One woman was a scholar, who cast her vote 30 seconds after the polls opened in 1893, in the town of Fielding in New Zealand.

One woman was described by her local newspaper as “a gentle white-haired housewife, Quakerish in appearance,” and cast her vote in 1870 in Laramie, Wyoming.

One woman was a shop owner in the cotton-mill town of Chorlton-Upon-Medlock near Manchester, who voted in a special 1867 by-election for a Member of the British House of Commons.

We seem to be obsessed with firsts. The first person on the moon. The first person to fly an airplane. The first person to accomplish any number of sporting feats. So who was the first woman to cast a vote?

Here in the United States during 2019 and 2020, we’re observing the centenary of the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919-1920. So we can expect lots of popular discussion and social media posts about “the first woman to vote” in the United States or in a particular state. But this is an international podcast, with listeners in over 130 countries, and most of you Buzzkillers will know that the United States was certainly not the first country to grant women the vote. In fact, the American 19th amendment was ratified fifteen years after female suffrage was granted in New Zealand in 1893. And New Zealand is usually considered the first western-style country with a ballot-voting system to grant nation-wide female suffrage.

But I wouldn’t be Professor Buzzkill if I didn’t say, “it’s a lot more complicated than that.” In the first place, different cultures have had lots of different ways of making community decisions, since the dawn of time. And, because of the hundreds of different parish rules, local ordinances, state and national laws, property qualifications, (in some cases) the marital status of potential women voters, and the informal power and influence of some female suffrage pioneers (individually or in groups), it’s impossible to determine who was the “first” woman to cast a vote (or use a ballot) in a modern, western-style election. Having said that, what makes the hunt for the “first woman” so interesting is that it gives us the opportunity to explain the myriad historical complications that determined who was allowed to vote in various countries.

For modern history, however, and in terms of “casting a ballot,” we can kind of narrow it all down this way.

Until the late 19th century, some countries and colonies allowed women who owned property in their own right to vote. Some propertied women in the North American colonies voted in the 17th and 18th centuries, almost always in local or parish “elections” or political decisions. Sweden had limited voting for some women for a good deal of the 1700s, and other countries had different electoral “rules” for different regions, again based on land ownership or having a title to land. The British crown dependency of the Isle of Man granted female property owners the right to vote in 1881.

A great number of western countries passed laws enfranchising women in the early 20th century. But there were some notable holdouts. France didn’t grant full female suffrage until 1948, and Switzerland didn’t grant it until 1971.

Sarah Jane Chubb Foster – New Zealand

Since New Zealand is usually considered the “first” country to grant women the vote, let’s take that case first. It’s also the easiest to explain (although I’d like to talk more about the difference between “colonial electorates” and “Maori electorates in a subsequent show).

Kate Sheppard and other important women led the suffrage effort in New Zealand in the late 19th century. After a long campaign, an electoral bill was passed in September 1893 and a parliamentary election was held relatively quickly after that — in late November and December of 1893. And this election is often called the first parliamentary election in the world where women were allowed to vote.

So who was the first woman to vote in this first election? Fortunately, many good New Zealand historians have helped me with this. It’s pretty clear that large numbers of women in many New Zealand towns lined up at polling places across the country, waiting for them to open at 9am on the first morning of polling — 28 November 1893. But there’s only one surviving report of a woman claiming to be the first woman to vote in New Zealand.

That was Sarah Jane Chubb Foster, in the town of Fielding, which is on the North Island of New Zealand. Listed today on a few New Zealand genealogy sites as a “scholar” (which had several meanings in the 19th century), and as “the wife of Mr T.W.K. Forster” in the Fielding Star newspaper of 29 November 1893, Mrs. Foster apparently voted 30 seconds after her local polling place in Bowen Street, Fielding opened at 9am.

The reports of lots of women waiting at polling places in the early morning of November 28th probably means that many of them could claim to be the “first” to have voted, but the only record we have of someone claiming to have been the first is Mrs. Foster.

Louisa Ann Gardner Swain in United States

The “first woman to vote in the United States” is more complicated than the New Zealand case, mainly because of different voter eligibility requirements both under British colonial rule and in the first two centuries of the United States as an independent country.

Although the 19th amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920, some women had been able to vote in some western territories (which eventually became states) as early as 1870. Wyoming Territory is the most famous of these, and granted female citizens the right to vote in that year. There were multiple (sometimes conflicting) motivations for giving female citizens the right to vote in these western territories. Some people pushed for it on the grounds of women’s rights. But most of the political pressure came from: the desire to increase the territory’s “voting” population (which would help get it more seats in Congress when it became a state) by enfranchising women; and the belief that, if African-American men could vote, then the same right should be granted to white women. These motivations led territorial assemblies in Wyoming in 1870, Utah (also in 1870), Washington (1883), and Montana (1887) to allow adult female citizens to vote.

