In August 1920, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution became law when it was ratified by the state of Tennessee. It concisely states: \”The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.\”
The event raises two broad sets of questions. First, why would an in-group with voting power choose to weaken its power by extending that power to others? Second, how has the vote of women changed actual US political patterns? After all, there was some question about back in 1920 about how many women would actually vote. If women as a group voted in pretty much the same patterns as their brothers, husbands. and fathers, would women\’s suffrage leave the overall electoral results mostly unchanged?
Two papers in the Spring 2020 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives tackle these issues:
- Moehling, Carolyn M., and Melissa A. Thomasson. \”Votes for Women: An Economic Perspective on Women\’s Enfranchisement.\”
- Cascio, Elizabeth U., and Na\’ama Shenhav. 2020. \”A Century of the American Woman Voter: Sex Gaps in Political Participation, Preferences, and Partisanship since Women\’s Enfranchisement.\”
Moehling and Thomasson trace the history of US women\’s suffrage from the start of the country up through 1920, and link that history to various theories of political economy. As they write: \”Theories of suffrage extension seek to explain why groups in power would choose to share this power with the disenfranchised. All of these theories predict that men extend the franchise to women when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs, but they differ in the benefits and costs they consider.\” The article contains numerous tidbits that were
For example, I had not known that New Jersey defined the right to vote in terms of property-owners at the start of the country, which allowed the relatively small numbers of women and non-white men who owned property to vote–and sometimes their votes even swung close elections. However, women in New Jersey lost the vote in 1807. I also had not known that when the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 drafted its famous \”Declaration of Sentiments\” for women\’s rights, the right to vote was the only element that was NOT unanimously adopted, out of a fear that the demand was too extreme and might make the movement look ridiculous.
As one would expect, the path to women\’s suffrage in 1920 involved a number of interacting factors. Some of the important factors include:
- The sheer persistence of the suffrage movement over the decades. What was unthinkable even to some proponents in 1848 had become at least a thinkable controversy several decades later after decades of (mostly failed) demonstrations, referenda, and proposed legislation.
- Many western US states granted suffrage to women for state-level elections. Part of the reason seems to be that women were scarce in these jurisdictions. Another was a hope by certain politicians that women would be a reliable vote in favor of community-building efforts like schools and sanitation. Part of the reason was that in these states, women\’s suffrage was not blocked by the state constitution, and thus could become law with a simple vote of the legislature.
- Especially after about 1890, the women\’s suffrage movement became more strategic about forming coalitions. For example, large labor unions had growing numbers of women as members by the 1890s, and began to endorse women\’s suffrage. The same was true of groups supporting farmers. Prohibition groups like the Women\’s Christian Temperance Union, which had always included a number of women who did not support suffrage, became active in the pro-suffrage movement.
- By about 1910, states were taking the lead on women\’s suffrage. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt\’s Bull Moose party endorsed women\’s suffrage. Moehling and Thomasson: \”The suffrage parade in New York City in 1915 involved an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 women, including 74 women on horseback, 57 marching bands, and 145 decorated automobiles (McCammon 2003, 791). These parades brought together suffrage supporters from across the political and economic spectrum and put this diversity on display to the public. The scale and spectacle of the parades led to coverage by the press, greatly expanding public awareness of the movement. The doldrums of the suffrage movement ended in 1910 when the state of Washington granted women full suffrage. California followed in 1911, and Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon followed in 1912. … With the exception of New Mexico, all of the states west of the Rocky Mountains extended full voting rights to women by 1914.\”
- The prominent role of women in the World War I effort also helped shift support in favor of suffrage.
The female voter has come a long way since the passage of the first suffrage laws at the turn of the century and since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 extended the franchise (at least in principle) to women nationwide. We trace the evolution of the sex gap in voter turnout and partisanship over the last 80 years using a novel dataset of voter surveys. We find that women closed a 10 percentage point gap in voter turnout over the 40 years from 1940 to 1980 and over the next 40 years from 1980 to present gained more than a 4 percentage point advantage in turnout over men. Additionally, while women and men had similar patterns of party support in 1940, over the last half-century, a 12 percentage point sex gap has emerged in the probability of women and men identifying with the Democratic Party.
What accounts for these changes? We argue that the relative rise in women’s turnout is largely explained by the replacement of older, low-participation cohorts with younger, high-participation cohorts. Descriptively, we find that these cohort effects are associated with women’s differential response to increasing rates of high school graduation, with less explanatory power for rising rates of college attendance. In contrast, the rise in women’s support for Democrats appears to have been common to all cohorts. At least since the 1970s, this seems to be best explained by the trend towards greater polarization of political parties, as we find little evidence of any change in the gap in policy preferences across men and women.