If the Northeast was the cradle of American feminism, home to activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, why was it less permissive on women’s rights than states west of the Mississippi–states that were, for example, the first to enfranchise women? The American frontier’s early progressive stance is especially striking considering its predominantly male population. What explains this apparent paradox? In this paper, we use several approaches to test the evolving relationship between the demand for female settlement and women’s wellbeing in the United States. We hypothesize that states where the sex ratio in the prime marriage-age population skewed strongly male—like the frontier states of the West–fostered an egalitarian environment to attract the female migrants necessary for long-term settlement and population growth.
To test the drivers and consequences of women’s empowerment, we leverage a new state-level panel dataset on American women’s economic, social, and legal standing over the years 1870-1970. Early results suggest that a female-friendly institutional climate at the state level, particularly in matters of suffrage and political representation, was indeed effective at drawing female settlement. However, we find limited evidence that a state’s sex ratio drove policy change, whether by itself or heterogeneously by degree of access to polity. Taking a more local approach, we use repeated votes on female suffrage over the period 1860-1920 to test whether U.S. congressmen from districts with more heavily male-skewed sex ratios were likelier to vote for female suffrage, particularly following exogenous shocks to the district’s gender composition. However, despite the qualitative data indicating that politicians were sensitive to the needs of local bachelors and viewed rights concessions as a possible means of incentivizing female settlement, we do not find that local marriage market conditions drove progress in women’s rights.