Yes, you read that right. “Woman Suffrage” is correct usage. Well, for a nineteenth-century person. Today we usually say, “Women’s Suffrage.” Our 1800s forebears tended to lump all women under the term “Woman,” as if we were/are a separate species. But that’s the nineteenth century for you!
So let’s talk voting rights.
Women gained the right to vote in federal elections when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August of 1920. But the story is much more complex than women gaining the right to vote for congressional representative, senator, and president.
Since my character Maggie may be entering politics at a time when women could not vote in most states and territories, I thought I’d look into the situation to make sure I was correct – or, if not completely correct, then on “fudge-able” ground. (By which I mean my story might be unlikely but generally possible.)
So here’s a little of what I learned about women and the vote in the USA and in the state of New Jersey.
First of all, New Jersey’s Constitution of 1776 stated that white males, women, and free people of color had the right to vote, as long as they owned property. This, however, did eliminate married women from voting, since at that time they could not own property. The good news was that property-owning New Jersey women and people of color were able to vote for presidential electors in 1800.
But good things always come to an end. For New Jersey, the end came in 1807 when the state legislature restricted the right to vote to white, property-owning males, disenfranchising women and black New Jerseyans. The document, Acts of the 32nd General Assembly of New Jersey (Chapter II, section 1, 1807) stated:
WHEREAS doubts have been raised, and Great diversities in practice obtained through-out the state in regard to the admission of aliens, females and persons of color, or negroes to vote in elections, as also in regard to the mode of ascertaining the qualifications of voters in respect to estate.-And whereas, it is highly necessary to the safety, quiet, good order and dignity of the state, to clear up the said doubts by an act of the representatives of the people, declaratory of the true sense and meaning of the constitution, and to ensure its just execution in these particulars, according to the intent of the framers thereof ;-Therefore,
Sec. 1. BE IT ENACTED by the council and general assembly of this state, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That from and after the passing of this act, no person shall vote in any state or county election, for officers in the government of the States, or of this state, unless such person be a free, white, male citizen of this state, of the age of twenty-one years, worth fifty pounds proclamation money; clear estate, and have resided in the county where he claims a vote, for at least twelve months immediately.
The real reason behind the disenfranchisement seems to have been political and it may be property-owning white males were afraid that the votes of property-owning single white women and free people of color would override their votes.
In 1844, the Second New Jersey Constitution continued to block non-whites and white females from the vote (Acts of the Legislature of the State of New Jersey and the First Session Under the New Constitution, 1845):
Every white male citizen of the United States, of the age of twenty-one years, who shall have been a resident of this state one year, and of the county in which he claims his vote five months, next before the election, shall be entitled to vote for all officers that now are, or hereafter may be elective by the people…
But all was not lost. In 1874, after a new law was passed in New Jersey that permitted women to run for school board, a woman took them up on the offer. Her name was Hannah Scholfield and she lived in Hanover, New Jersey (not far from my hometown of Parsippany). She ran for a school committee seat and won, making her the first woman (that we know of) to hold office in New Jersey.
What is fascinating is how many women actually dared to run for office, even though they did not have the right to vote.
In most states, to be eligible for elected office a citizen had to be a voter. In most locales this excluded women from office. However, challenges to the unequal citizenship status of women began in the first years of the early Republic.…Changes to women’s voting rights began in the 1850s and 1860s with women in Michigan (1855) and women in Kansas (1861) gaining the right to vote for school board members and educational officers. Women in Wyoming gained full suffrage in 1869. By the end of the century women in twenty-six states across the country had gained school suffrage, allowing them to vote for members of school boards and superintendents of schools. In some states women also gained municipal suffrage making them eligible for local or state offices as well. These were all hard-fought battles to prove that women could be voters and participate in politics if only on the local and state levels. When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920, women in sixteen states already had full suffrage rights, and women had been elected to political office in forty-three states. (www.herhatwasinthering.org):
As you can see, although we focus on the 19th Amendment when we think of women’s suffrage, there is so much more to the story – and much of it has been forgotten until recently. For instance, around 6,000 women ran for office between the years of 1853 and 1920. They participated in over 7,500 campaigns – and many of them were elected! “In forty-three states and territories, single and married women, representing nineteen political parties, had campaigned for sixty different offices.” (www.herhatwasinthering.org):
All of which leads me to my big question is this. Would a little town like Blaineton (not to mention the state of New Jersey) allow a woman to run for town council in 1863? I’m still trying to parse the language of the state Constitution. Although it is clear that women have been disenfranchised, It seems to me that wording prohibiting women from running for office is not present. It seems “fudge-able.” I’m saying this based on other research that indicated school boards were associated with the New Jersey State Board of Education, after a certain point in time, and the association may have forbidden women from running for office in the state and local organizations. Clearly, I have more research to do.
My next question obviously is, could a woman be elected to town council? My answer, possibly. I’m saying this because of the way women were perceived in the 1860s, a perception that persisted throughout most of the 1800s.
But that material is for another, upcoming blog.
If this has piqued your curiosity about women and the vote, I suggest you check out the websites below. I hope they will give you more information and (with any luck) take you on a fascinating historical journey of your own.
Her Hat Was in the Ring! Women Who Ran for Office before 1920.
New Jersey Women’s History
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder