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So much of women’s history in the United States focuses on a single, exhausting struggle: the fight for the right to vote, finally won in 1920 after several failed attempts to get it through Congress and ratified. It seems unbelievable that women have only been able to vote for president, and for most other offices in most places, for well under half of our country’s history. A global view puts that fact into perspective: modern democratic governments began coming on the scene in the early 17th century, but it was not until almost the 20th century that any of them permitted women the fundamental act of a citizen: New Zealand made history by granting women the vote in 1893, only 14 years after all men attained the vote there (prior to 1869, most men had to own land to vote).

Saudi Arabia includes women in the vote for the first time this year. After that, the only country where the right to vote is restricted to men will be Vatican City, which does have female citizens (a few dozen of its several hundred citizens) but recognizes no voting rights except those of cardinals.

However, like the gap that still exists in the United States between de jure and de facto voting rights, especially for people of African descent, women’s being granted the right to vote does not always equal the ability to exercise that right freely. Afghan women had the vote in 1919, a year before their sisters in our country could vote, but women under the Taliban cannot give speeches or run for office, and they can’t leave the house without a male chaperone: all dampers on their actually putting a ballot into the box to be counted.

The first time I did door-to-door political canvassing, I asked a woman if she’d made up her mind for the Congressional election and was silently shocked when she said, “Oh, no–my husband decides that kind of thing.” Around the world, in places where women have little freedom of other kinds, how many of their votes serve only to give their husbands a double dip in the voting pool?


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