Perspectives on Democracy

Senegal: Gender and Colonial Legacy

Emily Lord Fransee, September 2016

As French West Africa decolonized after World War II, women of Senegal’s four Communes erupted in protest, demanding suffrage rights.“But Senegalese women have always had the right to vote!”

I’m in a busy restaurant in Dakar, and my new Senegalese friend has just suggested that my interest in researching the history of female suffrage in his country would be about as useful as a history of when wheels became round or trees were first made of wood. As I haltingly start to clarify that I am more interested in gender and citizenship in the history of the French empire rather than in the modern nation of Senegal, he interrupts with a laugh.

“Yes, yes, I know what you mean. I’m just giving you a hard time. It is different though, no?”

He makes a good point, as ever since it secured independence from France in 1960, Senegal has indeed had female suffrage. This is true not only of Senegal, but also of postcolonial nations around the world whose founding documents—unlike those of major democracies such as the United States—enshrined some form of gender equality in voting rights law. While post­independence elections were sometimes the first to allow women to cast ballots, many colonies (including those in the former French empire) had legalized some degree of female suffrage, typically very near the eve of decolonization. The fact that a postcolonial constitution includes provisions for female suffrage therefore reveals only part of the incremental, process-driven, and uneven ways in which different women across the postcolonial world actually became voters.

From its most limited to most expansive forms, voting law creates categories of difference that order people into insiders who can vote and outsiders who cannot. In the French empire, voting and citizenship laws ranked metropolitan and imperial society along hierarchies of political “capacity” determined by gender, age, race, background, income, religion, place of origin, parentage, class, carceral status, employment, and education. The shape of the franchise thus outlined the explicit legal limits of French Republicanism, creating a system in which the unmarked “universal” voter in fact needed to meet particular demographic requirements. In such a system, the political rights of metropolitan women and all inhabitants of the empire were profoundly curtailed. Despite this disenfranchisement, the idea of universal suffrage remained celebrated as one aspect of France’s revolutionary heritage. In line with France’s colonial civilizing mission, those in the empire who were deemed “evolved” enough to participate in formal political life could pursue one of the avenues for limited formal representation in the national legislature or in local municipal bodies. However, doubly marked as female and nonwhite, women living in the colonies had few such options. Furthermore, although women in the empire frequently challenged the administration in asserting their own social and economic rights, protests over questions of voting rights and political representation were much less common.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, the expansion of women’s political rights took on an unprecedented importance in the French colonies. As part of an effort to present their empire as progressive and united, the French administration sought to reframe its empire as a willing alliance between a benevolent metropole and enthusiastic if subordinate territories. Despite widespread rhetoric about the implementation of race-blind representative institutions within this “Greater France,” colony-specific laws divided the inhabitants of the empire into a variety of citizenship categories with a range of modified rights and obligations. This effort at colonial reform overlapped with the 1944 institution of female suffrage in the French metropole, prompting the question of women’s rights in the colonies to become all the more immediate.

Although pockets of opposition remained, the colonial administration announced that all female citizens of the empire—including nonwhite citizens—would gain the right to vote. But a special exception withheld this right in the so-called Communes of Senegal, four urban sites comprising Dakar, Rufisque, Saint-Louis, and the island of Gorée. Due to a complicated and unique citizenship history, all those born within the borders of the Communes had the right to automatic French citizenship. This resulted in a much higher number of nonwhite, non-Christian, and, crucially, non-male citizens in Senegal than almost anywhere else in the French empire. Under the new selective suffrage law, however, women in the Communes would be citizens who could not vote. The administration expected little in the way of pushback, but the Communes were immediately consumed with mass protests against their targeted exclusion, with activists arguing that allowing other female citizens to vote while explicitly denying that right to women in the Communes was racist, insulting, and undemocratic.

