A hundred years ago, on May 31, 1918, Feminists attacked Sándor Wekerle, the Prime Minister when leaving the Parliement for why they have rejected the proposal on women suffragette in the electoral committee. Wekerle promised to submit an amendment proposal and held to this promise in July, but the Parliamentary majority, István Tisza’s labour party prevented even the slightest allowance for women. Zoltán Meskó, who had been elected as a member with the independence program in 1917 as an opponent of Tisza, also rejected the right of women to vote, with the reason that “only the Jewish denomination would win [new] voters” thereby – and owing to the condition on education.
“The dying Hungarian Parliament has sounded the funeral bell again over itself today: at today’s session of the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle’s proposal was voted down with 96 votes against 161 regarding the women’s right to vote, and all other proposals were also rejected afterwards. Counts, barons, gentries, political zeros and unknown members stood up by their leader, Count István Tisza, as a black army, to vote nine times against the electoral rights of women, and there were hardly 7-8 Labour Party representatives who would have pushed the chariot of progress against Tisza’s field army.” This is how the civil radical Világ wrote about the events on July 18, 1918 when funeral bells were sounded indeed over the last Hungarian Parliament of the Monarchy. And regardless of how we look at it later: whether they were sounded by the representatives themselves, or by the Entente, Monarchy disappeared almost without trace within a few weeks, the Hungarian part of which had been ruled by Count István Tisza and his arrogant companions scoffing at women rights back in July.
Several times have we been concerned with the fact that Hungarian political top elite was unable to accommodate to the challenges in 1918: they did not yield to the demands of either workers, or nationalities, and refused initiatives to reform the Monarchy until the last moment, the breakdown.
The issue of suffragette was only one of the challenges that they could not respond to, but debates on this sometimes visibly proved that Tisza’s Labour Party, being in majority in the House, sticks out to their opinion. The debates in the House and its electoral committee were especially significant and sometimes of disgraceful tone regarding women suffragette (demanded strongly by Social Democrats outside the Parliament). Though the Labour Party included some – e.g. Iván Rakovszky and Lajos Návay – who would have given the right to vote to women (though Návay would have done so only with restrictions), finally the majority of Tisza voted down such proposals during 1918.
As the Világ reported it on July 18, on the plenary session of the House, on the final vote, “it was almost scary how the Labour Party stood up to bury women suffragette laughing and smiling contemptuously with brazen notes and vulgar trivialities“. Among political forces of the last Parliament of the Monarchy, Mihály Károlyi and his party stood up the most categorically for general suffrage, and thereby also for women suffrage. These categorical (and at that time, radical) views were the reason why Károlyi did not go to the general electoral meeting organized by Feminist organizations at the beginning of May 1918, since the Christian Socialist politician, Sándor Giesswein also had a speech, who stood up for the general, equal and secret right to vote as a member of the Electoral Block with him back in 1917, but decided to take the side of the Wekerle Government established in early May 1918.
However, the Wekerle Government was transformed by May exactly because it was getting closer regarding the right to vote to Tisza’s Labour Party, and would have made only minimal concessions to broaden the scope of people eligible to vote. Giesswein could only hardly tell his speech at the meeting in early May anyway because the outraged audience did not want to listen to him and started to bluster. He could only finish his speech with police intervention.
This Giesswein speech and his other quibbling statements fundamentally stated that though he continues to support general suffrage, but helps the Wekerle government for other reasons, since it is not only this topic that is important to him. However, he hoped to have more chance to fight for the broadening of suffrage in the future after gaining the support of the government party. However, the electoral proposal was further curtailed, to which attention was also raised by the meeting on women rights, held in shameless conditions. The resolution proposal for the meeting in early May was read by the feminist Vilma Glücklich. Pursuant to the report of Pesti Napló on May 9, the general meeting would have regarded it as an “assault with severe social consequences” “if the rights of women described in the proposal would have been limited” and strongly opposed such an attempt, while welcoming each step “broadening the active and passive right to vote to be granted for women”.
Regardless of the promises of Giesswein, he had to feel disappointed regarding his expectations. On June 1, Népszava reported on the debates, or more specifically the lack of debate regarding women rights, in the electoral committee on the previous day: “The electoral committee of the House of Representative continued their work on Friday. With full blast. And they did an excellent job – not in terms of quantity, but definitely qualitatively in the interest of the Tisza class.” The paper reported on “mean, depriving work” “done by Tisza and his group”. The left-wing paper added: “they killed women suffrage with a gesture and did excellent Tisza work”. Pursuant to another subtitle, “they do not even mention women suffrage”. When the issue of women suffrage should have followed, the following happened on the meeting of the electoral committee, where Tisza also showed up:
“István Tisza: Makes a proposal for the order of negotiations. Perhaps the committee would primarily decide if they wish to include women suffrage at all or not.
Chairman: Asks if the committee would like to deal with women suffrage in this chapter?
Ten voted with yes.
When counter-checking, eleven people stood up, thereby the committee decided on not to deal with women suffrage in this chapter. (People voting against women suffrage: László Beöthy, Count István Tisza, Count Imre Ghillány, Kálmán Hegedűs, Alfréd Pál, Samu Mándy, László Almássy, Ernő Desbordes, Gyula Vargha, Géza Polónyi and Miklós Kostyál. People voting for women suffrage: Ákos Bizony, Lipót Vadász, János Szabó, Rezső Schuller, Andor Kozma, Samu Bakonyi, Endre Csizmazia, Iván Rakovszky ans Ernő Balogh.)”
