In the absolutist empire, people had no political rights, they could not vote or participate in governing the country. Opportunities to participate were demanded by the liberal bourgeoisie. They were achieved temporarily in the year of revolutions, 1848. It was then that the question of women’s participation in political life was first raised.
Elections to the Austrian Parliament were held in June 1848. Most of the population back then did not understand what an election is. Conditions for suffrage were independence and being a man. Workers were kept from voting. Women’s political thought or action were contrary to the bourgeois ideal by which men and women belonged in different areas of life, and politics were exclusively the men’s domain. However women pioneers spoke out – in pamphlets and newspaper articles: “We claim equality of political rights. Why should women not be elected to Parliament?”
Entitled “Gleichstellung aller Rechte der Männer mit den Frauen; oder: Die Frauen als Wähler, Deputierte und Volksvertreter “ (“Equality of all rights between men and women; or: Women as voters, deputies and elected representatives”), one of the few pamphlets by women on political co-determination was released in Vienna in 1848. It demanded political rights for women because of the “undeniable, inalienable, inherent and ineradicable rights of the female sex”.
Women took part in the revolutionary events in many different ways. On August 21st 1848 the government announced wage cuts for the women working as diggers on public building sites. Groups of female, and some male, workers then marched through the city and occupied streets and squares, demanding that the cuts for the women had to be taken back. It was the first women’s demonstration in Vienna. Two days later – in the so-called “Praterschlacht” – the National Guard was deployed against the demonstrators and bloody clashes took place.
The constitution of April 1848 allowed female citizens to set up associations. When women were excluded from the men’s associations, they began to organise. On August 28th a group of mainly middle-class women – reports speak of 150 up to several hundred – gathered in the Volksgarten to discuss the formation, remit and statutes of a women’s association. The Viennese Democratic Women’s Association was the only one of the associations founded during the months of the revolution that was an explicitly political women’s organisation and supported the revolutionary movement. Karoline Perin-Gradenstein is named President in the statutes. She is the only woman in the Viennese 1848 movement who we know more about than just her name.
With the suppression of the revolution in 1849, democratic aspirations ended for the time being. The right to political participation became the privilege of property owners and the educated. This way, a few privileged women also gained the right to vote. The first elections when they could exercise it were not until the 1860s.