Women’s Suffrage in Japan in the 20th Century

In 1931, the women’s movement might have seemed ready for a great leap forward. Legislation providing restricted suffrage had passed a vote in the Lower House of the Diet. Soon enough, however, that victory proved hollow when the bill failed in the Upper House (Mackie 92). Worse was to come. Shortly thereafter the Japanese government had no time for anything but the pursuit of war on the Asian mainland. Japan’s 1933 withdrawal from the League of Nations confirmed the worsening scenario for civil rights generally. Expansionist and militarist Japan nevertheless produced new roles for women. With the majority of the male population at war, more women prolonged their educations, postponed marriage, and entered the work force (Liddle and Nakajima 127).

While the Japanese government remained committed to women’s subordiantion, war dramatically altered gender relations. Common hardship sometimes brought diverse groups of women into new communion.. Pervasive nationalism and xenophobia left, however, no room to reconsider the dominant political regime.

With the end of the war, women found themselves facing dramatically changed circumstances and ideologies. The United States occupation meant the dismantling of Japan’s ‘ie system’, enshrined in the Civil Code of 1898, which confined women to the home and placed the Emperor and the state before the individual.. American General Douglas MacArthur himself considered the authority of male heads of households as “’feudalistic’ (McClain 549). The entire Japanese community now had to make sense of democracy on the American model. .

Lieutenant Ethel Weed, an American Women’s Information Officer, brought civil code reform to the forefront in Japan through government-sponsored mass media, such as the weekly “Women’s Hour” radio program, which hosted round table discussions on political concerns (Tsuchiya 145). On December 17th, 1945 Japanese women were granted the right to vote (McClain 529). Prior to the 1946 election, the first in which women voted in Japanese history, Weed toured the nation, sponsoring talks on women’s issues and urging their exercise of voting rights (Tsuchiya 149).

67% of eligible women voted. Thirty-nine were elected to the House of Representatives where they represented 8.4 percent of members, a proportion that has not been equaled since (Mackie 124).

Works Cited

Liddle, Joanna and Sachiko Nakajima. Rising Suns, Rising Daughters: Gender, Class and Power in Japan. New York: Zed Books, 2000.

Mackie, Vera. Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2003.

McClain, James L. Japan: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Tsuchiya, Yuka. “Democratizing the Japanese Family: The Role of the Civil Information and Education Section in the Allied Occupation 1945-1952”. The Japanese Journal of American Studies. No. 5 (1993-1994): 137-162.

The History of Women’s Suffrage in Quebec

Casgrain from CBC Archives.

Until the end of the 19th century, women in Quebec enjoyed more possible rights than their counterparts in Canada’s other provinces and territories. In those jurisdictions ruled by Common Law, a wife had no legal existence separate from her husband since, at marriage, a man obtained absolute control of the woman’s person and assets. In Quebec, however, the Civil Code initially permitted women political and legal status (however limited).

Although they were not explicitly granted provincial suffrage until 1940, propertied women in pre-Confederation Quebec, like a few elsewhere in Canada, sometimes voted. This was possible through the Constitutional Act of 1791, which granted certain owners and tenants qualified voter status without distinction to sex. Some women interpreted this act—which was later clarified as a “constitutional oversight” rather than an act of feminism—as an authorization to vote. Female property holders in Quebec consistently voted in elections from 1809 until at least 1834. In 1849 the “historical irregularity” was rectified and the word “male” was inserted into Quebec’s franchise Act to formally prohibit women from voting.

Historian John Makoff has argued that the Quebec shutdown was likely a cross-border reaction to the founding moment of the US women’s rights movement at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. This event may also have spurred the eastern Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to alter the gender-neutral language of their electoral laws to explicitly disqualify women in 1848 and 1851, respectively (Makoff 2003: 89). When even small numbers of women attempted to give silence a more favorable spin, lawmakers responded with formal exclusion.

Joining suffragists across Canada, the suffrage movement became active in Quebec in the early 20th century. Francophone and Anglophone women allied in the National Council of Women (founded 1893) and the former in the Fédération nationale St.-Jean-Baptiste (FNSJB; founded 1907) supplied the first activists. The FNSJB was, however, severely limited by the opposition of the Catholic Church.

Canada enfranchised most women at the national level in 1918, two years ahead of the industrial giant to its south. Suffrage campaigns then focused on local capitals. Quebec was the last of the provinces and territories to legislate the female franchise. This occurred at the beginning of World War Two (1939-1945) under a new Liberal government anxious to establish more progressive credentials. Between 1918 and 1940, Quebec suffrage campaigns were led by activists such as Thérèse Casgrain (1896-1981), Idola St. Jean (1880-1945), and Carrie Derick (1862-1941).


Markoff, J. (2003). “Margins, Centers, and Democracy: The Paradigmatic History of Women’s Suffrage.” Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29 (1), 85-116.


Future Reading:

Black, N. and Brandt, G.C. (1999). Feminist Politics on the Farm: rural Catholic Women in Southern Quebec, and Southwestern France. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Casgrain, T. F. (1972). A Woman in a Man’s World. J. Marshall, translator. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (Also published in French under the title: Une Femme chez les hommes.)

Casgrain, T. (1993). Une femme tenace et engagée. Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université du Québec.

Cleverdon, C. L. (1950). The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Collectif Clio. (1982). L’histoire des femmes du Québec. Quinze, Montréal.

Lamoureux, D. (1989). “Citoyennes? Femmes, droit de vote et démocratie.” Montréal: Les Éditions remue-ménage.

Laplante, L. (1990). “Les femmes et le droit de vote: L’épiscopat rend les armes.” Cap-aux-Diamants, 21, printemps, pp. 23-25.

Trifiro, L. (1978). “Une intervention à Rome dans la lutte pour le suffrage feminine.” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, 32 (1), pp. 9-18.

Women’s Social and Political Union

Active in Britain c 1903-1914; major militant suffrage group; formed in Manchester, England, at home of Emmeline Pankhurst; included many socialist and working-class women; activists included Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Dora Montefiore, Ursula Bright, and Hannah Mitchel; journal Votes for Women.

Further reading:

Sandra Stanley Holton, ‘Women’s Social and Political Union (act. 1903–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/view/theme/95579, accessed 20 Nov 2011]

E. Crawford, Women’s suffrage movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey (NY: Routledge, 2005)

S. S. Holton, Feminism and democracy: women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Martin Pugh, The March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage, 1866-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

S. S. Holton, Suffrage days: stories from the women’s suffrage movement (London: Routledge, 1996)

S. S. Holton, ‘“In sorrowful wrath”: suffrage militancy and the romantic feminism of Emmeline Pankhurst’, British feminism in the twentieth century, ed. Harold L. Smith (Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 7–24

J. Liddington and J. Norris, One hand tied behind us: the rise of the women’s suffrage movement (London: Virago, 1978); new edn (2000)

J. Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: a biography (London: Routledge, 2002)

A. Rosen, Rise up, women! The militant campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974)

A. Morley and L. Stanley, The life and death of Emily Wilding Davison (London: Women’s Press, 1988)

L. Tickner, The spectacle of women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907–14 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)