Diversity and Democracy

Reconsidering Citizenship in the American Republic

Citizenship in the republic is key to full participation in American democracy. However, the meaning of citizenship is not static, as the term has become more or less inclusive during different periods in American history. Throughout the history of the republic, citizenship has often been stratified. The rights and privileges of American life have not been granted fully to all groups in society; many groups have struggled for inclusion and enfranchisement; and inequalities based on race, class, ethnicity, and gender have excluded large numbers of people from full participation in the political process.

The current challenges to full citizenship are not new. Women, for example, have long struggled to gain full inclusion in the citizenry. Through long and arduous collective action and popular protest, women have won greater citizenship rights. An exploration of issues surrounding women’s right to vote can advance our understanding of how democracy both expanded and contracted during the late nineteenth century. An analysis of historical documents from this period clarifies the ways in which the fight for women’s inclusion continues to result in substantive changes.

Examining Primary Documents

The fight for women’s suffrage provided the central topic for a six-month program of lectures and discussions hosted by the County College of Morris (CCM) in 2016. CCM’s Division of Liberal Arts organized these events in connection with Citizenship Under Siege, a project coordinated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and The Democracy Commitment with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through its Humanities in the Public Square initiative. CCM faculty, staff, and students joined members of the broader community to investigate how American democracy has expanded as well as the exclusionary backlash that has occurred following periods of greater inclusion.

We launched our series of public events with a forum on the topic of “Citizenship Under Siege—Rights, Privileges, and Citizenship: The Argument for Woman Suffrage.” Ann D. Gordon, retired research professor of history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, was our keynote speaker for this initial event on April 21. Gordon, who edited the six-volume compendium Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, chose for distribution to the audience key primary documents illustrating inconsistencies within the argument for women’s suffrage, including an excerpt from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1878 speech “National Protection for National Citizens” and a letter written to the National Woman Suffrage Association by Mrs. L. M. Stephenson. (Editor’s note: See below for the complete reading list.)

Readings for Discussion: Gender and Citizenship

Participants in an April 21 forum at County College of Morris read and discussed historical documents focused on women’s voting rights. The reading list included the following texts:

Anthony, Susan B. (1873) 1997. “Is It a Crime for a Citizen to Vote?” In Against an Aristocracy of Sex, vol. 2 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, edited by Ann D. Gordon, 554–83. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Congressional Globe. 1866. Second session of the 39th Congress, December 11. 65–66.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. (1878) 2003. “National Protection for National Citizens.” In National Protection for National Citizens, vol. 3 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, edited by Ann D. Gordon, 351–57. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stephenson, Mrs. L. M. 1880. Letter in the National Woman Suffrage Collection, Chicago History Museum, Chicago, IL.

Supreme Court of the United States. 1874. Minor v. Happersett. 21 Wallace 162.

United States Constitution, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Gordon selected these documents for the insight they provided into experiences of women who had been consistently excluded from citizenship and into the contradictions in arguments for and against enfranchisement. We hoped to use these documents to more fully explore contemporary neoliberal disenfranchisements along lines of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. For example, aggressive voting laws enacted since the 2010 midterm election have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of working-class Americans and citizens of color (Weiser 2014).

Prior to the April 21 forum, the CCM faculty and Gordon had met on April 7 to discuss the documents. At that meeting, the faculty had teased out arguments and counterarguments for and against women’s suffrage, focusing on questions such as Who is a “natural-born” citizen?; What is the contrast between serf and citizen?; and Who arewe the people—not we white male citizens—nor yet we male citizens—but we the whole people”? (Anthony [1873] 1997, 556). This meeting prepared those who participated in the later public forum for a challenging post-talk dialogue.

Exploring Meanings of Citizenship

Following the public event, Ann Gordon joined us on May 2 for a smaller public forum for interested students, faculty members, and leaders of community organizations. At this third event, we further investigated a challenge Gordon had posed at the larger forum, where she encouraged participants to think about citizenship in a variety of ways: as standing (a sense of one’s place in a hierarchical society), as nationality, as active participation or good citizenship, and as the ideal republican citizenship. Together, participants also asked how they could understand regimes of citizenship that are changing as society moves from an industrial to a postindustrial order. How have notions of the corporate citizen and the consumer citizen become dominant models of citizenship in the contemporary United States? We expanded our concept of citizenship from encompassing rights and responsibilities associated with voting to something much broader.

As organizers, we wanted the forums to highlight that women were not merely latecomers to citizenship. Citizenship is expansionary—based in founding documents that laid the ideological groundwork for social movements to demand increasingly inclusionary access to civil, political, and social rights. But, as in the contemporary United States, this evolutionary model of an ever-expanding citizenry does not always hold. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, women’s exclusion from full citizenship was necessary for men’s political participation. Women’s exclusion and subordination were predicated on a sexual division of labor associated with the public/private divide. This division freed men to participate in public life and the paid labor force even as women, as financial dependents, were expected to provide unwaged labor in the private household. Meanwhile, liberal citizenship is rooted in the separation between the private sphere of the home and the public sphere where political participation and the vote take place.

Historically, the separation between public and private spheres rendered women’s oppression both legitimate and invisible. Indeed, even after women attained the right to vote in 1920, they still struggled with discrimination in many spheres of civil, political, economic, and social life. It took the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement to push for more meaningful citizenship rights for women, including public policies that supported reproductive rights, parental leave, and childcare; addressed domestic violence; and expanded job and educational opportunities. Through ongoing efforts to mobilize voters, advocate through organizations, marshal popular protest, and gain substantive representation in formal politics, women’s rights advocates continue to push for expanded citizenship rights for women.

Probing Contemporary Challenges

To build on our discussions about contemporary experiences of stratified citizenship, CCM invited sociologist Brian McCabe to campus this fall to speak about the relationship between homeownership and the rights and understandings of full citizenship. McCabe challenged the dichotomy wherein renters are understood to be less responsible and less worthy of enfranchisement than homeowners, and showed how this understanding, bolstered by state supports such as the home mortgage interest deduction, has contributed to the construction of a lesser citizenry along lines of race, class, and gender. We hope to continue these discussions at CCM to establish a broader understanding of discourses around citizenry, of the ways state policies shape citizenship, and of how these factors affect people’s active participation in democracy.


Anthony, Susan B. (1873) 1997. “Is It a Crime for a Citizen to Vote?” In Against an Aristocracy of Sex, vol. 2 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, edited by Ann D. Gordon, 554–83. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Weiser, Wendy R. 2014. “Voter Suppression: How Bad? (Pretty Bad).” The American Prospect, October 1. http://prospect.org/article/22-states-wave-new-voting-restrictions-threatens-shift-outcomes-tight-races.

Michael Parrella is Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at County College of Morris. Jill Schennum is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Economics, and Anthropology at County College of Morris.

Previous Issues