An American member of the House of Representatives, Clare Booth Luce, was not taking any chances. In an early visit to Rome after the war ended, she took the occasion of a congressional party to do a little arm- twisting. She assured Premier Ivanhoe Bonomi that American women were deeply interested in the vote for Italian women. He promised that it would be legalized as soon as possible. After many Cabinet ministers and their wives pledged themselves to the cause, Luce went home and delivered on her promise, aid for Italians who were starving and freezing in their war-impoverished country.
Perhaps the Italian Council of Ministers was convinced that they were trading votes for blankets and food. Within a month they decreed the right of suffrage for women twenty-one years of age and over. When the registration lists were completed, women comprised fiftythree percent of the Italian electorate. Before they voted, a woman addressed the Parliament for the first time in Italian history. This honor was accorded to the wife of the Vice President of the Consulta. Women did not actually go to the polls until March 9, 1946, and then it was for provincial elections only.
These were the first free elections held in Italy in twenty-six years, and the first ever where women could vote. Nonetheless, authorities expressed astonishment at the high proportion of women who cast ballots (Brewer, 1946). Three months later, when national elections were held on June 2, 1946, even the New York Times gave the story front page coverage. That august publication usually sandwiched news about women’s political activities between the recipes and fashion advertisements in what was then called the Women’s Section.
This time the headline read: “Italy Goes to Polls Quietly; Women Glory in First Vote. ” (Cortesi, 1946) “First” was not quite accurate, and “quiet” was a relative term in Italy where people waited an average of three hours to vote. As they crowded around polling stations instead of forming lines, many fainted from the heat and malnutrition. The big political issue was whether the Republicans or the Royalists would prevail. Things did not bode well for the Royalists early on, as even the former King of Croatia was jostled about for more than three hours in the waiting crowd.
Moreover, while King Humbert was uncertain whether to follow the example of his father and grandfather (who had not voted while they were on the throne) or the new election law which made voting compulsory, Queen Maria Jose disregarded the king’s dilemma and voted. Whatever uncertainties accompanied the initial process, Italy capped off this democratizing phase a year later by outdistancing other European countries. The new constitution gave Italian women equal rights with men in every field and even guaranteed freedom of religion – right on the steps of the Vatican (Cortesi, 1946, p. 5).
Royalty and religion also posed a dilemma in Belgium. In 1945 women were extended limited suffrage to vote in municipal elections, but with the stipulation that they not do so until 1947. The assumption that women would vote conservatively and support the Catholics and the King prompted the Catholic Christian Social Party to protest the delay. While most women were kept from voting, a few already had suffrage. Those eligible to vote in the 1946 election (5,290 women) were the mothers and widows of men who died in World War I and those who had been forced to work in Germany between 1914 and 1918 (Anderson, 1946a).
Belgian women were allowed to vote in communal elections at the end of 1946. Their new clout and ten percent larger numbers than men prompted last-minute appeals from the politicians. The women finally voted in parliamentary elections in 1948. The last-ditch opponents were Socialist anti-feminists who continued to fear the Catholic clergy’s influence. Also in Europe, Yugoslavian women voted for the first time in 1945. British women (who had voted on an equal basis with men since 1928) were finally given the right to sit in the House of Peers (Anderson, 1946b). In the United States, where women already voted, they did not gain as much.
Eight American women’s organizations with a membership of more than ten million – groups such as the American Association of University Women, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Education Association, and the National Women’s Trade Union League – pressured for a plank in both the Republican and Democratic national committee platforms for “equal opportunity for work and equal pay during the post-war period. ” One-fifth of women workers had been the principal support of their families before the war (New York Times, 1944c).
By 1947, women would be slightly over twenty-six percent of the 15.3 million workers, and many women were now obliged to work outside the home because their male supporters had become war casualties. Despite women’s collective lobbying efforts, equal employment and pay legislation did not pass for decades. Many women’s fears about postwar loss of standing in the work force were subsequently realized. Thousands were laid off or fired when the soldiers returned home. Politicians were more willing to pay homage to safely deceased pioneer women than living activists. President Truman declared Election Day, November 2, 1945, to be Women’s Enfranchisement Day.
The next day, his political rival, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, proclaimed November 12 as Elizabeth Cady Stanton Day to commemorate the birth of that “distinguished citizen of our State who devoted her life to the emancipation of women. ” (New York Times, 1945d, p. 17)
Anderson, David. (10 Jan. 1946a). Belgian Parliament Is Dissolved; General Election Set for Feb. 18. New York Times, 13. Anderson, David. (24 Nov. 1946b). Women Will Vote in Belgium Today: Communal Elections Are Likely to Result in Overthrow of Cabinet Before Christmas. New York Times, 21.