“No Taxation Without Representation” in the American Woman Suffrage Movement

Juliana Tutt

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Introduction

Given the continuing popularity of the “no taxation without representation” catchphrase, one might expect American woman suffragists to have pounced on every opportunity to deploy it. But although many suffragists occasionally mentioned taxation, it was certainly not a focal point of the movement as a whole. In my Note, I examine the problems that American woman suffragists encountered when they tried to put “no taxation without representation” to use, both in the realm of action and the realm of debate. In short, suffragists had difficulties committing to a widespread tax resistance strategy; they were forced to admit that the taxation argument led logically only to taxpayer suffrage, not to universal suffrage; and they struggled with resulting uncertainty over the wisdom of using “no taxation without representation” rhetoric at all. I also show how these weaknesses were mitigated, to some extent, by the introduction of the federal income tax late in the game.

The Note, therefore, explains why the taxation argument was often passed over by suffragists and is rarely studied in the secondary literature, while at the same time highlighting the fascinating historical role it played, nonetheless. This Editorial highlights some of the main points of the Note.

Action and Compliance

Some suffragists took the “no taxation without representation” sentiment at face value: being denied the right to vote, they refused to pay their taxes. I use the term “tax resistance” to refer to such outright refusals to pay taxes owed. Perhaps the most famous tax resisters in the American woman suffrage movement were Julia and Abby Smith, elderly sisters whose refusal to pay their property taxes led to a sale of their cows by public auction.

However, the Smith sisters also provide an example of how even the most celebrated American tax resisters were reluctant to fully commit to the tax resistance strategy. The sisters admitted that they were willing to pay 12% interest on their tax debt indefinitely, an arrangement that came to an end only when the tax collector insisted that they make good on the entire debt. Being willing to pay the interest on taxes owed demonstrates a certain compliance and a partial recognition of the legitimacy of the underlying tax. In addition, the sisters arranged for their tenant to buy back their cows, and used their own money when the cows were auctioned a second time. Like paying interest on tax debts, this meant that the suffragists’ money was still funding their tyrannical government. The symbolism of their tax resistance remained largely intact, but they lost much of their claim to martyrdom.

Perhaps most telling was the sisters’ reaction when they were unable to carry out a plan to buy back a tract of land that was sold cheap for taxes. Although they had never brought suit against the city for any of the other less tangible wrongs they had endured, the sisters launched a full-blown legal assault to get their land back. Again, this shows that the Smith sisters, despite their fame and their label as martyrs, were only willing to suffer so much. In the end, they won their case not on principle but on technicality—they chose not to use the lawsuit as a platform to fight for their vote as well as for their land. Indeed, the report of the case that Julia Smith chose to publish in her book contains commentary that berates the opposing side for bringing up the suffrage question at all.

The failure of ordinary women to engage in tax resistance is unsurprising given the reluctance of even the most celebrated American tax resisters to fully dedicate themselves to the strategy. The Note discusses some other reasons why tax resistance was unpopular. For instance, many women found it easier to simply protest or engage in other alternatives to tax resistance. And tax resistance—especially on a large scale—may have seemed too militant to many American suffragists. Tax resistance was therefore more of a curiosity, providing some propaganda value through famous figures like the Smiths, but not achieving success as a widespread movement.

Debate and Meta-Debate

Given the limitations of tax resistance, suffragists instead devoted energy towards formulating an airtight taxation-based argument for woman suffrage. Suffragists’ general logical argument was that taxation without representation was tyranny (Premise 1); that women were taxed (Premise 2); that women were not represented (Premise 3); and that, therefore, women should be allowed to vote.

Although suffragists had to respond to counter-arguments with regard to every part of this argument, they had the most trouble with Premise 2. They tried to show that a large percentage of women were taxed in an attempt to extend the “no taxation without representation” argument to as many women as possible. However, it was very difficult to prove that all women were taxed in a sufficiently meaningful or sufficiently direct way. As a result of this weakness, the suffragists’ taxation argument led logically only to woman taxpayer suffrage, not woman universal suffrage.

This raised difficult questions. Suffragists’ goal was universal suffrage. Would the taxation argument, weakened as it was, help or hinder their progress towards this long-term goal? Would the implementation of taxpayer suffrage1 prove that full woman suffrage was harmless or even useful? Or would taxpayer suffrage become a long-term compromise, delaying full suffrage indefinitely? Both suffragists and “antis” (slang used to refer to anti-suffragists) engaged in a meta-debate over whether to embrace or reject the argument for taxpayer suffrage.

