Stabilizing Democracy: The World Wars and Women's Suffrage

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Wars unleash forces that are difficult to predict or control. World War I and World War II were both periods of crisis and change, and in the case of the United States and Japan, this environment would create irrefutable arguments in favor of women’s suffrage in both countries. 

It was impossible to make the world safe for democracy if you disenfranchised half your population – and you could not have a stable modern democracy if half your citizens were not represented.

The MacArthur Memorial has curated a series of resources designed to help students explore the ties between the world wars and suffrage movements in the United States and Japan.

Stabilizing Democracy: the World Wars and Women's Suffrage in the United States and Japan

Produced by the MacArthur Memorial, this 12-minute film explores how the world wars of the twentieth century accelerated the fight for suffrage in the United States and Japan. 

Stabilizing Democracy Viewing Guide

Additional Resources:

Mapping Suffrage Activity - use maps to explore women's suffrage in the United States and around the rest of the world.

Primary Source Activity - examine a series of curated primary sources to better understand women's suffrage.

Women's Suffrage IDM - a focused inquiry to allow students to explore international suffrage as an ongoing movement.


Delve deeper into the history of women's suffrage and the world wars with these special episodes of the World War I Podcast and the MacArthur Memorial Podcast

Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?

Women were a vital part of American mobilization during World War I, so much so that by the end of the war, it was impossible to claim women lacked the physical or mental fortitude to vote – or that you could make the world “safe for democracy” while disenfranchising a large part of the nation. The 19th Amendment giving American women the right to vote was ratified in 1920, but it didn’t happen without a fight. To discuss this fight for suffrage during World War I and its immediate aftermath, we are joined by Tina Cassidy, author of Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote.

Woodrow Wilson and Women's Suffrage

When WWI broke out in 1914, women in eight states – mostly in the west – had the right to vote. Women in the other 40 states that made up the US at that time did not have the right to vote. America’s involvement in the war spurred on many suffragettes – who while not all united in their response to the war – viewed with hope President Woodrow Wilson’s framing of America’s involvement in World War I as a defense of democracy. Hope that it would encourage accountability at home – for how could you make the world safe for democracy with half the nation disenfranchised? As with the Preparedness movement and the war, Wilson’s public position on women’s suffrage evolved during his two terms. To discuss this evolution and Wilson's role in women's suffrage, the World War I Podcast hosted Andrew Phillips, curator of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, VA. 

The Occupation of Japan and Women's Suffrage

On August 18. 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving American women the right to vote. When the Occupation of Japan began in 1945, the Nineteenth Amendment was a mere 25 years old but already so well ingrained in U.S. national identity that the thought of women’s suffrage wasn’t revolutionary to General Douglas MacArthur, who led the Occupation as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers to Japan. He made it clear from the start of the Occupation that the emancipation of Japanese women was a top priority – and one of the most sensible things SCAP could do. In his statements at the time – and then later in his autobiography – he made it very clear that enfranchising women was a way to democratize, and then stabilize democracy. To discuss Occupation policy and women’s suffrage in Japan, the MacArthur Memorial Podcast hosted Col. Cornelia Weiss (USAF, Ret.), a former JAG officer and an expert on General MacArthur’s women’s emancipation policy.