Protesters distributed tracts outside of cinemas and mosques, held rallies and meetings, and wrote to the French administration in Dakar and Paris. Public gatherings of thousands of people cheered passionate speeches in which men and women spoke in French and Wolof to demand gender equality. One Senegalese woman who attended several rallies in Saint-Louis related her experiences to her brother, an employee of the administration in Rufisque. In her letter, she used the French Republican vocabulary of equality, describing women who “assembled in mass to thwart these administrative doings . . . women have made a public declaration, and we intend to vote if French women are voting.”1 The document gives us a sense of the excitement that must have pervaded these rallies, which she describes as “truly democratic,” “electric,” and “exhilarating.” Although administration records sometimes describe the protests as male-dominated, the letter provides a crucial historical corrective, recounting how the women who were present were specifically selected by other women to act as their representatives. In this sense, strategic use of French Republican language existed alongside local traditions of representation, community membership, and gendered comportment.

In another such example, a group of men who identified themselves as the “delegation of the population” met just outside of Dakar at the site where debates over politics and governance had been decided before French colonization. There they drafted a petition that argued that the women’s exclusion was “anti-democratic, anti-Republican, and contrary to the liberalism of France,” thus drawing authority from local traditions and norms while incorporating French conceptions of equal citizenship.2

The protest movement forced the French administration to reverse its position, and in July 1945 Senegalese female citizens from the Communes voted in large numbers. Inhabitants celebrated their victory. One woman from Dakar wrote to her husband, an auxiliary doctor working in Côte d’Ivoire, that “everyone is in the street yelling with joy! I registered to vote, although with much difficulty . . . but all is well that ends well, and on the first of July I will vote like all women.”3

One woman who attended several rallies in Saint-Louis related her experiences in a letter to her brother, using the French Republican vocabulary of equality. Women “assembled in mass to thwart these administrative doings. Women have made a public declaration, and we intend to vote if French women are voting.”

Although successful, the movement should not be glossed as a triumphalist fairy tale, not least because the vast majority of women (and men) across the French empire remained disenfranchised. Indeed, although some protesters from the Communes asserted separatist or more nationalist goals, the majority demanded suffrage as French citizens with a particular set of rights in an explicitly imperial space. Few at the time attempted to expand their newly secured rights into a generalized, nationalized, religiously based, regional, or ethnically linked set of wider privileges reaching across the French empire or even into other parts of Senegal. Personal and social identity in colonial spaces was complex, as multiple forms of communities and affinities overlapped and took precedence in different times and places.

So when did Senegalese women get the right to vote? Was it 1945? 1960? Something in between? Part of the difficulty in answering this question emerges from the way it is even posed, referencing an undifferentiated group of “women” within a particular national unit, erasing types of marginalization that existed between different individuals before decolonization. While the colonial state did not “bring” democracy to the Communes, female suffrage did not first come into existence through a nationalist program at the moment of independence. This history therefore provides alternative perspectives to arguments that frame the global history of voting rights as either a narrative about suffrage moving “from the West to the rest” or the ability to secure those rights only at the level of the nation-state. Understanding the history of democracy in an imperial age does not imply an exclusive focus on European initiatives or nationalist decolonization, but instead a consideration of how a range of individuals and groups articulated their own concerns, agendas, and power grabs within and around the shifting confines of the colonial system.

Emily Lord Fransee is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago completing a dissertation on women’s suffrage and citizenship in the French empire and francophone world. Her new project historicizes the connections between science fiction and imperialism in global colonial and post­colonial cultures.


1. Cherisse Diallo,“Extrait d’une lettre ordinaire interceptée to M. Alassane Diallo sur Femmes indigènes et les Elections, 6 March 1945, Archives nationales du Sénégal (ANS), 17G415.

2. Délégués de la Population de Dakar et Banlieue, “Letter to the Gouverneur Général,” 21 March 1945, ANS 20G25.

3. Ange, “Lettre avion interceptée: Ange (Dakar) à N’Diaye Guirandou (Abidjan),” 18 May 1945, ANS 17G415.

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