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Past and Present: Rights Won, Rights Lost

National Museum of American History
flickr Creative Commons

March is often a time to think about women’s contributions, and how far women have come toward equality. However, it is also important to consider moments when women have lost rights.

Between 1776 and 1807, New Jersey extended the right to vote to women. Initially, the state constitution made no specific reference to gender. In 1790, the legislature added the phrase “both he and she” to election statutes for the seven southernmost counties, and by 1797 for the whole state.

The right pertained to only a small portion of New Jersey women, however. Since married women did not own property, and single women rarely had the means to acquire the necessary amount of property, this right rested with land-owning widows.

As a practice, female voting remained controversial. Almost no historical records remain to describe why New Jersey extended the franchise to women. Some historians argue that Quaker belief in gender equality influenced the legislature. Others see it as an extension of the Revolutionary spirit. Regardless, critics saw it as the beginning wedge of women wanting more male rights and privileges, such as entering into the professions or wearing pants.

The debate came to a head in an 1807 Essex County election that would decide which city-- Newark or Elizabeth-- would get the new county courthouse. Voting was heavy, and the final count was close, with Newark claiming a thin victory. However, Elizabeth cried fraud and demanded a recount. The city said that some of Newark’s young men, dressed as women, had voted twice. The legislature voided the votes, and then took advantage of the moment to disenfranchise women, citing the controversy as evidence that politics was too rough for them.

New Jersey’s women would have to wait 113 years, until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, to vote again.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.