A Century of Suffrage for American Women

A Century of Suffrage for American Women

Timothy Taylor 15/05/2020 6
A Century of Suffrage for American Women

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: 

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: 

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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. 

  4. 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."

  5. The prominent role of women in the World War I effort also helped shift support in favor of suffrage. 

One striking outcome of this history is that the 19th Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and all the states needed to ratify the amendment had done so barely more than a year later August 18, 1920. It took a long time for women's suffrage to happen, but when it did happen, it had a deep level of broader legitimacy because of that history, and because of the number of powerful political, economic, and social forces aligned in support. 

What happened in the decades after women's suffrage was adopted? Cascio and Shenhav piece together the story. They offer the reminder that as late as 1940, the prominent pollster George Gallup was quoted as saying: “How will [women] vote on election day? Just exactly as they were told the night before." Of course, it wasn't that simple. 

They describe how the voting participation rates of women rose over time, and have been higher than men's rates of voting since 1980. They also present evidence that in the last half-century or so, women have become more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. They argue that these patterns seem connected to rising rates of high school and then college graduation among women. They also argue that although partisan voting differences between men and women have become larger in recent decades, there is little evidence that this greater partisanship reflects an increase in policy preferences between men and women. Cascio and Shenhav summarize: 

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.

A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist


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  • George Rouen

    Men and women are equal

  • Keith Tomlinson

    Michelle Obama should be running for presidency in 2024

  • Sean Lauder

    Ridiculous that women were not able to vote in the past

  • Joe Andrews

    Things have changed in a positive way

  • Craig Clark

    Do vote and get rid of Trump !!!

  • Jessica Devins

    My grand mother can do a better job that our current president

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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