Tax Resistance in the U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movement

The latest issue of the Stanford Law Review includes an article by Juliana Tutt on “No Taxation Without Representation” in the American Woman Suffrage Movement.

It gives an overview of the rhetoric and practice of tax resistance in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, and explains why such tax resistance was relatively rare (compared, say, with the movement in Britain) — with a number of notable individual examples, but little in the way of a sustained and general tax resistance movement.

Among the reasons:

  • The American women’s suffrage movement was in general less militant than the movement in Britain.
  • American suffragist activists seemed more risk-averse than their British counterparts, with even those who did practice tax resistance being largely reluctant to take things to the stage of imprisonment or property seizure (with some exceptions).
  • For a time, there was a competing tactic — called the “New Departure strategy” — that urged women to vote under the theory that the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment already guaranteed women the vote. But since some states made tax-paying a prerequisite for voting, tax resistance would interfere with women who wanted to test the New Departure strategy. (The Supreme Court deflated the New Departure strategy when it decided in Minor v. Happersett () that though women were indeed citizens, this did not automatically grant them voting rights.)
  • The potent “no taxation without representation” argument really only implied that taxpayers should have the vote. During the time of the suffrage debate, only the wealthy paid direct taxes. But the women’s movement largely wasn’t interested in fighting for the rights of wealthy women to vote, but for all women, on the same terms as men. This made the taxation-without-representation argument less useful, and tax resistance less of an attractive tactic.
    • I’m wondering why this was less of an issue in Britain, where taxes also fell largely on the well-off (which is why, in the tax resistance cases reported in The Vote that I’ve been reproducing here, it seems like all the feminists have motorcars, estates, and plenty of silver to be seized and auctioned off). I remember women being advised in one issue that if they currently were subject to no tax, they should go out immediately and get a dog so that they could refuse to pay the dog license tax! One answer to this conundrum is that in Britain at the time only a propertied minority of men were able to vote, so women who agitated for the voting rights of wealthy, taxpaying women, would have been arguing for a political equality in a way that their counterparts in the United States would not.

In all, a fascinating article, and welcome proof that I’m not the only one who finds the history of tax resistance interesting.

Among the notes in Tutt’s article was one that pointed me in the direction of this footnote in volume six of The History of Woman Suffrage:

This year [1911?] Miss Lou [Lucy] J.C. Daniels, a liberal contributor to the suffrage association, her family the largest taxpayers in Grafton [Vermont], where they had a summer home, was indignant to learn that the Representative of her district had voted against the suffrage bill in the Legislature. She sent a written protest and refusal to pay her taxes, whereupon an official served papers on her and several shares of stock in the Bellows Falls National Bank were attached and sold at auction. The bank declared it illegal and declined to honor the sale. The matter aroused discussion throughout the State and surrounding country. When the town elected a Representative who supported woman suffrage she considered the lesson sufficient and paid her taxes.

Another section of The History concerns the California court case of Ellen Clark Sargent, who sued San Francisco to recover her taxes:

In , to make a test case, Mrs. Ellen Clark Sargent brought suit before Judge M. C. Sloss, of the Supreme Court of San Francisco, to recover her taxes for that year, about $500. The city through its attorney filed a demurrer which was argued by George C. Sargent, son of the plaintiff and a member of the bar. He based his masterly argument on the ground that a constitution which declares that “all political power is inherent in the people” has no right to exclude one-half of the people from the exercise of this inherent power. He quoted the most eminent authorities to prove that taxation and representation are inseparable; that the people of the United States would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed the constitutional right of granting or withholding their own money; that it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people that no taxes can be imposed upon them except with their consent given personally or by their representatives. He said in closing:

If Article Ⅰ of the State constitution defines inalienable rights and Article Ⅱ abrogates them, it is monarchy. The Code of Civil Procedure says that where one of two constructions is in favor of natural right and the other against it, the former shall be accepted. The question is whether the Court shall grant this right, or whether by toil and struggle it shall be wrung from the consciences of the electors.

The court decided that the case required a mandamus before the Registrar. Application was then made for a writ of mandate against the Registrar of Elections to compel him to place Mrs. Sargent’s name upon the list of voters. Should this be denied she asked to have her taxes returned. Both demands were refused by Judge Sloss in the Superior Court. He took the ground that if Mr. Sargent’s argument should be carried to its logical conclusion it would enfranchise idiots, lunatics and criminals; that if there is a conflict between the two sections of the constitution cited it should be settled in favor of limiting the suffrage to males, as where a general and a particular provision are inconsistent the latter is paramount to the former. He quoted various State Supreme Court decisions and declared that he decided the case according to the law.*

As Mrs. Sargent had every assurance that this judgment would be sustained by the Supreme Court she did not carry the case further. It attracted attention and comment in all parts of the country and she received encouragement and wishes for her success from all classes of society.

* During this trial Mrs. Sargent and her friends in attendance were caricatured in the most shameless manner by the San Francisco Call, which had passed under a new management.