Women’s Rights and Economic Empowerment

[Repost from March 3, 2013]

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1913 National Woman Suffrage Parade, held the day before the inauguration of President Wilson. The event brought close  to 5,000 marchers to Washington, and considerable press followed, not least because of the difficulty the women had in marching due to near-riots from the anti-suffragists on the scene and the lack of police control.  “The morale of the suffragists, and especially of those who paraded, was boosted as a result of the angry crowds, and…there was a stronger conviction in the righteousness of the movement” (Bland, 1972). Though it would be another seven years before the 19th amendment was ratified, this parade reignited the spark in the women’s rights movement.

Crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue during the 1913 parade.
Crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue during the 1913 parade.

How did women’s rights change economic empowerment for women?

Several studies show that there is a direct correlation between broader political rights and economic development. One theory argues that there are three stages to the women’s rights movement: first, economic rights, then political rights, and finally, labor rights (Doepke et al., 2011). By the time the women were marching in Washington on March 3, 1913, it can be argued that (white) women had obtained significant economic rights with regards to property, divorce, and child custody. The economic rights acquired in the latter half of the 19th century paved the way for political rights in part because women were no longer completely dependent on their husbands.  For part 1 of this series, I will focus on the political rights in the early twentieth century and their economic implications.

Political Rights and Economic Shifts

The political elite (in this case, men) were resistant to the broadening of rights in part because a shift in eligible voters would shift the distribution of resources, potentially to their disadvantage.  For instance, once women gained voting rights, the US saw an increase in government expenditures for health and education. Doepke et al. note that “women’s enfranchisement was associated with a 24% increase in state social spending, and in particular with higher health spending.” I would argue these are good investments, but they may not align with what male voters wanted.

Doepke et al. theorize that the ultimate reason for the expansion of women’s rights was due to technological changes that increased the returns to education and human capital.  As more women were able to enter the labor market due to technological changes (for example, mechanized farm tools that lessened the manual labor) and increase efficiency and output – and thus profit – “men faced a tradeoff between getting a larger share of a smaller pie or a smaller share of a larger pie” (Doepke et al., 2011).

Jones (1991) calls the expansion of women’s rights the “end of the gender monopoly.” According to the above theory, technological change increased the costs of the gender monopoly, which induced men to vote for an expansion of rights.

The effects of the national expansion of women’s rights were seen in the home. The ability of women to participate in economic and political arenas leads to better bargaining power in their household. Even women who choose not to work benefit from an increased level of bargaining power within their household. If women have legal rights and can participate in society as a separate entities from their husbands, they can participate in the household decision-making in a more equal manner (Doepke et al., 2011).

Issues That Remain Today

Now, 100 years after the march and 93 years after the 19th amendment was ratified, lingering economic issues for American women can be found in the labor market, the third stage of the Doepke et al. theory. Women are increasingly becoming the breadwinners of the household, yet the political laws and regulations do not fully or efficiently support this cultural shift.

Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy (President's Commission on the Status of Women)
Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy (President’s Commission on the Status of Women)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women which, under the helm of Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to advance equality in the workplace. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 grew from the commission’s findings and aimed to eliminate sex discrimination in wages. Since its passage, the US has made significant strides to shrink the wage gap, but the fight for truly equal pay continues.

The US also lacks a strong social safety net for families. There is no paid long-term family leave unless a company individually chooses to give that to their employees. The lack of a national policy greatly impacts family caregivers, the majority of whom are women.  Thus women, particularly those in low paying jobs, often have to choose between their jobs and their families if someone gets sick, or if they have children.  To put it in perspective, we are one of four countries without a law mandating paid parental leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho join us.

Obviously there is work to do, but for now, let’s celebrate the achievements women have gained in the US. To paraphrase Doepke et al., 200 years ago, women couldn’t own their own property. 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. 50 years ago, women were widely discriminated against in the workforce.

What will someone say 50 years from now?

For those interested, the Smithsonian is doing a wonderful exhibit on the 1913 National Woman Suffrage Parade. It is at the Museum of American History until October 2013. More information is available here.

Further Reading

Bland, Sidney R. “New Life in an Old Movement: Alice Paul and the Great Suffrage Parade of 1913 in Washington, D.C.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Vol. 71/72, The 48th separately bound book (1971/1972), pp. 657-678.

Doepke, Matthias, Michele Tertilt, and Alessandra Voena. “The Economics and Politics of Women’s Rights.” Annual Review of Economics, July 2012.

Engerman, Stanley L. and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “The Evolution of Suffrage Institutions in the New World.” The Journal of Economic History. Vol. 65, No. 4. December 2005. pp 891-921.

Jones, Ethel B. “The Economics of Woman Suffrage.” The Journal of Legal Studies. Vol. 20, No 2. June 1991. pp 423-437.

Photo 1 Source: Library of Congress

Photo 2 Source: National Archives


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