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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You wanna start a fight?

Start a discussion between men and women about John Lott's explanation in the Washington Post of the effect that women's suffrage has had on our political choices. He discusses the evidence that women tend to vote more for government programs, especially single women.
Can women's suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century thus help explain the growth of government? While the timing of the two events is suggestive, other changes during this time could have played a role. For example, some argue that Americans became more supportive of bigger government due to the success of widespread economic regulations imposed during World War I.

A good way to analyze the direct effect of women's suffrage on the growth of government is to study how each of the 48 state governments expanded after women obtained the right to vote. Women's suffrage was first granted in western states with relatively few women — Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1896). Women could vote in 29 states before women's suffrage was achieved nationwide in 1920 with the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

If women's suffrage increased government, our analysis should show a few definite indicators. First, women's suffrage would have a bigger impact on government spending and taxes in states with a greater percentage of women. And secondly, the size of government in western states should steadily expand as women comprise an increasing share of their population.

Even after accounting for a range of other factors — such as industrialization, urbanization, education and income — the impact of granting of women's suffrage on per-capita state government expenditures and revenue was startling. Per capita state government spending after accounting for inflation had been flat or falling during the 10 years before women began voting. But state governments started expanding the first year after women voted and continued growing until within 11 years real per capita spending had more than doubled. The increase in government spending and revenue started immediately after women started voting.

Yet, as suggestive as these facts are, we must still consider whether women's suffrage itself caused the growth in government, or did the government expand due to some political or social change that accompanied women's suffrage?

Fortunately, there was a unique aspect of women's suffrage that allows us to answer this question: Of the 19 states that had not passed women's suffrage before the approval of the 19th Amendment, nine approved the amendment, while the other 12 had suffrage imposed on them. If some unknown factor caused both a desire for larger government and women's suffrage, then government should have only grown in states that voluntarily adopted suffrage. This, however, is not the case: After approving women's suffrage, a similar growth in government was seen in both groups of states.
And women's votes differ based on whether or not they're married. Single women, particularly, single mothers, are much more liberal in their support for government programs.
Over the course of women's lives, their political views on average vary more than those of men. Young single women start out being much more liberal than their male counterparts and are about 50 percent more likely to vote Democratic. As previously noted, these women also support a higher, more progressive income tax as well as more educational and welfare spending. But for married women this gap is only one-third as large. And married women with children become more conservative still. But for women with children who are divorced, they are suddenly about 75 percent more likely to vote for Democrats than single men. So as divorce rates have increased, due in large part to changing divorce laws, voters have become more liberal.

Women's suffrage ushered in a sea change in American politics that affected policies aside from taxes and the size of government. For example, states that granted suffrage were much more likely to pass Prohibition, for the temperance movement was largely dominated by middle-class women. Although the "gender gap" is commonly thought to have arisen only in the 1960s, female voting dramatically changed American politics from the very beginning.
This isn't to say that the concern for women's issues are less legitimate than other issues. In a democracy, we have to take account of people's interests, and women, of course, as more than half the electorate, will influence the political debate. As a woman, I would never argue against the value of the 19th Amendment. I'm more interested in the historical implications. And the fact that women's voter participation started to ramp up just as the Great Depression was beginning probably magnified the effect that Lott is investigating. And, just as I've been covering in my Government and History classes, once the role of government increased in our nation's history, it's rarely been limited.

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