World History 2 211 - 12.5.1 The Expansion of Democracy

When the war ended, the suffrage movement had been going on for several decades in the United States and Britain. Those who protested in support of women’s right to vote, called a suffragist, had sometimes taken radical action to highlight their cause, such as Emily Davison who threw herself in front of the King of England’s horse at a derby in 1913 and was killed. Suffragist leaders in both countries were often arrested, and many went on hunger strikes while in jail, enduring forced feedings to draw more attention to the cause.

Women’s support of the war and their physical work in war industries and the medical corps led politicians to look more favorably on the idea of women voting. Women won the right to vote in the United States in 1920, though it was couched as a reward for their war service. Britain adopted a phase-in approach. First, women over thirty who met a property qualification were given the right to vote in 1918. Then in 1928, the vote was extended to women twenty-one and older. The property qualifications for men were abolished in 1918, and all men twenty-one and older were allowed to vote. For those in the military, the age limit was lowered to nineteen.

Other countries joined the trend. German women won the right to vote in 1918. The new country of Poland extended the vote to women immediately. Other countries still imposed limitations, such as property qualifications or the need to be a war widow in order to vote. France and Italy lagged behind; women could not vote in either country until 1945. In Japan, female activist groups argued for a role in politics throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Japanese law changed to allow women to attend political rallies, but women did not receive the right to vote until after World War II. Rising feminism in China linked to the May Fourth Movement helped women obtain individual property rights under the law.

Individual female voices were also heard. Huda Sha’arawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923 and stopped wearing her veil and headscarf. She had already been engaged in providing education for girls and was active in the Egyptian independence movement. She became vice president of the International Women’s Union in the 1930s. Zaynab al-Ghazali founded the Muslim Women’s Society in Europe in 1936. Al-Ghazali contended that women could play a role in politics outside the home while still being adherents to Islam.

Link to Learning

As an activist in her native Egypt, Huda Sha’arawi advocated women’s rights for decades. This link takes you to the text of her brief opening and closing speeches at Egypt’s First Arab Feminist Conference that met in 1944. As you read, look for the many rationales she offers for the legitimacy of women’s rights.

Several minority groups in the United States hoped military service would gain them wider acceptance and rights. More than eleven thousand Native Americans served in the military during the war, and many hoped this volunteer service would provide them U.S. citizenship. Native Americans were in fact granted citizenship in 1924. Another group hoping for change were African Americans. Long subject to discriminatory laws and racial segregation, African Americans felt World War I offered them an opportunity to prove themselves loyal citizens. The United States operated a segregated military, and all-Black service member units serving overseas had a unique chance to see how other places treated them. Those in France, in particular, were struck by the freedom of movement and acceptance they found there. They were allowed in combat, while U.S. units kept them largely in support roles. There was genuine optimism that life in the United States would be different after the war.

However, after 1918, many found that little had changed. Discriminatory laws remained in place, and poor treatment even of veterans was commonplace. What was new was the prospect of mobility. In 1917, the lure of good-paying industrial jobs producing items for the war began drawing African American workers and families north. This movement continued after the war as factories began to pump out consumer products. By 1920, more than a million African Americans had left the south in a Great Migration, which continued through the next decades as well.

In Their Own Words

Marcus Garvey on Race in the United States

Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born activist who spoke and wrote about Pan-Africanism and the need to address racial issues worldwide. This is an excerpt from his 1923 speech, “A Last Word Before Incarceration.” As you read, notice his characterization of African Americans.

Those of you who have been observing events for the last four or five weeks with keen eyes and keen perceptions will come to no other conclusion than this—that through the effort to strangle the Universal Negro Improvement Association—through the effort to silence Marcus Garvey—there is a mad desire, there is a great plan to permanently lay the Negro low in this civilization and in future civilizations. But the world is sadly mistaken. No longer can the Negro be laid low; in laying the Negro low you but bring down the pillars of creation, because 400,000,000 Negroes are determined to [be] a man, to take a place in the world and to hold that place. The world is sadly mistaken and rudely shocked at the same time. They thought that the new Negro would bend; they thought that the new Negro was only bluffing and would exhibit the characteristic of the old Negro when pushed to the corner or pushed to the wall. If you want to see the new Negro fight, force him to the wall, and the nearer he approaches the wall the more he fights, and when he gets to the wall he is even more desperate.

—Marcus Garvey, “A Last Word Before Incarceration

  • According to Garvey, how have African Americans changed?
  • In what ways are African Americans not what Whites in the United States expect them to be?

Racism was not absent in the North. The summer of 1919 was marked by race riots in many cities, and in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan, a White supremacist group formed after the Civil War, spread throughout the nation. Nevertheless, northern racism seemed mild compared to what African Americans’ southern experience had been, and greater opportunities for jobs and education continued to draw people to the cities of the North and Midwest. New livelihoods and membership in civil rights groups such as the NAACP drew many into the New Negro movement in the 1920s. This drive “promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.” One of the movement’s first tasks was to agitate for a federal anti-lynching law. Lynching had become a vigilante crime whose targets were overwhelmingly African American. Anti-lynching activists knew that White men who murdered African Americans would not be punished by southern state courts. By making lynching a crime that would be tried in a federal court, however, they hoped to achieve greater justice. An anti-lynching bill came up for a vote in Congress in 1922 but was rejected, and again in 1935. White southern politicians resisted any federal intrusion, even in humanitarian causes.

Racial pride also influenced the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of African American literature, art, and music named for a neighborhood in New York City in which many African American participants in the Great Migration settled. The Harlem Renaissance, which was in full bloom in the 1920s, brought into the mainstream the work of many African American writers, such as poet Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote about the racial struggles of twentieth-century African Americans in her novels, short stories, and plays. The music of African American communities in Harlem and elsewhere featured the distinctive blues and jazz styles, which both became international genres and provided the soundtrack for the dynamic changes of the decade following World War I.

Link to Learning

This short video about the origins of jazz music was made by the Museum of American History and features both words and music.

The Harlem Renaissance, especially the works of Jamaican-born Claude McKay, in turn inspired the Négritude movement, a literary movement that emerged in French-speaking parts of Africa and the Americas. The movement was founded by Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Senegalese poet and university professor. Négritude, a term coined by Aimé Césaire, a poet and playwright from the Caribbean island of Martinique (at that time a French colony), called upon Blacks to reject European culture and values in favor of African ones.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax