A good friend of mine reminded me of an anniversary I should have remembered: on this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, prohibiting any citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. This was a culmination of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, which for decades fought at both state and national levels to achieve the vote (indeed, the amendment had first been introduced by suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton many years earlier in 1878).
Prior this amendment, suffrage for women varied across the country, as the U.S. Constitution allows states to determine qualifications for voting. Since the nation’s independence, only New Jersey had allowed a limited form of women’s suffrage, which was revoked in 1807; the majority of states did not start granting some form of suffrage until the turn of the 20th century, not long before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.
In 1971, Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced legislation designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day; since then, every president has issued a public proclamation for the commemoration.
The full text of the resolution is as follows:
- WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and 
- WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;
- WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and
- WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
- NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as “Women’s Equality Day,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place
The U.S. was among the earliest nations to allow women to vote, but not the very first. Several polities that were briefly or questionable independent had allowed women suffrage for a time, including the Corsican Republic (1755), the Pitcairn Islands(1838), the Isle of Man (1881), and Franceville (1889). Moreover, there were some localities within particular realms, such as in Sweden and Colonial America, as well as among Amerindian groups like the Iroquois, that allowed some form of political participation for women.
But to keep it simple, we will start with what most scholars consider to be the first country to grant women suffrage: New Zealand, then an autonomous British colony, which granted allowed women the right to vote in 1893. It was followed two years later by fellow self-governing British colony South Australia; when Australia was formed in 1901, it allowed female suffrage one year later.
The first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, which elected the world’s first female members of parliament in 1907. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913. It was not until after the First World War that many European, Asian, and African countries allowed women to vote, including most of the Western Hemisphere. Several countries did not adopt such measures until the mid to late 20th century, including France in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952 ,Switzerland in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984.
Among the most recent nations to join the trend are Namibia (1989), Samoa (1990), Qatar (1997), Bahrain (2002), Oman (2003), and finally the United Arab Emirates (2006, although suffrage is limited for men and women alike). Saudi Arabia remains the only country — unless you count Vatican City, the seat of the Papacy — where women cannot vote nor run for office, although it will presumably allow for both in 2015.
In any case, we have come a long way, even though voting is hardly the only area of concern for women’s rights. Check out this Atlantic article to see where women stand in various metric of well-being — from longevity to reproductive rights — across the world.