100 years later: The importance of economic freedom for women’s suffrage


This week marks a momentous occasion: 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United States. The adoption of the 19th amendment on August 26, 1920, was the culmination of a decades-long and often controversial struggle to extend the franchise to women. Jim Crow laws, voting taxes and barriers to obtaining citizenship would prevent many United States residents from voting for at least 50 years, and even today, every major election raises the question 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 right to vote in the context of a free democratic society is a precious reminder that the spirit of the women’s suffrage movement was not just a question of voting. More fundamentally, it was for women to be able to participate fully in life in a manner as open and autonomous as their brothers, fathers and husbands. In other words, women deserved to participate in American independence; to be free to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for choosing their path in life.

The type of independence that the suffrage movement fought for requires not only political freedom, but economic freedom as well. 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 are going to live? Who will you be living with? Whether you want to start a business, study or work for a salary? How are you going to spend your days? Limitations on economic freedom are obstacles to the ability to exercise choice over these deeply personal and constructive decisions.

Although they used different language, the suffragists’ preoccupation with questions of economic freedom is clearly reflected by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention – the first major convention on women’s rights, often seen as the starting point of first wave feminism and the suffrage movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton “Declaration of feelingsIncluded women’s access to property rights and economic opportunities as well as the right to vote in its list of the “long train of abuse and usurpation” women endured under patriarchal political institutions.

Modeled on the Declaration of Independence and written in the same revolutionary spirit, the “Declaration” denounces the loss of legal independence of women during marriage; the inability of married women to own property separately from their husbands; the ability of married men to use physical restraint and refuse divorce; the exclusion of women from higher education establishments and skilled professions; and attitudes that viewed women as less capable, less responsible and inevitably dependent on men.

A critical lesson in American history is how much economic and political freedom was and continues to be intertwined. When women could work for a living and keep their own wages, they could choose to devote these resources to causes that were close to their hearts. When women gained access to higher education, they were given 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 opportunities. professional, political and intellectual roles.

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

Voting may or may not have a big impact on your everyday life. But living in a society that sees you as deserving of the freedom to make your own decisions as much as those around you is of crucial importance. For women around the world to have the same opportunities 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, relocate, push each other and defend themselves.

Jayme Lemke is a guest lecturer at the Fund for American Studies and a principal investigator at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Follow her on twitter @jmelemke.

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