A fight for women’s suffrage in the early days of the Chinese republic

Society & Culture

On March 19, 1912, about a dozen women armed with pistols, led by Tang Qunying, broke into the parliament in Nanjing, where a framework for the new Republic of China was being hammered out. The women were determined to be heard.

This Week in China’s History: March 19, 1912

The politically minded were full of optimism in the spring of 1912, as China prepared to enact its first democratic, republican government. The last Qing emperor had abdicated on February 12, and in March a provisional parliament and provisional president were deciding on a path forward. From their new capital in Nanjing, questions of who would govern China, how they would do it, and how they would be chosen were fiercely debated.

Of particular concern was a clause in the provisional constitution: “The people of the Republic of China are uniformly equal, without distinction to race, class, or religion.” Notably absent was any mention of sex, as requests to specify that the pledge of equality be applied to women had been ignored. Groups had been organizing around the question of women’s suffrage for months, starting with the Women’s Suffrage Comrade Society that was founded in November, 1911, but when time came to codify gender equality in the constitution, the nascent government balked.

So on March 19, 1912, about a dozen women decided to be heard. Led by Táng Qúnyīng 唐群英 and armed with pistols, they broke into the parliament where the framework for the new state was being hammered out. In her classic work on the role of women in the revolution, historian Ono Kazuko describes how they were directed toward the spectators’ gallery, but refused, and instead “rushed into the parliamentary chambers and planted themselves among the delegates. When the question of women’s suffrage came up for discussion, they jeered so loudly that the proceedings could not continue.”

The hall emptied for a lunch recess, but in the afternoon the women blocked the entrances to the chamber so that when the speaker called to resume the proceedings, the delegates were unable to enter. Armed guards compelled the protesters into the visitors gallery, but their actions drew criticism from the delegates. “It is not necessarily the case that we in this hall disagree with women’s right to vote,” Ono quotes one of the members, “but when we see women behaving in the present manner…we may rise up to oppose you.”

Another delegate compared the Chinese women unfavorably to European women, arguing that “one absolutely did not find such barbarous and illegal behavior on the part of women in civilized countries.” The delegates implied that the proper means for these women was the process that was now underway, and that their grievances would be resolved, peacefully and democratically.

The claim that suffrage protests in Europe or America had been exclusively non-violent was wrong, and the women in Nanjing knew that, having carefully and explicitly monitored the actions of suffrage activists across the world. British women like the Pankhursts had frequently employed tactics much more violent than the forceful disruption of a parliamentary debate. Nonetheless, by promising to take up the issue, the parliament persuaded the women to withdraw.

The next morning Tang and her comrades again tried to enter the parliament to monitor the debate, but this time they were met outside by guards who refused them entry. Windows were broken and some guards were injured as the crowd clamored, but failed, to get inside.

Again on March 21, the protesters returned, and this time got inside the building, but were blocked from the parliament hall. Instead, they found Sun Yat-sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) in the office of the president (a title he had relinquished more than a week earlier) and persuaded him to agree to bring the question up in parliament again (though it must be noted, because he was no longer president, he lacked the formal standing to do so, nor was there much hope that his successor, the would-be emperor Yuán Shìkǎi 袁世凯, would raise it). When it was announced that the Nanjing parliament would disband and reassemble in Beijing — close to Yuan’s power base and farther from progressive constituencies — the road seemed closed.

It is in no way surprising that when the election law passed for the lower house of parliament, it permitted only male citizens (minimum age 21 with various property requirements) to vote.

There remained one more opening that might move China closer to full democracy. In August, Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance (同盟会 tóngménghuì) reorganized and combined with other groups to become a fully fledged political party, one that could better resist Yuan Shikai’s move toward autocracy. Not long after the vote denying women’s suffrage, an organizing congress convened to determine the new party’s platform.

The constituency of the new Kuomintang (KMT) was less progressive than the Revolutionary Alliance because of the coalitions and compromises that are part and parcel of electoral politics. When Tang Qunying and her allies helped introduce a resolution calling for the party to include “equal rights for men and women,” its platform was voted down overwhelmingly.

The more conservative platform may have helped the KMT win a strong electoral majority in the parliament in the elections for the first parliament, but they could not overcome Yuan Shikai’s antipathy toward democratic institutions. The KMT’s leader and presumptive Prime Minister, Sòng Jiàorén 宋敎仁, was assassinated at Yuan’s orders in March 1913. That November the Women’s Suffrage Alliance was disbanded. The movement for women’s suffrage, and by many measures the republic itself, came to an end, at least for the time being.

POSTSCRIPT: One of those working for women’s right to vote in China was Zhèng Yùxiù 郑毓秀, or Tcheng Soumay. Studying abroad in the 1910s, she was the only female delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where she was part of a remarkable group of (mainly) women that fought for women’s suffrage around the world in a story detailed by Mona Siegel in her book Peace on Our Terms. But the victories won in the United States and United Kingdom did not extend to Chinese women: Chinese women would not get the right to vote until 1947, just two years before the advent of the People’s Republic ended meaningful elections in mainland China.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.