By Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director
One of the most exciting historical anniversaries is on the horizon, and the time to plan community events and student projects is now! The history of the franchise to vote in the United States is an important part of civics, U.S. History, and World History. This is an amazing achievement in contemporary history as every country in the world gives women the right to vote except Brunei and Vatican City. New Zealand was the first in 1893 and Saudi Arabia is the most recent in 2011.
As many as 10,000 women voted in New Jersey between 1790 and 1807.
At the time of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the creation of the United States of America in 1789, voting was limited to debt-free male property holders, or freeholders. Representation in the Congress was determined by counting all natural born and naturalized citizens and 60 percent of the enslaved African-American population in states with slavery.
In its 1776 constitution, New Jersey gave the right to vote to “free inhabitants of the State” who were over the age of majority (age 21), had more than £50 of wealth and had lived in New Jersey for more than six months.” New Jersey was unique in permitting women who met these criteria to vote. The other twelve original states all had constitutions specifically stating that voters had to be male.
New Jersey’s suffrage clause applied mostly to single women, because a married woman lost her legal identity as a result of coverture and was therefore not permitted to own property. Free black voters, who owned enough property could also vote. In Reclaiming Lost Ground, Margaret Crocco reported that as many as 10,000 women voted in New Jersey between 1790 and 1807.
Elections in New Jersey were often close and contested. An election in 1807 over the location of a new Essex County courthouse resulted in claims of fraudulent voting. The now defunct township of Acquackanonk (now Paterson and surrounding communities) with 350 eligible voters recorded nearly 1,900 votes. As a result, New Jersey’s constitution was modified on Nov. 16, 1807 by the passage of an election law that “reinterpreted” the state constitution’s suffrage clause and passed an election law that redefined voters solely as “adult white male taxpaying citizens.”
Access to voting expanded over the course of time, either at the state or national level. Key changes occurred during the following presidential administrations:
• Richard Nixon (1969-1974): the ratification of the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.
The 72-year campaign for women suffrage formally began in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. The Seneca Falls Convention adopted the Declaration of Sentiments, modeling it after the Declaration of Independence. In its catalog of “injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman,” the sentiment, “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise,” heads the list.
At least 858 New Jersey women voted or attempted to vote in New Jersey after the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments.
The language of the 14th and 15th amendments empowered many women to test their right to vote. The 14th Amendment reads:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
After the ratification of the 14th Amendment, Susan B. Anthony and her sisters were among 15 women who voted on Nov. 5, 1872, claiming that the state of New York could not “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens.” About 50 other women attempted to vote in the Rochester area but were turned away. At her two-day trial in June 1873, Anthony was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine of $100 and court costs.
Using news clippings and other sources, Susan B. Anthony kept careful records from 1868 to 1872 of attempts by women to vote following the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments. Her records show that at least 858 New Jersey women voted or attempted to vote in New Jersey after the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments.
March 1868, Vineland, local election
Portia K. Gage tried to vote and was refused because she had not registered.
May 1868, Passaic, local election
Women voted at an election for Commissioner of Streets and Sidewalks.
November 1868, Roseville
Hannah Blackwell and Lucy Stone tried to vote.
November 1868, Vineland, federal election
Having provided their own ballots and box, 172 women, both white and black, voted.
March 1869, Vineland, local election
In a separate ballot box, 182 women cast ballots.
November 1869, Vineland, county election
In a separate ballot box, 214 women voted.
March 1870, Vineland, local election
In a separate box, 161 women cast ballots.
November 1870, Vineland
About 130 women cast ballots in a separate box.
March 1871, Hammonton
Fifteen women tried to vote.
December 1871, Landis Township, local election
Portia K. Gage and 10 to 12 other taxpaying women tried to vote in an election on bonding the town to build factories.
November 1872, Jersey City
Two women tried to register to vote.
Source: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Project, ecssba.rutgers.edu/resources/wompolls.html
Students should understand that there is a direct relationship between the inalienable right of the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence and the right to vote for representatives in the local, state and federal government to provide opportunities for citizens. This is an important concept in American history regarding voter participation and attempts to restrict or suppress voting. Too many students perceive the phrase “pursuit of happiness” as abstract words without substance. They should analyze its relationship to how citizens implement their inalienable rights of life and liberty.
The New Jersey Council for the Social Studies (NJCSS) is collaborating with the Alice Paul Institute and other historical groups in New Jersey in planning programs for students, teachers and the public. The main event that NJCSS would like schools to recognize is Feb. 9, 2020, the date that New Jersey ratified the 19th Amendment. NJCSS is considering a statewide digital vote for students as an activity for schools in each of the 21 counties in New Jersey.
The New Jersey Council for the Social Studies is collaborating with the Alice Paul Institute and other historical groups in New Jersey in planning programs for students, teachers and the public.
NJCSS, the New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Women Vote, the Alice Paul Institute and other historical groups in New Jersey are developing plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. These include professional development workshops for teachers in May and July 2019 that will feature Janet Moore Lindman of Rowan University and Erica Ryan of Rider University as keynote speakers. Participants will engage with documents and classroom resources to collaborate on the development of a model lesson or activity.
Teachers interested in these programs should visit the website of njcss.org for information on their dates, locations and to register. Programs and activities for students are also being planned.
New Jersey National History Day will promote research related to women’s suffrage combining their professional development with the workshops sponsored by New Jersey Women Vote and coordinated by the New Jersey Historical Commission, the Alice Paul Institute and the NJCSS. The national theme for National History Day 2020 is “Breaking Barriers in History,” which provides the perfect platform for performances, documentaries, exhibits, papers and websites highlighting women’s suffrage.
For more information on New Jersey National History Day, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
These resources expand upon information highlighted in this article.
“For a Few Decades in the 18th Century, Women and African-Americans Could Vote in New Jersey: Then Some Politicians Got Angry,” by Kat Eschner. Smithsonian Nov. 16, 2017.
“Did You Know: Women and African Americans Could Vote in NJ before the 15th and 19th Amendments?” National Park Service.
“Confrontations for Justice: Mr. Beverly Jones – Susan B. Anthony at the Voting Polls, 1872,” Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives.
Hank Bitten is the executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies and an independent curriculum consultant. He taught history in the Ridgewood Public Schools and was a supervisor in the Ramapo Indian Hills High School District. Bitten can be reached at email@example.com.