Hannes Richter

Women’s Suffrage in Austria

Hannes Richter
Women’s Suffrage in Austria

Top photo: Austrian Parliament. Parlamentsdirektion/ Christian Hikade

 

An Overview

By Hannes Richter

The roots of women’s suffrage movement in general can be found in the 18th century: Olympe de Gouges, widely regarded as being the first champion of female suffrage, published her declaration of rights of the woman and the female citizen (Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne) after the French Revolution in 1791.

De Gouges was arrested two years later and executed in 1793. During the 19th century, industrialization, urbanization and the corresponding societal changes led to increasing demands for representation and political integration of previously disenfranchised groups, ranging from the bourgeoisie to workers. However, gender equality initially was not part of this bourgeois revolution, despite a few demonstrations by female workers like those taking to the street in Austria in August 1848, protesting a misogynist wage policy.The struggle for the right to vote for women would eventually last for decades and was subject to a variety of factors, including the war economy. The following provides an outline of the history of the women’s vote in Austria.

Assembly Hall of the Reichsrat, 1902. Austrian National Library

Assembly Hall of the Reichsrat, 1902. Austrian National Library

 

Ambivalences of the Austrian Suffragette Movement

In order to understand the Austrian suffragette movement, one has to reflect not only on the general political dynamics of the day, but also on the major differences between its two major strands - the bourgeois-liberal and the social democratic suffragette movements.

Both movements did mostly operate on their own and without much overarching cooperation; as a result, the movement did not develop a large, common base like it did in the United States. The Austrian suffragettes’ efforts were informed by political realities and ideology; mainly by the bourgeois ideals of separate spheres of action for men and women in society (gender dualism) on one hand and the somewhat ambivalent position of the Social Democrats regarding the female vote on the other.

Genderspecific dualism, prevalent in Austrian society and supported by the influential Catholic Church, was also reflected in the bourgeois women’s movement. Prescribed by leading theorists of the Christian Social Party like Franz Martin Schindler, the concept of gender dualism was rooted in natural differences between the sexes that precluded women from performing certain functions based on their physical and mental uniqueness, essentially limiting them to motherhood and the household.

Political participation of women according to this view was unthinkable and viewed as a reversal of the natural order and ultimately as seditious. Consequently, the ideology of the christian-social suffragette movement was ambivalent and focused on giving the female condition a positive spin: some of its protagonists like Marianne Heinisch argued that women should not be drawn into the “dirty struggle” of politics, while Auguste Fickert maintained that women were to answer a higher calling, a “decent reorganization of the world”, detached from the ordinary, everyday struggles between the political parties.

This view of the woman as the better, more decent gender was prevalent until the early 20th century. On the other side of the political spectrum, the social democratic movement, too, emphasized positive female qualities as well as the concept of motherhood in order to underline women’s suitability for political office on the communal level. However, the ideological backbone of the social democratic movement was a vastly different one – the struggle for political rights was fought by women hand in hand with their male comrades and at the center of this movement was not the difference between the sexes but ideological issues like economic suppression and class differences.

Hence, women’s suffrage in this context was viewed as one step towards liberation of the entire working class. Some women within the social democratic spectrum, however, did voice concern regarding women’s suffrage because they believed women to be reactionary and clerical (“verpfafft”). In general, the Left was concerned about conservative attitudes of women, as well as about the movement’s “distractive” effects on the larger goal of universal suffrage for men. Given the significant ideological differences between the two suffragette movements in Austria, their limited cooperation and overlap is not surprising.

 

Struggles for Reform

The bourgeois revolution of March 1848 yielded Austria’s first, albeit short-lived constitution (the so-called Pillersdorf constitution), which delegated the legislative process to the bi-cameral Associations, hoping to create a platform for all women’s interests. The League has always been vocal in its support for women’s suffrage, more so than the conservative General Austrian Women’s Association or the Social Democrats, who continued to focus primarily on working conditions and class struggle. Social democratic women had to follow the party discipline and women’s suffrage often had to take a backseat to the party’s primary political goals, including the universal suffrage for men.

Nevertheless, the Social Democrats were the first to include universal suffrage regardless of gender into their party program. It was not until 1907 that the monarchy introduced comprehensive suffrage for men: out of fear of unrest inspired by the Russian revolution of 1905. The so-called Beck’s electoral reform, named after one of the proponents of electoral reform, Max Wladimir von Beck, abolished the electoral curiae and bestowed active franchise to men aged 24 or higher and passive suffrage to men aged 30 or higher.

By the abolition of the curiae system, women found themselves fully disenfranchised, as voting rights even for the few female large estate owners had gone. However, with the goal of universal suffrage for men achieved, efforts were refocused on the introduction of the vote for women, mostly through the international socialist suffragettes movement, culminating in a large rally on Vienna’s grand Ringstrasse boulevard in 1911, the inaugural year of the International Womens’ Day (back then on March 19th). However, demonstrations were not the preferred method of the Austrian suffragettes, who rather took to the pen: their cause was made through publications and petitions.

 

The Catalysis of War and Universal Suffrage

World War I proofed to be a game changer for women’s rights in Austria. With many men away at war, women had to fill the gap and entered the workforce to keep the war economy going. The end of the war and the corresponding disintegration of the Habsburg monarchy made way for the Austrian Republic, which found itself engulfed by societal and political changes that made it virtually impossible to further deny women the right to vote.

On November 12, 1918, the Provisional National Assembly passed a law on state and government reform, which in article nine prescribed an electoral law based on proportional representation and universal, equal, direct and secret vote for “all citizens regardless of gender.” The head of the state chancellery, Dr. Karl Renner, mainly drafted the law and later stated he was aiming to include universal suffrage for women without much fanfare in order to increase its chances of passing.

The elaboration of detailed electoral regulations only prompted few protests but debates about the linking of the female vote and compulsory suffrage. The CSP’s concern was rooted in its ability (or lack thereof) to mobilize its female base. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, supported female suffrage unconditionally, but suggested that men and women should cast their vote in differently colored envelopes.

In the end, the new electoral regulations of the young Austrian Federal Republic were passed on December 18, 1918. Prostitutes, however, remained excluded from the polls until 1923. Between 1920 and 1930, differently colored envelopes were used to monitor female electoral behavior. It is noteworthy that different envelopes were used for state- and local elections in Vienna until 1996, while they were not used elsewhere after the end of World War II.