In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th Century America

By Alice Kessler-Harris | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
A Principle of Law but Not of Justice

In 1937, the state of Georgia levied a poll tax that applied, generally, to all persons in the state. It exempted the aged, the young, the blind, and women who did not register to vote. To ensure that the tax was collected and presumably to provide some controls over who might vote, the state instructed tax collectors not to register as a voter any male who had not paid his current tax as well as all back taxes. Women who chose not to register remained untaxed, and those who did register paid only the current year's tax. The effect was to discriminate against African-American men, most of whom found it impossible to pay large sums for back taxes. But precedent setting legal opposition did not come from that source. Rather, the law was challenged by a man who claimed that his right to equal protection, as specified by the Fourteenth Amendment, had been violated because women did not have to pay the tax on the same basis as men. When the U.S. Supreme Court got the case, it upheld the law. Evoking traditional, and therefore seemingly natural, gender perspectives, it declared in Breedlove v. Suttles that “the tax being on persons, women may be exempted on the basis of special considerations to which they are naturally entitled.” In support, the Court cited a wide range of equal protection cases, including Muller v. Oregon, and then added, “The laws of Georgia declare the husband to be the head of the family and the wife to be subject to him. To subject her to the levy would be to add to his burden.” 1

A little more than forty years later, in 1973-74, the Supreme Court considered a similar case. At issue was a long-standing Florida law that granted widows, the blind, and the permanently disabled a five-hundred-dollar tax exemption from the value of their assessed property. Multiplied by the prevailing tax rate, the exemption was worth about fifteen dollars a year. Mel Kahn, a widower, applied for the exemption and was turned down as ineligible. He appealed. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Melvin Wulf, who took Kahn's case to the

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