Now, I just said “female citizens.” That meant something different in the late 19th century than it does now. Native Americans were not considered citizens, and, as we’ve talked about in an earlier show on birthright citizenship, neither were Chinese immigrants in the west, nor the children of those immigrants who had been born on American soil. African-American women citizens were covered by the new voting rights for women in these territories, but there are no reliable reports about how many of them exercised their franchise in the 19th century.

And so, on the 6th of September 1870, a 69-year-old “gentle white-haired housewife, Quakerish in appearance” (as the Laramie Daily Sentinel called her) named Louisa Ann Gardner Swain was the first of 93 women to vote that day in Laramie. She is often considered the first woman to cast a ballot in a general election in the United States. Little else is known about Louisa Swain, but her act of voting is celebrated in Laramie, and in Wyoming in general, to this very day.

Lily Maxwell in Great Britain

The British case of the “first” woman to vote is even more interesting and complicated. Sometimes female voting was restricted to local elections. An 1843 election poll book from the parish of St. Chad’s in Lichfield listed thirty women who owned property voting for the local office of Assistant Overseer of the Poor in that parish. No doubt there were other such local office elections where women voted, but not all election poll books survive from the 19th century, and not all those that have survived have been completely researched.

The female suffrage movement in Britain in the 19th century fought to grant the right of women to vote in national elections for candidates for the British House of Commons. Since the right to vote for members of parliament was restricted to male property owners until late in the 19th century, the female suffrage movement garnered a lot of attention, even half a century before the vote was granted to some British women in 1918.

Enter Lydia Becker, a mid-19th century female suffrage campaigner in Manchester. She and a number of her fellow suffragists noticed that a woman’s name appeared on the 1867 list of property-tax payers in Chorlton-Upon-Medlock, a town near Manchester, and that her name had also been (mistakenly) transferred to the electoral roll because of her property ownership. She was Lily Maxwell, and she owned a small shop selling household goods and some foodstuffs.

So Becker convinced Lily Maxwell to vote for the local member of parliament in the 1867 by-election. Becker even accompanied Lily Maxwell to the poll where she cast her vote. Since this was before the introduction of the secret ballot, voters had to announce their choice out loud to the electoral “returning officer.” Despite the public agitation that Lily Maxwell’s vote caused, the returning officer at the Chorlton polling place had to record her vote because, after all, she was officially (if perhaps mistakenly) listed on the electoral roll.

Lily Maxwell voted for Jacob Bright, a Liberal candidate for that seat, who had been campaigning for female suffrage (as well as dis-armament and other radical things at the time). And Lily’s Maxwell’s vote was part of the majority that elected Bright to that seat.

Other female property owners rushed to have their names added to official electoral rolls, but the Court of Common Pleas denied them in November, 1868, in a ruling that specifically forbade women from voting in British elections.

Conclusion

It’s probably impossible to determine who was the first woman in the world voted in an election. There are simply too many complications and different types of voting “systems” in different countries and cultures to make truly accurate lists and rankings. But what I found most interesting about these cases in this Woman Crush Wednesday episode was that these three women were not prominent suffrage campaigners, were not members of the wealthy and influential set in their hometowns, and were not really public figures at all.
Naturally, we observe and celebrate famous women and other leading reformers who have helped bring about needed change. But we should also try to learn more about these types of women who did the groundwork necessary in gaining women the right to vote.

And even further, as we’ll try to show in forthcoming episodes on female suffrage in the next few months, the “inevitable march of progress” version of the women’s suffrage movement story covers up the real history. There were many different motivations for the urge to pass famous landmark suffrage legislation in various countries. Suffrage campaigners disagreed with each other over how to gain the vote, exactly who should get the vote, and which groups should get the vote first. And the various national legislatures who debated these reforms did so from an even wider range of motivations. It’s as complicated as any other aspect of history we’ve discussed on this show.

So please go to professorbuzzkill.com, follow the contact links for email and social media, and tell me what you’d like to hear about the history of female suffrage in this coming year. We’re planning quite a few episodes on the subject because, of course, it deserves that kind of attention. You Buzzkillers out there also deserve that kind of attention, and we want to hear from you!

Talk to you next week.


Buzzkill Bookshelf

Susan Ware, Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote

Looking beyond the national leadership of the suffrage movement, an acclaimed historian gives voice to the thousands of women from different backgrounds, races, and religions whose local passion and protest resounded throughout the land.