Ninety-five years ago today women in the United States gained access to the ballot box, thanks to the passage of the 19th amendment. This fundamental right of any democracy was no easy fight for the suffragists of the 19th century. It took 132 years for women in the United States to access this very basic right to vote promised in the U.S. Constitution. Though the constitutional right to vote was gender neutral, conservative authorities interpreted it to mean only free (read white) male adult property owners should be entrusted with a vote.
The right to vote for women – and the 19th Amendment – remains the only mention of women in the U.S. constitution. This vacuum necessitated that women take affirmative actions to demand equal rights. It took another half a century for women in the United States to convince the top court that laws which discriminate against women are a violation of the equal protection (equal rights) provision of the U.S. constitution.
The Idaho state code, for example, specified that “males must be preferred to females” with regard to administrating estates of their children until the court case of Reed v. Reed wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. In that case, Idaho argued that men had superior business sense and experience compared to women and invoked administrative convenience of having a male default for estate administration. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the gender stereotypes rationale and asserted that having a mandatory sex-based preference was tantamount to arbitrary legislation in violation of gender equality.
A decade later in 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court in Kirchberg v. Feenstra unanimously held that a husband may not sell the matrimonial home without the wife’s consent. The nine all-male panel did away with the Louisiana’s “head and master” laws under which the husband as the “master” can make unilateral decisions about the couple’s jointly owned property. In this case the husband mortgaged the family home without informing his wife, left the home and his wife to fend off an order to seize and sell the home due to his failure to repay the loan.
Why is this still relevant today? Because across the world, particularly where the poorest of the poor reside, women continue to face these same challenges to equal rights to control and own property and land. They continue to be seen as less capable extensions of the men they are related to by blood or marriage — fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, and husbands.
Women in the United States spent decades claiming these rights, resulting in untold benefits to families and communities. The same is on the horizon for the millions of women in India and Sub-Saharan Africa where Landesa works to enshrine women’s rights to land, property and productive assets as central to empowering women financially, socially, and politically.
More than 139 constitutions worldwide guarantee sex equality on paper, yet legal loopholes, discriminatory laws and gender bias persist. As the U.S. experience illustrates, even robust equality provisions (keeping in mind the U.S. constitution still lacks an explicit sex equality clause and no equal rights amendment) require transformative action to demand that rights are realized and enforced.