Let's throw our bonnets in the ring today!
Over the past two blogs, we’ve determined that while the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote, women in some states and territories had been voting in various capacities long before that. The interesting thing about women during the nineteenth century is that some of them also ran for office.
According to the “Her Hat Was in the Ring!” website:
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries each state or territory determined who could vote and who could be elected on the local, state, and federal levels. In most states women had to be electors before they could be elected to a public office. By the 1860s women fought in campaigns in state after state to gain some suffrage rights. The right to vote on school issues, and to be elected to educational positions, were among the most successful campaigns across the nation throughout the 1860s and 1870s. In some states, especially in the west and Midwest, women also gained "municipal suffrage", the right to vote and be elected to offices on the town, county, and/or state levels.
The fact that the first offices women attempted to win were school-related should come as no surprise. The concept of “woman’s sphere” held that women were in control of all things domestic, which included childcare and child education. “Man’s sphere,” on the other hand, was stated to be the world of work outside the home as well as the rough-and-tumble world of politics. However, don’t believe for a second that everyone followed this ideal. It was most prominent among white people in the upper and middle classes. The lower classes, Black Americans, and immigrants did not have the luxury (if luxury is the correct word) to split the world into male and female “spheres.”
As pointed out in “Her Hat Was in the Ring”: “women in 40 states and territories across the nation served in public offices on local and state levels before 1920.” That is both crazy and inspiring. And it raises the question of how did that happen?
As I looked at the “Her Hat Was in the Ring” list of offices held by women, I was intrigued by the way so many of them were elected in specific years. For instance, in 1874, eight women in Vermont were voted into the office of school superintendent and in 1873, nine women were elected as School Director in Pennsylvania.
Do you want to hear something really outrageous? In 1876, 39 women were voted into school-related offices in Michigan. Thirty-nine! The state of Illinois was no slouch, either, with 32 women attaining school-related offices in 1873. If we go out west to Wyoming, things get even more interesting. In 1870, women won the following offices: County Commissioner (two women held this position), Sheriff, Probate Judge and County Treasurer, County Clerk, Justice of the Peace, and Constable.
Full disclosure, this wave of women politicians did not happen in all states. But it is impressive that it happened in any states at all.
Now that our collective minds are blown, let’s ask how this wave of women office holders could have happened? My suspicion is that these instances reflect successful efforts to organize women to run for and win political office. I’ve yet to find details about these races, but I do know that the women’s suffrage movement probably had something to do with it. Groups as diverse as the National Woman Suffrage Association (founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union under Frances Willard (who was involved in the WCTU from 1874-1898) fought for the rights of women to vote and hold office.
Maybe someday when I’m retired and twiddling my thumbs as I wonder what to do next, I’ll dive into this further. I’m fascinated by the notion that women organized to attain political office and thereby guided the directions taken by their town, county, state, and (eventually) nation.
As for New Jersey, Hannah Scholfield of Morris County was the first woman in the state to hold elected office. She was elected as School Trustee in 1874, thanks to a new law (promulgated in either 1873 or 1874) that permitted women to run for school board positions. (“Her Hat Was in the Ring!”)
Thus, the reason my fictional character Maggie does not run for School Board in Blaineton is because it is 1864 and she is not permitted to do so by the state. During the years 1828-1878, the state of New Jersey became increasingly involved in creating a system of public schools as “laws were enacted to provide for state and local funds for the operation of schools; prohibit spending school funds for purposes other than education; permit local districts to appoint school superintendents; establish a state board of education and a state superintendent of public instruction with authority to enforce school law; and require schools to be free to all children aged 5 to 18.” (“Historical Background,” NJ Department of Education.) That meant school board elections were affiliated with the state and subject to state laws regarding suffrage.
However, at this time I do not believe that the state got involved in local elections with regard to who could run for office. The suffrage law based on the 1807 Acts of the General Assembly of New Jersey does state that “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.” I could be wrong, but to me that says state and county elections were off-limits to anyone not meeting the suffrage requirements, but left the door open regarding local elections.
That said, the 1844 Second NJ Constitution put the restrictions this way: “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…” The voting for “all officers” comment gives me pause. Is this limited to state and county officers, or does it also include municipal officers?
However, the two documents only describe who may vote and do not say who may run for office, although I suppose one could argue that the right to vote also implies the right to run for office.
Anyway, all I know is that in the fall of 1864, Maggie is running for Town Council in Blaineton. I am not sure whether someone will attempt to remove her bonnet from the ring and toss it back to her, or if someone – perhaps a state or county judge – will declare that her election (should she win) is invalid. I’ll need to do a bit more research and poll my characters. Note to aspiring authors: always poll your characters. You can't force them to do things. They'll usually do what they want to do, so it helps to know how they feel. I know that sounds weird, but characters do take on a life of their own. Trust me on this.
Stay safe and well, friends. See you next week sometime!
Janet R. Stafford
1844 State Constitution, Department of State, State of New Jersey.
Acts of the 32nd General Assembly of New Jersey (Chapter II, section 1, 1807)
“Historical Background,” New Jersey Department of Education, Public Education in New Jersey, publication date unknown.
"Notes on Education," NYSEJ, February 1874 (New York State Educational Journal Devoted to Popular Education and Science, established by the New York State Teachers’ Association., Vol. 11, 1874
“Women by State and Territory – More Information,” Her Hat Was in the Ring! Website.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder