In 1920 the Constitution's 19th amendment was passed, recognizing the right of citizens to vote regardless of sex. Some states had already allowed suffrage to some extent, especially in western states or territories such as Wyoming and Utah. More established states lagged behind. Some speculate that this discrepancy is because women in the west were more independent, often homesteaders on their own, and many could handle a gun which perhaps caused a slight unease among the men.

North Dakota sputtered in its suffrage efforts. It allowed women to vote in school elections early on but, as Cally Peterson in “North Dakota Living” pointed out, vetoed or its voters gave a thumbs-down on the matter. Still, in 1917 incomplete suffrage in the state was passed, allowing women to vote for U.S. presidents and in local races.

Why the reluctance to grant suffrage? Noah Webster partly defined it in 1828 as a vote “for the choice of a man for an office or trust.” Women running for office weren't a consideration at the time. Despite women being counted in the census as citizens and the repeated use of “people” and “persons” in the Constitution, they were denied the right to vote. Reasons given were that women weren't emotionally competent to cast informed votes, or that women should be above sordid, filthy (which it is) politics and smoke-filled backroom wrestlings.


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However, there's another possible reason for the reluctance: many men and women might have thought that a feminized polity would harm family relations, liberty, and the administration of justice. Anti-suffragist Minnie Bronson argued in North Dakota and elsewhere that the “best” women would be throwing away their considerable influence in shaping public opinion in exchange for a vote at the ballot box that would be offset by ignorant and vicious women.

John Lott, probably best known for his writings on the Second Amendment and gun laws, has written about the great influence of women's votes since 1920 on taxes, welfare and government spending. He draws a baleful picture, at least for those who favor the early republic's understanding of government's role. After excluding other factors such as industrialization and education, Lott found that after steady or falling states' per capita spending from 1910 to 1920, women's votes accompanied a doubling in real per capita spending in just 11 years.

The correlation continued: the more women who voted, the larger state and federal spending and the greater progressive taxation became. Adjusting for other influences, Lott argues that there was causation at work as well. Men and women tend to vote differently. Divorced, single, and married women with children to a lesser extent, are more prone to vote for government entitlements than men. Thus it appears that the change in who can vote greatly enlarged the growth of Leviathan's control over the economy and our lives. Looking at divorces and out-of-wedlock rates from the 1970s on, we might also wonder if the anti-suffragists had a point about how suffrage would affect families. For better or worse, the universal vote turned America on its ear.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.