Pursuant to Népszava‘s report, representatives of the Feminist movement already started to convene in front of the Parliament. There were around seventy members of the National Association of Women Officials, who already gathered around noon to protest for women suffrage. This is when the committee voted even against negotiating the issue. According to Népszava, “the news spread soon among the awaiting group of women, who discussed their grievances excitedly“; Vilma Glücklich was one of them. Pursuant to the paper, Sándor Wekerle Prime Minister left the House of Representatives after 2 p.m., when Glücklich “stepped in front of him and addressed him in a fury”: “Your Grace, is it true that women suffrage has been voted down? Wekerle answered smiling: – Yes, but I have retained your right and a dissent will be submitted. Afterwards Wekerle left smiling.”
However, not only Giesswein’s plans failed to come true, Wekerle also failed with his proposal submitted later to the House of Representatives. The paper Világ reported on July 17, prior to the vote on women suffrage, that the opposition stands for women suffrage, except for smallholders, Aurél Förster and Zoltán Meskó. (Meskó was elected to be a member with the independence program a year earlier.) The Világ afterwards predicted the following (as it turned out later, wrongly): “Thereby the decision is in the hands of the labour party. The labour party does not think that voting is a party issue, but they called for the party members to vote against women suffrage in a circular in spite of Count Tisza’s promise. It is therefore a question whether steadfast Labour Party members will abstain from voting for Tisza’s mild pressure. A lot of signs show that women suffrage will be in some sort of majority, and if all Labour Party members keep their promise, the restricted women suffrage proposed by Wekerle will win with grand majority.”
However, the reality is different, the majority of Labour Party representatives more willing to reform bowed to Tisza’s will. Therefore on July 17 women suffrage was voted down in the House of Representatives. “The class parliament does not need even the small progress that Wekerle’s proposal would have meant in this field”, wrote the Világ in his editorial, also mentioning that the proposal of János Teleszky – previously a Tisza-party minister of finance for several years – was also refused, though Teleszky himself forgot to vote for his own proposal. The radical paper summarized the situation as follows: “The gentlemen who are kept from the perspective of national economy by the work of women, do not find women worthy for the most fundamental human right. They rejected Andrássy’s proposal as well, urging the government to develop another proposal.”
Pursuant to the front page editorial, “only Zoltán Meskó had a real success, who had learnt the silliest phrases against women suffrage”. According to the author, this “political baby of promise even stirred denomination aspects into the debate”. But let us see what the MoP, who had joined the House of Representatives in 1917, in July 1918, and how he was accompanied by Aurél Förster, who also rejected women suffrage. (In order to understand the debate, it shall be known that many debates had been held on the proposal of the ex electoral minister Vilmos Vázsonyi, from May, he did not remain a member of the Wekerle government, because the Tisza-party majority even held his restricted electoral draft too much in the House of Representatives.) So the Világ reported on the debate in the lower house on July 17 as follows:
“Zoltán Meskó says that he is not a devotee of women suffrage because women would neglect their real business and their family life would fall into depravity once thrown into the political fights.
Aurél Förster: Women are more passionate than men.
Zoltán Meskó: He does not want to raise the issue of denomination, but still has to provte it with some figures that only the Jewish denomination would win voters through women suffrage. In Budapest, in the past year, among women who have completed the fourth year of higher elementary school, thirty nine, while among women who have completed a ladies’ college, thirty six, and among those completing a grammar school, forty nine percent were Jewish. Who dares to say that Vázsonyi’s proposal is incorrect, when he bases women suffrage on the fourth year of elementary school? The number of Jewish women is disproportionately high in elementary school. If women are granted the right to vote, we should also grant it to the wives of farmers, the women of villages.
Aurél Förster: The people are disgusted from women suffrage!
Zoltán Meskó: Even rural gentlewomen are opposed to feminists in Budapest talking in their name.
István Szabó: Feminists should go and march against the only child.
Zoltán Meskó: In the fourth year of the world war, it is wonderful that there are gentlewomen in Pest who have time for politics instead of working and making swaddling clothes for the children of the village.”
That is, Meskó calculated the numerical ratio of people of “Jewish denomination” of students of various educational institutes in the Hungarian Parliament already in the summer of 1918, i.e. prior to the Aster Revolution, the Soviet Republic, and the following numerus clausus act in 1920 (restricting the higher education of people qualified as Jews).
At this time, Meskó did not play a significant role in the Hungarian House of Representatives, but at the start of the Horthy-era – pursuant to the Hungarian Biographical Lexicon – became “an undersecretary for smallholders, agriculture and internal affairs one after the other” and also an “acting chairman of the smallholders’ party of Nagyatádi-Szabó”. Meanwhile, he became a member of the national assembly and later the parliament in the 1920s firstly in the smallholders’ party, then with a unified party program. Though Meskó founded one of the first arrow cross parties in Hungary in 1932, when the domestic national socialist movement became dominant (after 1939), he did not play a central role in this political direction.
This is how Irén Simándi eventually summed uu the gender differentiation of the adopted act in the summer of 1918: “Women suffrage was completely omitted from the act, since the majority of representatives – similarly to the electoral committee – did not support it.”
A feministák országos nagygyűlése = Pesti Napló, 1918. május 9.
Giesswein Sándor nyilatkozata = Friss Újság, 1918. május 9.
Feministák a parlament előtt = Népszava, 1918. június 1.
A választójog a bizottságban = Népszava, 1918. június 1.
A női szavazati jog = Világ, 1918. július 17.
Leszavazták = Világ, 1918. július 18.
Elvetették a nők választójogát. A képviselőház ülése = Világ, 1918. július 18.
Meskó Zoltán = Magyar Életrajzi Lexikon
Paksa Rudolf: Magyar nemzetiszocialisták. Budapest, 2013.
Simándi Irén: A nők választójoga a századfordulótól 1938-ig = Múltunk, 1998/1. 94-115.
Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő