How Women Make the World Safe for Democracy

The suffragists imagined that a greater role for women in democratic politics would lead to a more peaceful world. Few realize how right they were.

By Joslyn N. Barnhart and Robert F. Trager

March 2023

Not all radical social changes are revolutionary, and not all revolutionary changes are noticed. Profound changes sometimes unfold over time; they may even remain invisible for centuries. When the printing press was invented, no one understood that a half-millennium later printed material would create a new form of political allegiance: nationalism. And yet, that seems to be what happened as the prevalence of printed material spurred literacy, creating common political narratives across expanding realms. National identities eventually covered the globe, redrawing political maps and recasting the social order.

The year 1893, as women first gained the right to vote in New Zealand, ushered in a new era—one in which women around the world entered the political realm. People expected profound social change to follow. They spoke in revolutionary terms—with exultancy or fear—of the coming fundamental reordering of society. Women voting en masse would bring a “grand era of moral reform,” wrote Charles Worcester Clark in The Atlantic in 1890. Their votes would give rise to what Elizabeth Cady Stanton had described in 1868 as “a new evangel of womanhood, to exalt purity, virtue, morality . . . to lift man up into higher realms of thought and action.” Political parties centered solely around women’s issues would emerge overnight, pundits predicted, as formidable, unified forces on the political scene, enabling women to dramatically remodel the world in their more virtuous guise.

But this understanding of the meaning of women’s suffrage did not last. As women became voters and leaders, no powerful women’s parties emerged. Women’s politics looked much like men’s politics. Change seemed so distant that women’s periodicals questioned whether the suffrage movement had ultimately failed in its objectives. And this view persists today. Writing of the early expectations in the New York Times, Gail Collins went so far as to call women’s suffrage a “big flop.” A 1999 Gallup poll named women’s suffrage as the second most important event of the twentieth century (World War II was first), tied with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But many would be hard pressed to identify a lasting and significant social or political change brought about by women’s votes. Suffrage is viewed narrowly, as a major step in women’s long march toward equality, but not a source of fundamental political and social change. The advocates of women’s suffrage saw it as a means; we have come to see it as an end.

And yet, could it be that radical change has gone unnoticed and unappreciated? Perhaps women’s entrance into political life has something in common with these long-running processes whose effects were profound but difficult to detect at first. Perhaps the changing political status of women—a process which is ongoing—has created the modern world more than we realize.

In fact, our research finds that the historical facts are strikingly consistent with the idea that women’s inclusion in democratic electorates has been a boon for peace in the modern era. We analyzed the likelihood of militarized disputes erupting between specific pairs of countries over the period 1816 to 2010. It turns out that pairs of autocracies and pairs of early democracies without women’s suffrage were both more than three times more likely to end up threatening, displaying, or using force than were two democracies in which women had the vote. One autocracy and one democracy without women’s suffrage were 4.5 times more likely, and one autocracy and one democracy with women’s suffrage were 3.8 times more likely. Finally, one democracy with suffrage and one democracy without were just as likely to fight as two suffrage democracies.

We also considered a variety of alternative explanations. For instance, how do we know that the extension of suffrage to more of the electorate — men or women — is not the ultimate driving force behind the decline in conflict rather than the extension of suffrage to women in particular? It turns out that in the twenty years after the extension of suffrage to women compared with the twenty years before, countries were 20 percent less likely to initiate conflict. By contrast, when we examine instances in which the vote was extended to men only, we find that increasing the proportion of men eligible to vote increased the likelihood that a state would become involved in a dispute in the following twenty years by 27 percent. In the fifteen years after the British government passed the Representation of the People Act in 1884, which doubled the size the electorate to include 60 percent of all men, Britain initiated no fewer than eight wars with non-European peoples, almost went to war with France over Fashoda in current-day Sudan, and did go to war against the Boers in South Africa.

From the early days of the suffrage movement, the pursuit of peace was seen by many to be one and the same with the pursuit of the vote. Julia Ward Howe, author of the Civil War song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and eventual leader of the American Women Suffrage Association, anticipated that once women freed themselves from their almost military subjection to men, they would exercise their superior moral force in pursuit of global cooperation and compromise. Elizabeth Cady Stanton predicted in 1872 that women’s suffrage would bring not only prosperity but a “golden age of peace.” Such expectations were common. Excessive optimism is indeed a useful trait for any activist and, alas, we do not live in an era of global peace. But the evidence now—more than one-hundred years later—suggests that these early suffragists were on to something.

