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Journal of Women's History 12.1 (2000) 182-184

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Review Essay

Women's Right to Equal Political Obligations

Virginia Sapiro

Linda K. Kerber. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998. xviii + 405 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-8-90-7383-8 (cl).

In 1981, while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a male-only draft in Rostker v. Goldberg, women's movement leaders and organizations faced a critical dilemma. Surely, many argued, feminists must support equal obligations for women and men. If women did not willingly shoulder citizenship responsibilities, how could they expect to have equal rights and privileges? Others asked why women should exert themselves to assume men's citizenship obligations when the state did not yet fully protect their rights and privileges. Women, who dutifully paid their taxes despite economic and policy disadvantages they faced, could not, after all, be regarded as political shirkers.

A third view required more detailed knowledge of relevant history and case law. Even without female military conscription, in theory, women did have extensive, perhaps even equal, political obligations. Women were equally responsible for paying taxes and, by 1975, for serving on juries. While they were not required to serve their country in a military capacity, judicial argument made one of the primary reasons for this exclusion clear: women already provided alternative, domestic service as mothers, wives, and guardians of hearth and home. From the view of conventional liberal contract theory, then, women's military service was an interesting question but it did not necessarily pose a difficult problem for women's citizenship. For feminist theorists, however, the fraught question of the relationship between equality and difference was made all the sharper by the distaste of even "difference feminism" for viewing motherhood and reproduction as basic citizen obligations to the state as, for example, they explicitly had been in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

We must thus be grateful that as fine a historian as Linda K. Kerber turned her intellectual efforts to a history of women's citizenship obligations. Kerber relies heavily on archival work, probing illustrative case studies of each obligation type. Some case studies--most notably in relation to serving on juries and in the military--revolve around the critical relevant court cases. (Having used Hoyt v. Florida and Rostker v. Goldberg many times to teach about gender and citizenship obligation, I was intrigued to learn the background stories of Gwendolyn Hoyt and Robert Goldberg, usually ignored in the methods political scientists and lawyers use to teach court [End Page 182] cases.) She pays moderate attention to legal and policy literature, restricting her view mainly to works specifically on gender and concentrating little on political theory.

No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies is organized around gender-based analyses of five citizenship obligations: not to commit treason; not to be a vagrant, also described as the obligation to appear to be working; to pay taxes; to serve on juries; and to serve in the military. Throughout U.S. history, women shared in the obligations not to commit treason, not to be vagrant, and to pay taxes, but the conditions under which they fulfilled these duties, and the signs by which they could demonstrate compliance, differed from men's. Until 1975, women had no constitutional responsibility to serve on juries (most states barred them from doing so for substantial periods of history), and women still have never been held liable for military service in the same way as men. These bare facts of similarity and difference cover what turn out to be fascinating, complex, and nuanced stories that are worth the time it takes to read, ponder, and link them.

What I missed was adequate reflection on relevant literature of political and legal theory. Throughout the book, Kerber keeps her eyes steadfastly on gender and gender comparison questions, but these inquiries would have been more comprehensively developed had she elaborated with respect to how they inform and are informed by broader discussions of political obligation and democratic theory...


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