She the People: The Nineteenth Amendment, Sex Equality, Federalism, and the Family

97 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2002

See all articles by Reva Siegel

Reva Siegel

Yale University - Law School


Americans debated questions of women's citizenship for over a half century before adopting the Nineteenth Amendment, but neither the Amendment nor its history now plays any role in modern interpretations of the Constitution. Instead, the Supreme Court addresses questions of women's citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment, reasoning about problems of sex discrimination by analogy to problems of race discrimination. This framework denies sex discrimination law a foundation in constitutional history, and, in so doing, weakens its apprehension of issues affecting women's status and its authority to address them. The debates over woman suffrage that began with the drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment and concluded with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment are plainly relevant to understanding how the guarantee of equal citizenship applies to women. At the founding and for generations thereafter, Americans believed women did not need the vote because they were represented in the state through male heads of household. By adopting the Nineteenth Amendment, Americans were breaking with traditional conceptions of the family that were rooted in coverture, as well as with understandings of federalism that placed family relations beyond the reach of the national government. The debates over the Nineteenth Amendment thus memorialize the nation's decision to repudiate traditional conceptions of the family that have shaped women's status in public as well as private law and that are inconsistent with equal citizenship in a democratic polity. If concepts of sex discrimination were informed by the experience and deliberative choices of past generations of Americans, equal protection doctrine would better recognize forms of discrimination historically directed at women; and the law of federalism would take a more critical approach to claims that the family is a local institution, beyond the reach of the national government. The article closes by considering how this new, historically grounded approach to questions of sex discrimination under Sections One and Five of the Fourteenth Amendment would enable a different constitutional analysis of the portions of the Violence Against Women Act struck down in United States v. Morrison.

Suggested Citation

Siegel, Reva B., She the People: The Nineteenth Amendment, Sex Equality, Federalism, and the Family. Available at SSRN: or

Reva B. Siegel (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

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New Haven, CT 06520-8215
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