Deciphering the levers of war and peace, conflict and cooperation, has arguably never been more important. With the number of nuclear weapons on the planet on the rise again, after declining by more than 75 percent from their Cold War peak, and new technologies of violence made possible by advances in artificial intelligence on the horizon, war between great powers today could very well pose an existential threat to the planet. The magnitude of this threat may inspire caution among world leaders, but any resulting peace is a devil’s bargain, struck only through the always-present risk of catastrophic war. A “suffragist peace” provides a firmer foundation for futures of human flourishing.

Democracy itself is also at a crossroads. Signs of disaffection with democratic rule are everywhere, especially among the young. Two-thirds of Americans born in the 1930s believe that it is essential to live in a democracy. Less than one-third of those born half a century later agree. The trend is similarly acute in other democracies around the world. More than half of survey respondents in Argentina, Colombia, India, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan, to name a few, believe that having a strong leader who is unconstrained by parliaments or elections would be a “good way” to run a country. Yet, in some places where democracy does not exist, people remain willing to take immense risks in the hope that they might one day be able to cast a ballot of their own. As many people in long-standing democracies believe their vote too valueless to be worth casting, people elsewhere hazard their lives for the same privilege.

It appears that the effects of women’s suffrage on the international system have approached the hopes and dreams of the suffragists. States with women’s suffrage have been much less likely to fight one another, enabling communities of more pacific countries to form. Often composed of suffrage democracies, these alliances have reinforced other peace-promoting processes, leading some to suggest that the world as a whole has entered a new era of peace — an era which liberal thinkers of the eighteenth century including Montesquieu and Kant had long anticipated. There is, of course, an irony that many today believe these thinkers have been fully vindicated. According to this conventional wisdom, it is as if the often violent history of democracies before women obtained the vote never occurred. The peaceful forecasts of the suffragists, by contrast, are viewed as mere fantasy. In reality, the evidence on the side of the suffragists is stronger.

This is not to say that other factors did not influence the changing nature of international relations in particular parts of the world. Certainly, a large number of factors apart from the ones we explore in this book influence attitudes toward war. Of particular interest are those factors that vary systematically across time and place. Some populations are, for instance, more vengeful than others. These populations retain the death penalty for longer and are also more likely to fight wars. Some populations have a historical sense that their status in the eyes of the world is not what it ought to be, and they too are more likely to use their militaries. Although a host of factors influence moral attitudes and attitudes toward military conflict, women’s attitudes toward conflict remain surprisingly consistent across time and place when compared to those of men.

The process by which the votes of women have altered the international conduct of countries is not simply a matter of historical interest, however. Understanding how and why women’s votes have affected foreign policies around the world offers broader fundamental insights into the present and future workings of democracy and international politics.

The twentieth century witnessed some of the most radical technological, economic, and political change in history. Nuclear weapons dramatically increased the scale and speed with which countries could inflict pain. Capitalism spread in unprecedented ways in the aftermaths of World War II and the Cold War, and international organizations emerged which emphasized openness, diplomacy, and compromise. People around the world replaced centuries of arbitrary monarchical rule with democratic institutions aimed at aligning the will of the people with their leaders. Each of these extraordinary changes has been perhaps rightfully credited with reordering international affairs and fostering international peace in the twentieth century. But these accounts have long overlooked one of the most dramatic transformations of the twentieth century as a potential source of peace: the massive redistribution of political power as millions of women around the world gained a say in national politics. The persistent decline in war between nations, we argue, is a world made in part by women. Understanding the story of how and why is a window into gender differences, the sources of conflict, and the nature of democracy itself.

Joslyn N. Barnhart teaches international relations at University of California Santa Barbara and is a Senior Research Scientist at DeepMind in London. Robert F. Trager teaches international relations at the University of California Los Angeles and is the International Governance Lead at the Centre for the Governance of AI. This essay was excerpted from their book, The Suffragist Peace: How Women Shape the Politics of War (2023).

Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Ramon Von Flymen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images



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