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Citizen Jane: Constitution helps define women's civic membership and creates social roles, professor argues

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Chile, Germany, the Philippines and Liberia. What do these countries have in common? A woman holds the top political office in each country.

Now, name five female politicians in the United States government—other than Hillary Rodham Clinton or Condoleezza Rice. Having trouble?

Gretchen Ritter
Dr. Gretchen Ritter

Americans take pride in living in a country that treats all citizens equally. Schoolchildren discover phrases like “We, the People” and “All men are created equal” as they learn about the founding fathers, democracy and the Constitution. But who exactly are “We, the People”?

In her new book, “The Constitution as Social Design,” Gretchen Ritter, director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies and associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin, argues women’s struggles to gain equality are both inspired and constrained by our understanding of the Constitution and the social roles it creates.

“The process of writing and adapting the Constitution is really a process of distinguishing who belongs to our political community, and on what terms,” Ritter says.

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920. With the passage of this groundbreaking piece of legislation, women earned the right to vote and were welcomed as rights-bearing members of the political community. Yet, the exact terms of their membership have yet to be settled.

Public Selves and Private Lives

Women’s fight to participate in politics dates back to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminist luminaries wrote the Declaration of Sentiments. The document, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, called for equal treatment of women and men under the law, and voting rights for women.

When the 19th Amendment was adopted more than 70 years later, it did not produce the radical change women sought.

At that time, the dominant perception of women’s citizenship was what Ritter calls the domestic-dependent ideal. Women were represented in the public realm by their husbands or fathers. A woman’s civic membership was defined by her private life, and her roles as a wife and a mother.

Schoolchildren discover phrases like 'We, the People' and 'All men are created equal' as they learn about the founding fathers, democracy and the Constitution. But who exactly are 'We, the People'?“Women really hoped that by getting the vote, they would get equal citizenship, and that just didn’t happen,” Ritter says. “The old way of thinking that women’s citizenship was defined by their marital status still had a lot of power. Women were regarded as citizens and individuals when it came to voting, but when it came to things like property and work rights, they were still considered to be dependent on their husbands.”

While the domestic-dependent ideal is highly restrictive, Ritter says it is not entirely negative. It provides a way of recognizing that women’s home lives and family relationships matter to their politics. Some remnants of this ideal remain in modern society. For example, the government provides assistance to women based on the contributions their husbands made as soldiers or workers.

“It’s saying, because of his contribution, we’re going to recognize and protect you as his dependent,” Ritter observes.

However, since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, both popular attitudes and the nation’s understanding of the Constitution have shifted toward what Ritter calls the liberal-individual ideal of citizenship. Women are seen as autonomous, self-contained people in the public realm who are not dependent on anyone economically or politically.

The timeline below details some of the key dates in the history of women’s rights and civic membership.

To view the timeline, click on any year to get information about what happened then. Or use the arrows above the timeline to move through history, key date to key date. Download free Adobe Flash Player.

“Much of American history has been about trying to move groups who were previously regarded as secondary to that independent status,” says Ritter. “This ideal promotes the separation of public selves from private lives.”

In fact, Ritter says many who follow the liberal-individual ideal want to completely erase gender or race from the country’s laws and politics. They would argue doing so is the only way to achieve true equality.

A New Ideal

However, Ritter cautions against the notion of leaving one’s personal experiences and identity at home.

“Neither of these versions of citizenship on their own is altogether positive,” she says. “It’s easier to criticize the domestic-dependent ideal, because it puts more limits on women’s opportunities. But, for most women, their private lives and their connections to their husbands and children, matter a great deal to what they care about in politics.”

The process of writing and adapting the Constitution is really a process of distinguishing who belongs to our political community, and on what terms.  Dr. Gretchen RitterInstead, Ritter favors an approach that falls somewhere in the middle, which she calls the public-embodied ideal of citizenship.

“We need to provide people with equal rights unequivocally, but we also need to create more space for people to bring their social experiences with them into politics,” says Ritter.

Ritter explains this dilemma by examining the differing public perceptions of the three most visible women in American politics: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Laura Bush.

Opponents criticize Clinton because she has distanced herself from traditional gender roles. Yet, the nature of American politics often makes that necessary in order for women to succeed in public office. On the other hand, Rice is not usually questioned about her gender role because she is not married and does not have any children. Finally, Laura Bush’s popularity does not appear to stem from her politics, but from the perception of her as a good wife and mother.

“For those who can leave their gendered lives behind—such as Rice—our country offers great opportunities,” says Ritter. “But for those who struggle to mesh their private concerns with their public politics, as women political leaders with families often struggle to do, we provide less support and recognition for how those private interests matter to our public politics.”

The struggle to engage in the public realm without leaving one’s home life behind is just as prevalent in the office cubicle as it is on Capitol Hill. Work-life issues are a major concern for many employees, especially working mothers and fathers who have a difficult time being both a dedicated employee and a good parent.

“Most women with young kids work, but our work structures aren’t very accommodating of home and family life,” Ritter explains. “Many women feel deeply torn by this conflict, whether they work and have families, or choose to leave work to raise a family. I think we need to make it much easier for women and men to contribute to both their careers and their families during their adult lives.”

We need to provide people with equal rights unequivocally, but we also need to create more space for people to bring their social experiences with them into politics.  Dr. Gretchen RitterRitter points out the United States is one of the few countries that does not offer paid parental leave. She predicts that work and family issues will play an increasingly significant role in the political arena.

What Is Equality?

While the culture of modern-day America may have moved beyond the days when suffragist Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in a presidential election, Ritter maintains these struggles are not so far removed from those of Anthony’s. How the Constitution is interpreted has enormous power over what roles citizens inhabit in political and social communities.

“How do we understand women as part of our political community?” Ritter asks. “What does equality mean? Does it mean treating you as an autonomous individual, or in the case of an issue such as family medical leave, does equality mean recognizing that you have responsibilities to care for dependents who impact your ability to pursue different kinds of economic opportunities?”

Ritter hopes equality can mean both.

“The issue is not, how can we treat everyone exactly the same, no matter who they are, but rather, how can we increase opportunities for everyone to participate fully in public life, wherever they’re starting from?”

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  Updated 21 August 2006
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