What does citizenship entail? For many it is not just a passive right but rather comprises a more fragile set of practices, duties, and beliefs that need to be reworked and reaffirmed along the way. It might be useful to think of “citizenship” as a container for a wide variety of ascribed meanings in time. A century ago, when World War I came to an end, many Western nations re-evaluated what it meant to be a citizen, who was entitled to become one, which rights it entailed, and what one needed to know in order to act properly. For the protagonists of suffrage movements, full citizenship could only be realized through the attainment of civil rights and participation in the formal political process, most notably voting. The ability and desire to do that required knowledge.
In recent decades, a diagnosis of democratic crisis or even of a post-democratic condition has emerged in public debate in many Western states. The rise of electoral abstention, particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, often serves as statistical evidence for this assessment.1 Yet what exactly can abstention tell us about the state of democracy? My current research project proposes to historicize abstention, not as a political phenomenon per se but rather as an object of contention leading to multiple interpretations and practices in the political sphere. To that aim, I inquire how political actors—politicians and officials, but also journalists and political scientists—have handled abstention through the postwar decades in France, West Germany, and Switzerland. Knowledge played a significant role in the ways abstention was framed in public debate. It was accompanied by the development of various forms of expertise on the topic, ranging from emerging political science to electoral surveys.2 Public discourse on abstention became a matter for experts, journalists, and established politicians—none of whom were prone to abstaining from voting themselves.
A century ago, World War I brought devastation and violence to Europe and other regions of the world, in many cases upending previously dominant political, social, and cultural orders. For women in large parts of the Western world, the end of the war saw a historical achievement, the right to vote.1 Suffragist activists had fought for this right for the better part of the previous century. They employed a wide range of tools, organizing rallies and marches, founding political organizations, and even conducting hunger strikes and rare acts of violence. Newspapers and magazines such as The Suffragist in the United States were common tools for spreading information and knowledge, building networks, and encouraging and motivating readers. Part of a broader history of the politicization of women and their bodies, the history of the suffragist movement was local and global, national and transnational.2 Female political activism did not end with the right to vote or with standing for and holding office, however. It took up voter mobilization and women’s political and civic education.