Reconstructing Liberty, Equality, and Marriage: The Missing Nineteenth Amendment Argument
Nan D. Hunter
The social movement that led to adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment sought not only women’s right to vote but also the end to a system of marriage law based on coverture. Under coverture, married women were deprived of property and contract rights and were de jure subservient to their husbands. Coverture also provided the predicate for denial of the vote. The model voter was the independent yeoman or worker able to express his own interests in a democratic system. Women were thought to be properly confined to the domestic sphere and dependent on their husbands, who were presumed to vote on behalf of all household members. On this understanding, coverture and the state functioned as interlocking systems of governance. The nineteenth century Women’s Rights Movement was a campaign to reshape American democracy; eliminating coverture and extending full citizenship rights to women were necessary to achieve that goal. To use a phrase that we now associate with same-sex couples, it was the nation’s first marriage equality movement.
Adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment marked a new social under-standing that constitutional principles and democratic norms must apply to women’s role in marriage as well as to women as citizens. The movement began by articulating a concept of collective liberty, which grew out of experiences in the anti-slavery movement and which expanded on the Founders’ more individualist concept of liberty in the Declaration of Independence. After the Civil War, the equality discourse of the Reconstruction Amendments and the rejection of women’s demands for the vote by both Congress and the Supreme Court reshaped the dominant theme of women’s rights efforts into a campaign for equality. The refusal by federal lawmakers to address women’s issues left them no recourse except to lobby state legislators, which women’s groups undertook on both suffrage and marriage law. But the diffuse, localized nature of family law presented insuperable barriers to ending coverture in one pre-emptive action.
The Nineteenth Amendment reflects these dual goals in its text and sub-text. The former prohibits denial of the vote based on sex, and the latter, by enabling women’s full participation in political life, rebuts the heart of the rationale for coverture: that women’s role in society lay solely in the domestic sphere of home and marriage.
Failure to understand the centrality of marriage-law reform to the social and political meaning of the Nineteenth Amendment has impoverished the constitutional grounding for contemporary challenges to the legal regulation of marriage, including the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. In Obergefell, which prohibited the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, the Court missed an opportunity to draw on the history and meaning of the Amendment to frame the issue as implicating dual systems of governance, both of which must be bound by constitutional principles. Instead, the Court described marriage as a largely prepolitical realm of private, idealized relations. The opinion of the Court failed to comprehend the extent to which marriage today continues to function as an institution of the state and a zone of governance, no longer because of coverture but because it is foundational to the privatization of collective responsibility that is embedded in the nation’s primary systems of social insurance.