Some antis were against taxpayer suffrage. Antis often warned that no matter how moderate taxpayer suffrage seemed, it was a dangerous “entering wedge” for full suffrage. I refer to this idea—that taxpayer suffrage would help lead to full suffrage—as the “wedge theory.” Other antis criticized taxpayer suffrage itself, arguing that it would simply give more votes to the rich (since rich women were more likely to pay taxes than poor women).

Meanwhile, many suffragists favored taxpayer suffrage. But the antis’ arguments against it placed them in an awkward position. If suffragists denied that taxpayer suffrage was a wedge to full suffrage, taxpayer suffrage was no longer appealing. But if suffragists agreed with the wedge theory, antis could more easily defeat taxpayer suffrage bills. Some suffragists chose the former route and argued for taxpayer suffrage while denying that it was a wedge, but most seem to have chosen the latter. They wanted to believe that taxpayer suffrage would lead to full suffrage for women, just as it had for men.

On the other hand, some antis embraced taxpayer suffrage. Taxpayer suffrage was a convenient way for politicians to hedge their bets on the controversial suffrage issue. And as more and more taxpayer suffrage bills passed, adhering to the wedge theory became problematic. If taxpayer suffrage led inevitably to full suffrage, the antis had already lost. Loathe to admit defeat, or perhaps convinced through experience that taxpayer suffrage was not as dangerous as originally supposed, they began to accept taxpayer suffrage and deny the wedge theory. Antis in Southern states may have had a particularly strong reason to embrace taxpayer suffrage. If some suffragists there were to be believed, then “granting suffrage to women who can read and write and who pay taxes would insure white supremacy without resorting to any methods of doubtful constitutionality.”2

Concerns about the taxpayer suffrage strategy led a significant number of suffragists to criticize or abandon it. The racism associated with taxpayer suffrage was no doubt highly deplorable to many suffragists, a number of whom had previously been abolitionists. In addition, they wanted to avoid giving the vote to wealthy female property-owners before common wage-earning women. Other suffragists adopted the “all or nothing” strategy because they believed this was all that justice and democracy would allow. And as taxpayer suffrage proved slow in leading to full suffrage, the wedge theory undoubtedly lost some of its appeal.

Federal Income Tax

Throughout most of the period from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, references to “taxes” generally meant state and local property taxes. But the federal income tax came into play with the United States Revenue Act of 1913, legitimized by the newly-ratified Sixteenth Amendment. This tax gave women another type of tax to resist, and it renewed suffragists’ interest in tax protests. While such protests were dampened by World War I, the federal income tax also strengthened suffragists’ taxation argument by increasing the overall number of tax-paying women.

The federal income tax also affected the meta-debate. A common concern among suffragists was that wage-earners needed the vote more than property-owners, and therefore that to give the vote only to property-owners was a mistake. The federal income tax certainly helped to increase the intersection of the sets of “labor without representation” and “taxation without representation.” This meant that taxpayer suffrage included more wage-earner suffrage, strengthening the appeal of the taxation argument. In addition, the federal income tax provided suffragists with an argument that woman suffrage was a federal problem best solved by constitutional amendment, as opposed to a problem best left to individual states due to federalism.

Because of the federal income tax, the taxation argument became a more desirable and accepted argument for suffragists. Although many other factors contributed more heavily to the suffragists’ victory in 1920, the small role that the federal income tax played in strengthening the suffragists’ tax-related arguments should not be forgotten.

Conclusion

The “no taxation without representation” argument is an often overlooked or glossed-over facet of woman suffrage history. To some extent, this mirrors the realities of the movement: the taxation argument faced serious limitations both in the realm of action and the realm of debate. At the same time, however, the argument was a part of suffragists’ lives, whether they were resisting taxes, refraining from resisting, arguing against antis, or arguing amongst themselves.

Acknowledgments:

Copyright © 2010 Stanford Law Review.

Juliana Tutt is a J.D. Candidate at Stanford Law School in the Class of 2010.

This Legal Workshop Editorial is based on the following Law Review Note:  Juliana Tutt, Note, “No Taxation Without Representation” in the American Woman Suffrage Movement, 62 STAN. L. REV. 1473 (2010).

  1. For the purposes of this Editorial, “taxpayer suffrage” means woman taxpayer suffrage.
  2. Statement, Board of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1903), quoted in 5 History of Woman Suffrage 59 (Ida Husted Harper ed., 1922).

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