The poor, stupid, free American citizen! Free to starve, free to tramp the highways of this great country, he enjoys universal suffrage, and, by that right, he has forged chains about his limbs. The reward that he receives is stringent labor laws prohibiting the right of boycott, of picketing, in fact, of everything, except the right to be robbed of the fruits of his labor. Yet all these disastrous results of the twentieth century fetich [sic] have taught woman nothing.—Emma Goldman, “Woman Suffrage”
In 1910 Emma Goldman warned those fighting for women’s suffrage that unless linked to a thoroughgoing transformation of political, social, and economic life, the achievement of suffrage would lead to a strengthening of the state in its role in structuring and legally enforcing class oppression. Given the imbrication of the state with capitalism, what was needed, in her view, was a movement that fundamentally challenged the state’s role in inequitable and exploitative modes of production and patterns of ownership. Like the suffrage struggle of Goldman’s time, the ongoing struggle for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the U.S. is an important node in the ongoing, multi-sited movement to build more inclusive and egalitarian models of democracy. If (and when) passed, the long-delayed ERA would amend the Constitution so that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Can measures such as the ERA challenge the imbrication of the state with patriarchal power relations? Or will it, as Emma Goldman feared in her writing about the women’s suffrage movement, serve to give the illusion of change while actually reinforcing the power of the state to structure and enforce masculinist domination? This was a central question of the radical critique of the ERA in the 1970s and remains relevant today. Indeed, in our century, the necessity of linking such a struggle for women’s full citizenship to the transformation of political, social, and economic [End Page 295] life is no less pressing than it was in Goldman’s time. This short essay will argue for a practice of emancipatory citizenship as one way to pursue such transformations.
As a concept, citizenship is grounded in the assumptions of people’s right to collective self-determination under conditions of freedom and equality. Given the ways that democracy has been imbricated in systems of domination and inequality, however, citizenship as a model of egalitarian political interaction has been deeply restricted and constrained in multiple ways. Demographically, for example, the subset of people who are understood to be equal before the law and to have the right to participate in decision making has often been limited, either formally or informally, to a select few (namely, to propertied white men). Although struggles for racial, gender, and class equality have made inroads into the demographic restrictions on citizenship—a struggle that the fight for the passage of the ERA in the U.S. has been part of—these interventions have not fundamentally challenged the concept of a demographically bounded citizenship. Restricted citizenship rights for immigrants, for those under the age of eighteen, and for those convicted of felonies in many states are examples of ways that citizenship is still demographically bounded in the U.S.
Further, the state-centeredness of conceptions of citizenship restricts both its scope of applicability and its geographical reach. In her landmark book The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman notes that a key feature of gendered democracy is the separation of the public and private sphere, with women left marginalized or excluded from the public sphere and subordinated in the private sphere (1988). The ERA, like suffrage struggles before it, addresses the domination in the public sphere but does not necessarily challenge domination in the private sphere. The state-centeredness of citizenship also has been restrictive geographically, as citizenship has been nationally bounded in ways that restrict both the idea and the practice of citizenship to fellow nationals. While the potential passage of the ERA in the U.S. would enable the U.S. to join the more than one hundred...