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How Lonely Men Helped Women Get the Right to Vote

April 29, 2009

At the Freakonomics blog, Ian Ayers points to research done both by Akhil Amar and Catherine Rampell arguing that the movement giving women the right to vote was facilitated by population disparities in western states. In other words–and stated less academically–, where there weren’t many women, as in Nevada, Wyoming and Montana, there wasn’t much risk in letting them vote. In fact, there were benefits like bringing more women in and hastening the statehood process.

[M]en had much to lose by enfranchising women. … The relative scarcity of women in the West may have “reduced the political costs and risks to male electorates and legislators of extending the franchise,” the authors wrote. In other words, Western men sacrificed less power by enfranchising women, since there were fewer women around to dilute male voting interests. … Granting women the right to vote [also] may have appealed to Western legislators who wanted to attract more women to their regions. More women probably meant happier male constituents. If the jurisdiction granting suffrage were still a territory, more women (and potential mothers) also enabled the population growth that could help make the case for official statehood.

Encouraging suffrage for women, then, was arguably more about benefiting the men of the western states than it was about empowering women. If true, this finding is another lesson in unintended consequences. But it seems to me that it’s also an interesting lesson for social and political activists: appealing to the good nature and empathy of your opponents in a policy debate is not as effective as appealing to their self-interest. If you can provide your opponent with a reason why your policy proposal will benefit them, you are on the way to success. If you attempt to persuade them by arguing about how objectively correct you are and how beneficial your policy or argument will be to yourself or some third party, you have a much more difficult task in order to see success for the position you are taking.

We’d all like to believe that our common humanity encourages cooperation and understanding between those with disparate priorities. And, undoubtedly, it often does. But, in many circumstances, it is harnessing the powerful nature of self-interest that leads to progress.

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