Volume 20
Issue 1
Winter '22

The Politics of Constitutional Memory

Written By: Reva B. Siegel

Abstract

Those who sought votes for women made claims for liberty and equality in the family on which constitutional law might now draw—but there is no trace of their voices or claims in constitutional law. The Supreme Court scarcely mentions the Nineteenth Amendment when interpreting the Constitution. Nor do Supreme Court opinions mention those who led women’s quest for political voice or the constitutional arguments they made in support of women voting, even though these arguments spanned two centuries. There is no method of interpretation that the Justices employ with sufficient consistency to account for this silence in our law.

This Article introduces the concept of constitutional memory to explain this silence in our law. Constitutional interpreters produce constitutional memory as they make claims on the past that can guide decisions about the future. It is the role of constitutional memory to legitimate the exercise of authority; but constitutional memory plays a special role in legitimating the exercise of authority when constitutional memory systematically diverges from constitutional history. Systematic divergence between constitutional memory and constitutional history can legitimate authority by generating the appearance of consent to contested status relations and by destroying the vernacular of resistance. Though women contested their lack of political authority in the constitutional order over two centuries, there is no trace of their arguments in constitutional law.

To illustrate, the Article examines a long-running tradition of suffrage argument that began before the Reconstruction Amendments and continued in evolving forms after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment: that women needed the vote to democratize the family. Two centuries of constitutional arguments are nowhere reflected in the United States Reports. As a consequence, constitutional doctrines about liberty and equality in the family appear to lack historical antecedents.

But argument, inside and outside of courts, can counter the politics of memory. Justices across the spectrum regularly make heterodox claims on the past. Constitutional interpreters can invoke the voices of the disfranchised and the concerns that the disfranchised brought to the democratic reconstruction of America. Imagine how we might understand our Constitution in another generation if we did.

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