Did you know that New Jersey women voted in
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
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