100 years later: The importance of economic freedom to women's right to vote

100 years later: The importance of economic freedom to women's right to vote
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This week marks a momentous occasion: 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United States. The adoption of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, was the culmination of a decades-long and often controversial struggle to extend voting rights to women. Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and barriers to attaining citizenship would prevent many residents of the United States from casting their ballots for at least another 50 years, and still today every major election raises questions of whether voting is as accessible as it should be. Yet the 19th Amendment remains one of the great democratizations in American history, and an important step forward for the idea that the institutions of a free society should be open to all voices. 

Considering women’s suffrage in the context of a free democratic society is a valuable reminder that the spirit of the women’s suffrage movement was not just about voting. More fundamentally, it was about women being able to participate fully in life in as open and self-directed a manner as their brothers, fathers and husbands. In other words, women deserved to share in American independence; to be free to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for choosing their paths in life.

The kind of independence the suffrage movement fought for requires not just political freedom, but also economic freedom. Economic freedom is nothing more or less than the ability to make decisions for yourself about how you will allocate your time, resources and energy. In other words, can you choose where you will live? With whom you will live? Whether you will start a business, get an education, or work for wages? How you will spend your days? Limitations on economic freedom are barriers in the way of being able to exercise choice over these deeply personal, life-constructing decisions. 

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Although they used different language, the suffragettes’ concern about issues of economic liberty is clearly reflected by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention — the first major women’s rights convention, often considered the jumping-off point for first wave feminism and the suffrage movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments” included women’s access to property rights and economic opportunity right along with suffrage in its list of the “long train of abuses and usurpations” that women endured under patriarchal political institutions. 

Modeled after the Declaration of Independence and written in the same revolutionary spirit, the “Declaration” denounces women’s loss of legal independence upon marriage; married women’s inability to own property separately from their husbands; married men’s ability to use physical restraint and deny divorce; women’s exclusion from institutions of higher education and skilled professions; and attitudes that considered women to be less capable, less responsible and inevitably dependent upon men.

One vital lesson from American history is how intertwined economic and political freedom were and continue to be. When women could work for a living and keep their own wages, they could choose to put those resources towards causes that mattered to them. When women gained access to higher education, they gained practical opportunities — for example, to choose between work and marriage — but they also made it more difficult for the world around them to justify limiting their professional, political and intellectual roles.

Many of the limits on political and economic freedom that American women faced in the 19th century continue to serve as obstacles for women around the world. There are still women who are denied not just political rights, but also the education, economic opportunity and freedom of movement to be able to advocate for themselves and for reform. The World Bank’s report on “Women, Business, and the Law” provides a high-level overview of the restrictions on women’s economic and political rights that persist throughout the world today. 

Voting may or may not have much of an impact on your day-to-day life. But living in a society that considers you to be equally deserving of the freedom to make your own decisions as those living around you is of critical importance. In order for women around the world to have the same opportunities that we have enjoyed over the past 100 years in the United States, political equality is essential, but not enough. Women must also have the economic freedom to work, buy, sell, move, hustle and advocate for themselves.

Jayme Lemke is a guest lecturer at The Fund for American Studies and a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Follow her on Twitter @jmelemke.