Votes for Women! 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment

“Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” Public domain, original image in Library of Congress

In 1776 with the writing of the first constitution New Jersey  opened the door to voting by women, blacks, and aliens by not explicitly limiting voting to white men with property, using the term “inhabitants” instead. An earlier draft of the  constitution shows that  “he” was initially used to describe the electorate. New Jersey was not alone in this gender neutral description of the electorate; only five of the original states used gender specific language. To vote in a New Jersey election a person had to have lived in the county for one year and be worth fifty pounds. This meant that along with blacks and aliens, unmarried women and widows could vote. Married women were not eligible to vote as all property belonged to their husbands.

Subsequent election laws sometimes referred to the electorate as “he” (1777 and 1783) but in 1790 and 1797   “he or she” pronouns began to be used. There’s evidence that some women voted before 1797 but it was with the passage of the 1797 law that women began to vote in greater numbers.

Political rivalry and the rise of the two party system, combined with remnants of egalitarian possibility from the Revolutionary War is the most likely explanation for the explicit extension of the franchise. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War elections were desultory affairs; participation was low, fraud was common, and people were preoccupied rebuilding their ordinary lives.

1789 saw the ratification of the federal constitution and the first statewide Congressional elections. In New Jersey this turned out to be a rough and tumble affair with much fraudulent activity. New Jersey was one of the first states to organize political parties when, during the 1789 elections a group of West Jersey political leaders organized a statewide slate of candidates (this group known as the Junto, later became the Federalist party).

The 1790 law instituted voting at the municipal (rather than the county level) and placed limits on the number of days the polls were open. It was an attempt to prevent fraud and introduce some uniformity and clarity to election laws (even though it didn’t apply to all the counties). It also solidified political advantage by extending the franchise to women in only those counties dominated by Federalists. It was proposed by the Quakers (who lived mostly in West New Jersey, tended to be wealthier, supported the Federalists and had a more progressive view of women’s rights) and affected mostly those counties where Quaker populations were highest. Allowing women to vote would help offset the increasing numbers of voters living in the eastern portion of the state around Essex County.  The 1797 law extended the vote to women around the state and also instituted municipal voting statewide.

Why Women Want to Vote. Political cartoon published in Perth Amboy Evening News, 29 Sept. 1915.

These rights were short lived. In the spring of 1807 an election was held in Essex County regarding the siting of a courthouse and jail in either Elizabethtown or Newark. There were many instances of fraud, with both men and women voting “early and often”. The rights of women and free blacks to vote became a convenient scapegoat and a campaign was then begun to limit the franchise. When the Legislature met in the fall they set aside the results of the election and on November 7 1807 they voted to restrict suffrage to white men, but also to remove the property requirement, thus simultaneously extending the suffrage of one group (white men without property) at the expense of other groups (women, free blacks and aliens).

There’s evidence that around ten thousand New Jersey women voted between 1790, when their eligibility was made explicit, and 1807 when their right was rescinded. It would be a long fight before New Jersey women won the right to vote again with the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920.

See primary resources in our Votes for Women! guide

Sources:

Klinghoffer, Judith Apter and Lois Elkis. “The Petticoat Electors”: Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807”.  Journal of the Early Republic, 12 (Summer 1992)

Lewis, Jan Ellen. “Rethinking Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807”. Rutgers Law Review, vol. 63:3

McCormick, Richard P. The History of Voting in New Jersey, 1664-1911. Rutgers University Press, 1953.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. University of Pennsylvania, 2007