On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the nation’s first woman Vice President. This occasion, with women of color holding two of the most crucial roles in our national government, would have been unthinkable for most of United States history. While the political efforts necessary to reach this moment have been studied in great depth, the legal challenges have been overlooked and even denied.
Relying on extensive historical research, this Article is the first to examine how women advocated for the legal right to hold public office in state-level litigation, constitutional amendments, legislative lobbying, and other venues for more than a century. From the 1840s through the 1940s, women in many states were excluded from holding even mundane public offices because of state constitutional language and judicial holdings. Opponents of women’s officeholding feared that permitting women to hold posts would deprive men of their rightful opportunities, radically alter gender norms, and fuel the flames of the women’s suffrage movement. The nation’s first women lawyers were particularly active in challenging these restrictions, with results varying by region and reflecting distinct legal, political, and social cultures. Women in the West obtained public offices relatively early, in part because they were the first to secure suffrage. Women in the Northeast and South faced the most difficult hurdles because conservative state judiciaries construed constitutional silences as implying women’s exclusion from office. The Midwest emerged as the contested middle ground; although women could not vote in Midwestern states for most of the studied period, many courts nevertheless held that they were entitled to hold both appointed and elected offices.
Recovering the history of women’s legal right to hold public office challenges three major conventional wisdoms. First, it undermines the commonplace claim in scholarship on women’s legal and political history that officeholding was not a meaningful part of women’s advocacy or experiences until after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. This account instead shows that proponents of women’s rights have long demanded women’s access to public posts, and women held positions more than a half century prior to the federal suffrage amendment. Second, this Article challenges prominent scholarship—mostly focused on interpreting the Reconstruction Amendments—that treats officeholding as an obvious or inevitable twin to suffrage. Foregrounding women’s history and state-level advocacy emphasizes the legal possibility and practical reality of severing these political rights. Third, and relatedly, the Article calls for more attention to state constitutional law and regional variation. The women’s officeholding story clearly demonstrates how focusing on one geographical area, providing a single national account, or limiting analysis to the federal level obscures essential developments in securing rights.