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Image: Some American women voted decades before the suffragettes marched.
 
Did you know that New Jersey women voted in the 1790s?
by Bob Blythe

Everyone knows that American women first got the vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Right? Wrong! Some New Jersey women voted as early as 1776. Historians argue about just what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues meant when they declared "that all men are created equal." Did the founders mean males only or were there some situations when "men" could mean all humans? What natural or political rights, in their view, did women possess? The unique case of women voters in New Jersey offers some clues.

The framers of New Jersey's first constitution in 1776 gave the vote to "all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds ... and have resided within the county ... for twelve months." The other twelve new states restricted voting to men. Although some have argued that this gender-neutral language was a mistake, most historians agree that the clear intention was to allow some women to vote. Because married women had no property in their own names and were assumed to be represented by their husbands' votes, only single women voted in New Jersey. But, in the 1790s and 1800s, large numbers of unmarried New Jersey women regularly participated in elections and spoke out on political issues.

In 1807, the state's legislature ignored the constitution and restricted suffrage to white male citizens who paid taxes. This was largely a result of the Democratic-Republican Party's attempt to unify its factions for the 1808 presidential election. A faction within the party wanted to deny the vote to aliens and the non-tax-paying poor. The liberal faction within the party gave way on this, but also took the vote from women, who tended to vote for the Federalist Party. In this way, New Jersey's 30-year experiment with female suffrage ended-not mainly because of opposition to the idea of women voting, but for reasons of party politics. A renewed focus on the importance of women in the home (as opposed to the public realm) may also have been a factor in the change.

Some historians have viewed the New Jersey episode as evidence that the founders entertained the possibility that women could have political rights. The emphasis on liberty and natural rights in the Revolutionary period brought previously excluded groups into the political process. For example, women took the lead in organizing boycotts of British goods in the disputes over colonial rights that led up to the Revolution. The writers of New Jersey's 1776 constitution took the natural rights sentiment further than other states were willing to go. Pretty clearly then, the idea of some women voting was considered one possibility among others in the Revolutionary era. By 1807, Revolutionary fervor was a distant memory, and New Jersey fell into line with the practice of the other states. What changes in American society led to a renewed push for women's voting rights around 1900?

To learn more:

Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis, " 'The Petticoat Electors': Women's Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807," Journal of the Early Republic 12/2 (Summer 1992):159-93.


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