American women did not receive the right to vote until 1920, right? This is a common misconception. A century and a half before the constitutional amendment granting all U.S. women the right to vote, women in New Jersey participated in elections for over thirty-one years. In 1776, the New Jersey Constitution ruled, “all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds…and have resided in the county, in which they claim a vote for twelve months…shall be entitled to vote.” The twelve other state constitutions indicated gender, establishing that only men could participate in elections. As New Jersey’s constitution made no reference to sex, adult women who were worth fifty pounds and had resided in the county they wished to vote in for one year were granted suffrage.
Not all women in New Jersey received the right to vote, as America abided by British laws of coverture. In Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone explained coverture as, “The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs everything.” As coverture laws applied in New Jersey, women’s legal entities were absorbed into their husbands’ upon marriage, revoking their financial independence and prohibiting them from owning property. Since monetary value was a pretense to vote, only unmarried women and widows were eligible.
Female voters in New Jersey celebrated their political rights. Federalist pamphleteer William Griffith estimated the number of unmarried women and widows to be greater than 10,000, a substantial figure, and those eligible voted in great numbers. The Revolutionary War, which spanned the years 1775 to 1783, incorporated women in politics in unprecedented ways. Women were instrumental to the war effort, especially through their boycott of English goods. Following the war, few women expected gender equality, but many hoped for increased representation as citizens. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, Mary Wollstonecraft emphasized the immorality of a society that excluded women “from a participation of the natural rights of mankind,” and articulated a collective desire to vote. Female voters echoed Wollstonecraft’s sentiments in the 1800 presidential race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, when nearly every woman eligible to vote, no matter her race or class, participated in the New Jersey election.
Some men in New Jersey embraced women’s rights to vote as well. This reflected their belief that women would advance their respective political parties, rather than new conceptions of gender ideology. As the Patriots, Federalists, and Republicans successively sought to gain control of the New Jersey government, each party looked for support from marginalized populations, namely women. In ‘“The Petticoat Electors”: Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807,’ Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis write that the Federalist party was not only tolerant of female suffrage, they encouraged the political participation of women and expressed their desirability as voters. Women eligible to vote were regarded as an asset to their male relatives, who many presumed influenced their political opinions.
Female suffrage as a matter of party politics rather than gender ideology was evident in widespread opinions on the capabilities of voters. “Eumenes: Being a Collection of Papers, Written For the Purpose of Exhibiting Some of the More Prominent Errors and Omissions of the Constitution of New Jersey” reported “that women…are neither, by nature, not habit, not education, nor by their necessary condition in society, fitted to perform this duty with credit to themselves or advantage to the public.” Blackstone wrote in Commentaries on the Laws of England, that voting requirements existed to exclude “such persons as are in no means a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own,” namely those dependent on others. As coverture rendered women entirely dependent, the author implied laws deemed them unfit to vote by nature.
The emphasis on party politics rather than gender ideology in assessing female suffrage explains why New Jersey women suddenly lost the right to vote 1807. Following Republican Thomas Jefferson’s victory over Federalist John Adams in the 1800 presidential elections, Federalists came to believe female voters benefitted the Republican cause. More Republicans lived in towns, and as it was easier to engage voters in urban areas, Federalists thought female disenfranchisement would limit the number of votes Republican candidates received, without hurting their own party. Arguments that women were poorly suited for political participation by nature furthered the Federalist cause. The author of “Eumenes” wrote in favor of female disenfranchisement, “until the rights of electors” were narrowed “the citizens of New Jersey will continue to hold suffrage, in common with aliens and foreigners; with people perhaps attached to no government.” In 1807, the New Jersey Constitution was “reinterpreted,” defining voters as adult white male taxpayers.
In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to John, “If particular care is not paid to us ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Indeed, foment a rebellion women did. Disenfranchisement in 1807 was not a setback for female suffrage, because women had been viewed merely as political players upon both receiving the right to vote and losing it. Suffrage in New Jersey between the years of 1776 and 1807 was about party politics, not gender ideology. Yet unbeknownst to men, the political exposure they provided to women and revoked inspired a fight for suffrage in the years to come. First wave feminism was already in motion, and suffrage and disenfranchisement in New Jersey incorporated nearly all women into the cause for women’s rights, as most had been eligible to vote at one point. While American women at the time would never experience the right to vote, the crusade for suffrage they launched in the nineteenth century ultimately culminated in the passing of the nineteenth amendment.