4-2: Democratic Reform and Activism

Democratic Reform and Activism

KEY IDEA: Spurred by the demands of ordinary people, Great Britain and France underwent democratic reforms.

Since the 1600s, Britain’s government had been a constitutional monarchy. A king or queen ruled the country, but the elected legislature— Parliament—held the real power. Still, very few people could vote for members of Parliament. Only men who owned property—about six percent of the population—had the right. That changed in the 1800s.

The Reform Bill of 1832 was the first step.  Middle-class people across England protested the fact that they could not vote. Worried by revolutions sweeping Europe, Parliament passed the Reform Bill. This law gave the right to vote to many in the middle class. It also gave seats in Parliament to the new industrial cities, which had not had any representatives before. Over time, Parliament made more changes. By 1884, almost all adult males in Britain could vote. Parliament also made votes take place by secret ballot. Another law gave pay to members of Parliament, which in effect opened that body to people who were not wealthy. By 1890, a number of countries with industrial economies had given all men the right to vote.

None, however, gave women that right. During the 1800s, women in the United States and Britain peacefully campaigned for the vote. Beginning in 1903, a group called the Women’s Social and Political Union began a stronger campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain. They held rallies and parades. They also broke up the speeches of government officials and sometimes set fire to buildings. When the leaders were arrested, they went on hunger strikes to gain publicity for their cause. It was not until after World War I, however, that women won the right to vote in both Great Britain and the United States.

The road to democracy in France was rockier. After France’s defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, Napoleon III went to Britain in exile. While the National Assembly met to decide on a new government, a group of radicals took control of Paris. Troops put down the movement in bloody fighting. Finally a new government—the Third Republic—was formed. It lasted over 60 years, but they were years marked by fighting between many political parties.

In the 1890s, French society was divided over the case of an army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused of being a traitor. The charge was false and was made largely because Dreyfus was a Jew. However, many believed the charge, and he was found guilty. A few years later, new evidence showed that he had been framed. Dreyfus was later declared innocent. The affair revealed that many in Europe hated Jews. In Eastern Europe, the situation was very bad. The Russian government even allowed organized attacks on Jewish villages. From the 1880s on, many Jews fled to the United States.



  1. Contrast the spread of democracy in Britain with that in France.
  2. What strategies did women use to lobby for the right to vote?
  3. Why do you think Europe had such a long history of Antisemitism?
  4. What events do you think the Third Republic was so unstable?