Tax Day and Women’s Economic Independence

April 14, 2013

It’s tax season … Have you filed your tax returns yet? For most Americans, April 15 brings either a feeling of dread or a sigh of relief, depending on your perspective. I don’t normally dabble in tax history, but I was fascinated to learn that AAUW’s defense of women’s rights at one point extended into tax law.

The Revenue Act of 1941, a wartime measure designed to raise an additional $300 million in taxes, stated that married couples who are both working must file their income tax returns jointly. As a result, new taxes would be computed based on aggregated income of both husband and wife and therefore would result in higher taxes. This was a critical issue to women during World War II, as so many married women had entered or were about to enter the paid workforce.

AAUW viewed this proposal as reactionary and a backward step for women. Judge Dorothy Kenyon, member of AAUW’s Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women, presented arguments against the measure before the House Committee on Ways and Means. The statute, according to Kenyon, “undoes much of the struggle of women to achieve the right to be considered as persons and individuals, the long struggle to break down the old common law doctrine that husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband.”

The front and back of the cards that showed opposition with a place to sign.

Alice Maynard Newkirk’s cards to Congress. From AAUW Archives

Other AAUW members became involved as well. Alice Maynard Newkirk, a Philadelphia (PA) Branch member, was a widow with nothing to lose in the proposed legislation. Still, she used her own funds to print and distribute cards for women to sign their opposition and send to Congress. Her correspondence to AAUW regarding the cards is remarkable: “I fought and bled and died for the vote as it were, and am interested in the principle involved. As a poor widow, the tax would not affect me.”

Make no mistake; AAUW did not oppose taxes or even increases in taxes. In fact, Kenyon continuously stressed the organization’s patriotism and support of tax increases as a necessary part of the war effort. Rather, what was objectionable was the fundamental principle that if this measure passed, a married woman would lose her economic independence and the ability to control the money she earned. A definite step backward indeed!

Now, as most of you know, married couples have the choice to file their taxes separately or jointly.

This story isn’t just about the history of tax law; it is a reminder that advocacy for women’s rights should never be seen as an isolated issue. It can be found everywhere throughout history. And AAUW’s history is, of course, a huge part of that struggle.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   April 14, 2013