Women & Politics, Pt 2
Image from: Let’s Do Truth: Insights and Action; https://letsdotruth.com/election-2016/
Much of the information presented today has been taken from a blog I published on 02 December 2019.
As I mentioned previously, New Jersey took an odd path to women’s suffrage. To begin with, the doors appeared to be open to most people in its earliest days. Article 4 of the New Jersey Constitution of 1776 declared:
“That all inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.” (The Avalon Project)
The implications of the wording are huge. “All inhabitants” meant that the vote was extended not just to white men but to single women, free Black men, and single Black women, provided they met the income and property requirement (a requirement that was not unusual for the time) and had been residents of the county where they would be voting. However, the income and property requirement did eliminate married women, since a married woman was considered femme covert, a woman “covered” by her husband who legally held the family’s property and income.
But all that changed 31 years later, in 1807, when the New Jersey State Legislature restricted the right to vote to white, property-owning males only, thus disenfranchising single women and black citizens. Acts of the 32nd General Assembly of New Jersey (Chapter II, section 1, 1807) proclaimed:
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.
Thus, with the stroke of a pen, the right to vote was restricted to white males 21 years old or more who met the income and property requirements.
The reason behind the disenfranchisement was sketchy, stating that the question of who could vote needed to be settled due to the “great diversity” within the state’s counties regarding the franchise. Notice that, rather than extending the vote statewide to all people, the decision was to restrict the vote. It is not unlikely that this action was prompted by white males’ fear that their concerns might be outvoted by the likes of single white women and free people of color.
In 1844, the Second New Jersey Constitution continued to block non-whites and single white females from the vote even as it removed the property requirement from white males. And so, it simultaneously extended the right to white males while it restricted the vote to everyone else.
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…(from Acts of the Legislature of the State of New Jersey and the First Session Under the New Constitution, 1845)
And this brings us to the autumn of 1864, when Maggie is contemplating running for Town Council.
Simply put, the story of suffrage in New Jersey goes like this: we were a state that offered the right to vote almost to everyone, then decided to take it away, and later thought it was a good idea to give it back. Weird. But, hey, we’re New Jersey. We’re complicated. And cranky. Really cranky.
My next blog will look at the difference between voting and running for office, which will help explain why Maggie can run for office even though she is not permitted to vote.
Have a good week, friends!
Janet R. Stafford
1844 State Constitution, Department of State, State of New Jersey.
“The Constitution of New Jersey,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale University.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder