The Impact of the 19th Amendment
by J. Kevin Corder and Christina Wolbrecht
Reporter: "When women get the ballot, what use will they make of it, what good to they propose to accomplish?"
Susan: "They propose to do away with vice and immorality, to prevent the social evil by giving women remunerative employment; to forbid the sale of spirituous liquors and tobacco, and to teach men a higher and nobler life than the one they now follow."
-Interview with Susan B. Anthony, The New Northwest (Portland, Oregon), November 24, 1871
During the long fight to secure the ballot for women, many suffrage advocates argued that the women voters would fundamentally transform politics, bringing an end to corruption, policies to address social ills like poverty and violence, and even world peace. Such was their optimism that suffragist Anna Howard Shaw declared “once women vote…there will not be such a need of charity and philanthropy!” Others at the time were less sanguine, predicting political and societal collapse. Women’s suffrage undermined the natural order of the family, and “Government subverted there, is overthrown everywhere,” warned clergyman Robert Afton Holland.
Yet, no sooner had women began entering polling places in 1920 than observers began declaring women’s suffrage a “failure.” In what we might think of as a historical version of a Twitter hot-take, outlets ranging from Good Housekeeping (“Is Woman’s Suffrage a Failure?”) to Harper’s Magazine (“Is Woman-Suffrage a Failure?”) and The Century (“Are Women a Failure in Politics?”) addressed this claim in the early 1920s. In the words of journalist Frederick Lew Allen in 1931: “[The American woman] won the suffrage in 1920. She seemed, it is true, to be very little interested in it once she had it; she voted, but mostly as the unregenerate men about her did.”
Most of the more ambitious promises and warnings about women’s suffrage—both utopia and apocalypse—never materialized.
Allen had the facts right: Women did not initially take up their right to vote in the same numbers as men. When women did vote, their choices were little different from those of long-enfranchised men, a pattern many attributed to husbands telling their wives how to vote. Most of the more ambitious promises and warnings about women’s suffrage—both utopia and apocalypse—never materialized.
One hundred years later, we know a lot more about how women actually vote. Women are now more likely to turn out to vote than men. While husbands and wives still generally vote for the same candidates, few assume women take direction from their husbands. In fact, the most popular and persistent media narrative is that women are different; in particular, more likely than to favor Democratic candidates. Given these (new) facts and the longer view, how should we evaluate the impact of the 19th Amendment? What did the 19th Amendment do?
The 19th Amendment did successfully eliminate sex as a requirement for voting. It did little, however, to undermine the extensive voting rights violations in the Jim Crow South that kept black women from the polls for decades. The 19th Amendment also did not directly address broader gender biases and imbalances—patriarchal family structures, unequal access to resources, gender discrimination—that constrained, and still constrain, women’s political power.
What the 19th Amendment did do was upend traditionally masculine conceptions of politics. The American constitutional order is grounded in a philosophical tradition in which politics is inherently a male enterprise. The characteristics we associate with politics—strength, ambition, dominance—are stereotypically male characteristics. Fulfilling the feminine ideal of purity, compassion, and deference required women to shun the dirty, debasing world of politics. By recognizing women as political actors, the 19th Amendment was a direct assault on traditional conceptions of femininity and masculinity, and on the presumption that politics is a man’s game.
Power is the sine qua non of politics. In the words of historian Ellen DuBois, suffrage reconfigured power relations between men and women “because it exposed and challenged the assumption of male authority over women.” Suffrage recognized women as capable of political interest, political knowledge, and most importantly, political power. Suffrage allowed for the possibility that women might have interests separate from those of men and that women might make decisions about representation in the pursuit of their own interests, as women themselves understood them. The effect reverberates through the generations: When young women, in particular, observe women in political roles they are more likely to imagine themselves as politically active in the future.
The 19th Amendment also transformed women’s place in the American political system. Before suffrage, women’s relationship to the state was largely indirect. In a system based on consent of the governed, women were originally understood to be Republican Mothers, whose role was to provide moral support to husbands performing their civic duties and to raise sons to be good citizens. By granting women access to the ballot, the 19th Amendment recognized women as political actors in their own, independent right. Women’s suffrage was thus a key step in a long, not always straightforward, process of political empowerment for women. And indeed, political equality, rather than some notion of a unified, or even progressive, female electorate, was the central goal of most suffragists.
When young women observe women in political roles they are more likely to imagine themselves as politically active in the future.
This is not to say that women existed wholly outside of politics prior to 1920, not by a long shot. Historian Nancy Cott points out that looking for dramatic political change in the wake of women’s enfranchisement ignores the extent and ways in which women were politically active both before and after the “great divide” of 1920. Women were, among other things, effective and important activists for abolition, prohibition, labor, and progressivism, in addition to their own rights. Denied the opportunity to pursue their political interests as voters, women in the late 19th century helped invent interest group politics—organizing associations, influencing public opinion, lobbying elected officials, and campaigning for sympathetic candidates.
The ratification of the 19th Amendment in one sense recognized the influence and impact women already had, and added a new tool to women’s established arsenal. Some note the irony that the vote is in many ways a less powerful political weapon than the very sort of activism in which women were already engaged. Democratic theorist Carole Pateman argues that “periodic exercise of the franchise to choose national and local representatives at a time, on issues, and for candidates about which the elector has no choice is an exceedingly weak and minimal form of democratic participation compared with that in, say, the suffrage movement itself.” When we investigate the impact of women’s suffrage, we are fundamentally confronting both the potential and the limits of the vote as a mechanism for political change.
The extension of suffrage to women made the United States a more small-d democratic nation. The right of citizens to choose their own representatives in free and fair elections is central to any robust definition of democracy. The 19th Amendment represents the largest expansion of voting rights in U.S. history, and a great leap forward for American claims as a democratic exemplar. The struggle for and achievement of women’s suffrage benefited from and contributed to liberalizing pressures to expand suffrage in the U.S. and around the world. It was still just one step; the standard of full and meaningful enfranchisement remained unmet in the U.S. until at least the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and in important ways, remains a challenge today.
We also know now that early pessimism about the impact of women’s suffrage on public policy was misplaced. Scholars have credited women’s suffrage with providing the impetus for policy change in the 1920s, most notably the Shepard-Towner (1921) and Cable (1922) Acts pertaining to maternity/infant care and women’s independent citizenship, respectively. Yet conventional wisdom holds that attention to these issues generally ceased by the late 1920s, as politicians concluded that a women’s voting bloc had not materialized; it is often noted, for example, that Congress failed to reauthorize Sheppard-Towner in 1929.
Contemporary social science, however, is challenging this view. Worldwide, the enactment of women’s suffrage is associated with an expansion of social welfare spending. In the United States, states that enacted women’s suffrage prior to 1920 experienced increases in the size of government, improved educational attainment and employment outcomes for the economically disadvantaged, including black Southerners, and a greater likelihood of liberal votingamong the state’s federal representatives. These policy shifts were consequential: Economist Grant Miller finds that states that enfranchised women increased their local public health spending dramatically, leading to an 8-15% decline in child mortality (~20,000 deaths) in those states before 1920. One hundred years later, we still have much to learn about the overlooked and misunderstood impacts of women’s suffrage on the public policy that shapes our lives.
The 19th Amendment sparked attention to issues expected to matter to women, expanded the political agenda, and transformed the framing of policy debates as politicians sought to appeal to women voters, and the press sought to cover them. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that for political impact, it matters less why or how women actually vote; what matters more is what observers and politicians believe about why and how women vote. Arguably the central claim—echoed election after election—is that women are primarily motivated by women’s issues, such as abortion, sexual harassment, or equal pay, or issues related to their traditional roles as mothers, such as health and education. In the 1920s, presidential candidates emphasized child labor, Prohibition, and maternity and infant health in their appeals to new women voters. In the 21st century, appeals directed at women range from childcare and school choice to #MeToo and equal pay.
The policy impact of the 19th Amendment depends not only on what politicians think women want, but on whether they believe they need women’s votes. In 1920, Warren Harding and James Cox reached out to new women voters because they were perceived as up for grabs and potentially determinative. By the 1930s, when a women’s voting bloc failed to materialize, those appeals largely ceased. In the 1970s, when the women’s movement drew attention to the political interests of women and parties once again viewed women as a contested constituency, politicians again sought women’s votes with policy appeals. The passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (1973) as well as Title IX (1972), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974), and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978) soon followed. However, as the gender gap emerged in 1980, the parties increasingly sought out different groups of women voters. Women’s issues became increasingly polarized, the pace of policymaking slowed, and the meaning of the women’s vote was increasingly contested.
Efforts to shape the way we understand the women’s vote have consequences for women’s representation. When politicians and the press believe, for example, that soccer moms are the key female demographic, they focus their attention on the perceived interests of white, married, suburban moms, a portion of the female electorate which has never been large, is declining, and is not uniquely likely to decide elections. More importantly, a focus on soccer moms ignores the interests of women who are black, Latina, Asian, childless, single, divorced, young, old, welfare recipients, working-class, professional, retired, feminist, and so on, all of whom have as much of a claim as women voters as do so-called soccer moms.
Voting is a blunt and limited weapon for political influence that must be joined with activism and advocacy to make a difference.
Women gain and exercise real political power when they give meaning to their votes through activism and advocacy. In the 1920s, the activism of women in the Progressive Movement convinced many observers that what women voters wanted was prohibition, morality, and reform. In the early 1970s, politicians rushed to prove their commitment to women’s equality in response to the second wave. Within a few years conservative women’s activism made it clear that not all women voters supported liberal feminist ideals. In the 1980s, feminist activists gave the gender gap its name and promoted its impact as a means to expand the political power of women, drawing an unprecedented level of attention to women voters. In recent years, women on the left have been the backbone of the Resistance, communicating their policy priorities through calls to elected officials, campaign work, protest, and even running for office. None of these women activists have represented all women voters, but all of them have shaped how politicians appeal to women as voters.
Early conclusions about the failure of women’s suffrage were in this sense naïve: Learning how to leverage women’s votes was as complex and perilous as securing the vote itself. Evaluating the impact of the 19th Amendment highlights both the power and the limits of voting rights. Suffrage is at the core of a government founded on the consent of the governed, but it is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. What we’ve learned from the first century of American women voters is that voting is a blunt and limited weapon for political influence that must be joined with activism and advocacy in order to truly make a difference.
J. Kevin Corder is a professor of political science at Western Michigan University. Christina Wolbrecht is a professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. They are the authors of A Century of Votes for Women (Cambridge University Press).