day came originally from the USA. It was taken up by the international socialist Women’s Conference, chaired by Clara Zetkin and endorsed in Copenhagen by more than 100 delegates from 17 European countries and the USA in 1910. ‘In agreement with the proletariat’s class-conscious political and trade-union organizations in their country, the socialist women of all countries are to hold a Women’s Day once a year, which is mainly to serve the agitation for women’s right to vote. The demand is to be examined within the framework of the whole question of women from the socialist point of view. Women’s Day must have an international character and be carefully prepared.’ (Source: LEMO)
The date chosen in Germany was the 19th of March in memory of the revolutionary days of March in 1848 and the beginning of the Paris Commune in 1871. Clara Zetkin, born in 1857 in Wiederau in Saxony, had been in touch with the women’s and workers’ movement in Leipzig since 1874 and printed a special issue of her newspaper Die Gleichheit (Equality) for the third International Women’s Day in March 1913. The subject was women’s right to vote, about which she wrote:
‘More than a hundred years have passed since women laid their hands as sisters in one another in France in the great revolution. They wished to have strength in unity, and they needed it, for they were separately too weak. Did they not wish to help to create a new social world, which was starting to emerge in hard struggles from a chaos of opposing interests and opinions among the people?
This world, the women said, is still unfinished but may become perfect, indeed it must become perfect if only its true nature breaks through, and this lies, invulnerable and unbreakable, in human nature itself; it is the right born with us to have liberty, equality and fraternity. Reason and justice make of it the supreme law, which has to rule human relationships and thereby social institutions.’
On the first International Women’s Day on the 19th of March, 1911, 45,000 women demonstrated in Berlin for their right to vote. The organisation of the day was borne mainly by the SPD and the unions, which then reaped the benefit: the number of female members of the SPD rose from about 82,000 to 107,000.

‘Women at a ballot box’ (postcard from about 1920), Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

12th of November, 1918

With the end of the First World War the goal of the International Women’s Day was reached: on the 12th of November 1918, the Council of People’s Representatives proclaimed universal, secret and direct suffrage for men and women from 21 years of age. In the same year, in Austria, Poland and Russia too, women were granted full voting rights. In January 1919, 82 percent of the women entitled to vote did so for the first time and 37 women gained seats in parliament.
The social democrat Marie Juchacz from Berlin spoke on the 19th of February, 1919, as the first woman in the Weimar National Assembly: ‘I would like to state here … that we German women do not owe this government thanks in the traditional sense of the word. What this government did was a matter of course: it gave women what, until then, had been wrongly withheld from them.’

At present, nearly 200 items about women’s right to vote can be researched at the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek – most of which come from our data partner, the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum)

Search for Frauenwahlrecht (women’s right to vote) in the DDB: