Akhil Amar Got There First

Once again, Catherine Rampell has an interesting Economix post (“Minority Rules: Sex Ratios and Suffrage”) describing a new empirical analysis arguing that “jurisdictions that granted women the right to vote earlier generally had lower concentrations of women.” Why?


[M]en had much to lose by enfranchising women. … The relative scarcity of women in the West may have “reduced the political costs and risks to male electorates and legislators of extending the franchise,” the authors wrote. In other words, Western men sacrificed less power by enfranchising women, since there were fewer women around to dilute male voting interests. … Granting women the right to vote [also] may have appealed to Western legislators who wanted to attract more women to their regions. More women probably meant happier male constituents. If the jurisdiction granting suffrage were still a territory, more women (and potential mothers) also enabled the population growth that could help make the case for official statehood.

These seem to me to be powerful arguments — but I learned them first in 2005 when I was reading Akhil Amar‘s monumental biography of … our Constitution. Akhil wrote:

Much as the Founding Fathers had structured a Constitution whose promises of freedom and democracy sought to pull skilled European immigrants across the ocean, so their pioneer grandsons in the West evidently aimed to draw American women through the plains and over the mountains.

Data from the 1890 census provide some support for this admittedly crude theory. For every hundred native-born Wyoming males, there were only 58 native-born females. No other state had so pronounced a gender imbalance. Colorado and Idaho were the fifth and sixth most imbalanced states overall in 1890. The other early woman-suffrage state, Utah, had a somewhat higher percentage of women (thanks to its early experience with polygamy), but even Utah had only 88 native-born females for every hundred native-born males, ranking it 11th among the 45 states in the mid-1890’s. Also, the second, third, fourth, and seventh most imbalanced states — Montana, Washington, Nevada, and Oregon — would all embrace woman suffrage in the early 1910’s, several years ahead of most sister states. In all these places, men voting to extend the suffrage to women had little reason to fear that males might anytime soon be outvoted en masse by females (Amar, America’s Constitution, pp. 419-25).

You can read his entire narrative on the evolution of women’s suffrage here. Interestingly, Amar — who is not an empirical economist — was able to see a couple of additional legal/political wrinkles that others might miss:

Above and beyond any individualistic desire to woo women that may have motivated the men of Wyoming and other Western regions, federal territorial policy provided a modest if unintended spur to woman suffrage. In general, Congress in the 19th century waited for each territory to achieve a certain critical population mass before admitting that territory to statehood. Although Congress followed no single formula applicable to all places and all times, each western territory understood that rapid population growth would enhance its prospects for early statehood. Each new woman in the West would not only bring to a territory her own person but might also help produce future growth through childbearing. And if Congress ever decided to focus not on a given territory’s total number of inhabitants but rather on the size of its voting base, then woman suffrage would almost double the key number. …

Another aspect of the endgame: If and when women did get the vote, woe unto the diehard anti-suffrage politician who had held out until the bitter end! Each state legislator or Congressman from a non-suffrage state had to heed not just the men who had elected him, but also the men and women who could refuse to reelect him once the franchise was extended. (After ratification of the Direct Senate Election Amendment, every U.S. senator had to focus on the statewide voters rather than a tiny clump of political chums in the state capital.) The experience in Ohio, where male voters had refused to enfranchise women in 1912 and again in 1914, nicely illustrated the underlying electoral math. Senator Warren Harding voted for the Woman Suffrage Amendment and went on to capture the White House in 1920. Conversely, Senator Atlee Pomerene opposed the amendment and was voted out of office in 1922.

But the bigger picture is one of consilience: Two very different methodologies came to similar conclusions on a central question of how men democratically agreed to dilute their franchise.

Eric M. Jones

It is very hard to avoid the insidious tone that men somehow coerced women to go west. Certainly women had a big part in this. As I recall, many women do like the man-woman thing. Yes?

I also note that there is no reference to scriptural injunctions, (which Moslem and other women are still shackled by), being the cause of

I also note that the whole thing comes apart if you look at percentages. If 55 single guys court 45 single women, that's not a problem.


A gloss to this is something Howard Lamar taught me at Yale, that Utah enfranchised women as a way to preserve Mormon authority, given that the LDS Church then recognized polygamy and thus votes for women meant more Mormon votes. If I remember correctly, this helped delay Utah's entry into the Union - along with issues relating to polygamy and the shadow state of Deseret - and that women were then allowed to vote only when that was connected to oaths against polygamy.

The number of women was less important than the religious identity of those women and thus how they would vote.

I think Wyoming had two big tensions: a number of Mormons had settled there by 1869 (but I don't know the number) as well as the usual conflict between ranchers and homesteaders. I suspect political advantage was the main reason for granting suffrage, not advertising.


Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg says unmarried women made the difference for Obama. Back in 1994, when white male voters were said to be responsible for the GOP's takeover of Congress, the media came up with a label for them: “angry white men.” Will the media now refer to Greenberg's voting bloc as “bitter unmarried women”?

arnie devito

"For every hundred native-born Wyoming males, there were only 58 native-born females. "

I'm missing something here, what happened to the other 42 native-born females? One would assume "native born" people would be quite close to 50-50 (male/female) at birth. Did the females leave the state, or die more often (childbirth deaths?).

Of course, I could see immigrant males far outnumbering immigrant females.

The Notorious H.A.M.

Neither Rampell or Amar got there first. We talked about these ideas in my high school Government class - why the Western states allowed women to vote first is a pretty common "discussion question." While their thoughts are insightful, they are by no means original.

B.C. Perry

As a Utah resident, I do find it curious, given the "imbalance" statistics cited in this article, that a common (and erroneous) "defense" of Utah polygamy was that there was, in fact, more women than men, thus making polygamy a proper social custom to provide and protect these supposedly surplus women. Polygamy is, of course, still a significant issue here in the state, and among some of the groups that practice it, the rights of women (not just suffrage rights) are seriously compromised. There's an online documentary that discusses some of these issues at:



I guess the question is how many unmarried women were willing to move out to the wilds of the territories just to get the vote? Does this actually make sense? I'm not an expert in the culture at the time but I wonder if it wasn't a small part of the motivation. The territory to state being based on voters rather than population makes more sense to me.

What also seems possible is that do to the frontier lifestyle, where a hearty amount of self sufficiency was required by families and there wasn't any question in anyone's mind that everyone was contributing equally to the family's survival, it was more natural both men and women were capable of and deserved a vote. Male inheritence (i.e. wealth is held by males and women must marry to share in that wealth) didn't really factor into the culture as much here since the big draw to go to the territories is that you could acquire land in some way other than inheritance. All of this seems to set the stage for women's suffrage, much the same way it was easier for states who did not rely on slavery for it's economic livlihood was quicker to abolish it.



I agree with ktb. The areas with the fewest women were the roughest and hardest to live in. The women who lived there were not dainty or sheltered, but were equal partners - it was easier to see them as worthy of the vote.

d barranco

Men gave women to right to vote because it was morally right and just. The gift was altruistic. Or are we to believe that political activism, such as the feminist revolution for example, is based on naked self interest rather than lofty principles?

Gregoy Cox

I wonder if the idea of the cost to the enfranchised group correlating with the extension of the franchise might also apply to the Jim Crow-era south as compared with the contemporary north.
Also, I have taught the luring women idea to my US History students for years, but had never thought of the cost issue.


Related story- for the 1992 presidential election I stood behind an elderly woman and man who were mother and son. He was in his early 70s and she was a spry 94 years old. She related to me how she had voted in every presidential election since women could vote in 1920. Made sense since she would have been over age 21 which was the voting age then.

Living history in line to vote plus talk about making your votes count!!! And what a contrast to those who never have voted...