The Downside of Women’s Suffrage

While many factors have contributed to the empowerment of the state and the politicians that oversee it, economist John Lott thinks that women’s suffrage cannot be ignored as a factor that contributed to the massive increase in size of government in the United States between 1920 and 1965. Updating the findings of his 1999 study in the Journal of Political Economy, Lott explores how the enfranchisement of women ushered in what he calls “a sea change in American politics.”

Lott notes that before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women had the right to vote in 29 of the then-48 states. Then looking at voting and public spending data of each of the 48 states, beginning with Wyoming that granted women the franchise in 1869, he documents how both voter turnout (measured by the percentage of the adult population voting) and state spending increased dramatically during the ten years after each state achieved suffrage. By the eleventh year, state per-capita spending had more than doubled in real terms, jumping from an average of $101 to $208.

To test causality, Lott examined the 19 states where women could not vote prior to 1920, comparing the growth of government among the nine states that had approved the Nineteenth Amendment with the ten that had suffrage imposed upon them. If some other factor that accompanied women’s suffrage had caused the jump in state spending, Lott claims those factors would trigger differences between these two categories of states. Yet in both categories of states, spending increases were similar.

Lott further notes that it took about 45 years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment for women’s voting rates to match men’s rates, a pattern that corresponds with the expansion of the federal government through the 1960s. Although he doesn’t demonstrate this quantitatively, he attributes the continued expansion of government since 1965 not so much to suffrage per se but to family breakdown caused by rising rates of divorce and unwed childbearing.

What accounts for these findings? Lott relates polling data that show that relative to men, women are less likely to vote Republican and more likely favor higher taxes as well as more welfare and education spending. These differences, however, narrow by two-thirds among women who are married, and are nearly eliminated among married women with children. “But divorced women with children suddenly become 75 percent more likely to vote Democratic than single men.” Consequently, had women not been voting in recent decades, Republicans would have won the presidential contests of 1976 and 1996.

The economist does not explore how the Sixteenth Amendment (the income tax), which was also ratified during the Progressive era (in 1913) and enabled the expansion of government, fits into the picture. Yet his findings that suggest a downside to the Nineteenth Amendment nonetheless expose yet another irony of the modern state and its dubious relationship with the family.

(John R. Lott Jr., Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don’t [Washington: Regnery, 2007], pp. 160–65.)