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How the West Was Won: Competition, Mobilization, and Women’s Enfranchisement in the United States

A long-standing puzzle in American political development is why western states extended voting rights to women before states in the East. Building on theories of democratization and women’s suffrage, I argue that politicians have incentives to seek out new voters in competitive political environments. A strong suffrage movement reinforces these incentives by providing information and infrastructure that parties can capitalize on in future elections. If politicians believe they can mobilize the latent female vote, then large movements and competitive political environments should produce franchise expansion. Using data on legislative decisions pertaining to suffrage in 45 states from 1893 to 1920, I show that political competition and movement strength are robust predictors of support for women’s suffrage in state legislatures. In the West, fluid partisan politics and relatively strong mobilization produced early reform. Since states determine who voted for national, state, and local offices, these decisions mattered for advancing political equality.