This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.
Violent conflict, especially at the scale of a total war or revolution, creates a rupture in the society that undertakes the war. This rupture is felt personally from the loss of individuals, especially young men who perished in the fighting. It is also felt structually, as the elites that led a country into a war must reckon with the cost imposed for pursuing it or risk being tarred as failures and expelled form power, allowing new elites to assume their position in society.
In “War, Revolution, and the Expansion of Women’s Political Representation,” Aili Mari Tripp looks at how certain ruptures create paths for the expansion of women’s rights, most notably suffrage and representation in national government.
By examining the expansion of women’s rights after the World Wars, independence movements, and revolutions, Tripp writes, “I highlight a notable pathway by which women’s rights expansions occurred: conflict led to changes in the political elite and ruling class, resulting in the necessity to rewrite constitutions and other rules of the polity.”
In maintaining universal suffrage as a condition of post-war settlement, newly independent nations were able to align to an international norm, even if it had to be won through blood and struggle.
World Wars I and II factor largely into this because their ends saw either the direct or draw-out dissolution of multiethnic empires, from which new ethno-nationalist states were created that could define citizenship in new ways. For example, “Women won the right to vote in at least 24 European countries in the six years following World War I with the demise of large empires such as the Ottoman, Russian, German, and the Austro-Hungarian Empires and the formation of new nations,” writes Tripp.
Decolonial wars, like those waged following World War II against some settler states in Africa, saw an expansion of suffrage along racial and gender lines, where previously suffrage had existed across the white settler population, and war’s resolution expanded it to cover all in the nation. In maintaining universal suffrage as a condition of post-war settlement, newly independent nations were able to align to an international norm, even if it had to be won through blood and struggle.
Revolution, too, creates a rupture from which new rights can be carved.
“Women had sought suffrage for some time, but it was during Finland’s bid for autonomy that the czar granted their demands for a new unicameral parliament and universal suffrage at the national level,” writes Tripp. “In Russia, women won the right to vote in the context of the 1917 Russian Revolution.”
Looking to more modern times, formal and informal gender quotas as part of post-war settlements have ensured greater participation and equality of representation in countries like Rwanda, Algeria, and Namibia, as well as Neap, East Timor, Serbia, and Nicaragua.
“Revolutions, civil wars, and wars of independence that resulted in changes in political power and in class or economic forces created opportunity structures (e.g., peace talks, electoral and constitutional reform processes) that opened up possibilities for actors such as women’s movements to press for reforms,” writes Tripp, noting that while not required, the presence of women’s movements before the war was more likely to guarantee such changes afterward.