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The Long Battle to Vote: Women’s Suffrage in America

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

At a time when America is beginning to realize that it lags far behind many other countries in electing women to positions of political leadership, it is appropriate to consider the long, dark history of women’s suffrage in our nation.

Charles McSorley, historian, collector, and engaging speaker, visited Durand-Hedden during Women's History Month in 2008 to present a sometimes humorous and always insightful lecture on the battle for women’s right to vote. He illustrated his talk with postcards and other memorabilia.

The word suffrage comes from the Latin suffragium, meaning "voting tablet," and figuratively, "right to vote."

In 1776 women had the right to vote in each colony, but Abigail Adams was concerned enough about the future to ask her husband, John Adams, to "remember the ladies" in drafting the new country’s laws. Mr. Adams replied, “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh,” and noted such a move would completely subject the country to the "despotism of the petticoat."

The Provincial Congress of New Jersey, on July 2, 1776, passed a law giving the right to vote to “all inhabitants of this colony of full age” who had fifty pounds, property, and a year’s residence in the colony. They could vote for representation in the Council and Assembly and “also for all other public officers that shall be elected by the people of the country at large.”

New Jersey stuck to its guns for a while even though by 1784, women had lost the right to vote in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 gave the states the right to determine voting qualifications, and women in all states except New Jersey lost the right to vote.

“Maids or Widows, Black or White”

A news article published in Newark in 1800 noted that a motion was made in the New Jersey Assembly to amend a bill by adding that the inspectors of elections “shall not refuse the vote to any widow or unmarried woman of full age…”

The article goes on to note, “Our constitution gives this right to maids or widows, black or white.” Married women could not vote because they did not own property in their own names.

In 1807, however, allegedly to combat electoral fraud by simplifying the conditions for eligibility, New Jersey passed a law prohibiting voting by anyone but “a free white male citizen of this state.”

Half a century later, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, defined citizens as “male” – the first time the word male appears in the Constitution. A year earlier, there had been a failed campaign in Kansas to give the vote to women and Black people.

Black Men Get the Vote

The Fifteenth Amendment was passed in Congress in 1868, giving the vote to Black men. According to the Women's History Project of Lexington Area National Organization for Women, that year 172 women attempted to vote in New Jersey. Their ballots were ignored.

In 1869, New Jersey resident Elizabeth Cady Stanton was named president of the new National Woman Suffrage Association. Later that year, the American Woman Suffrage Association formed, naming Henry Ward Beecher as president. That year, Wyoming territory became the first American jurisdiction to grant women the vote since 1807.

The rest of the 19th century saw one failed federal or state battle after another with a few notable exceptions, such as Colorado and Idaho. Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in 1872. In 1874, in Myner v. Happerstett, the US Supreme Court ruled that being a citizen does not guarantee suffrage.

Stanton voted in Tenafly in 1880, and “the whole town is agape with my act.” By 1907, women such as Stanton’s daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch, began to adopt the English suffragists' tactics of parades, street speakers, and pickets.

Momentum started to build — Washington State granted women the vote in 1910, California in 1911, and Oregon, Arizona and Kansas in 1912. Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party included women’s suffrage on its platform in 1912.

Alice Paul, of Moorestown, NJ, and others broke away from the National Women’s Suffrage Association to form the National Women’s Party in 1916. Beginning in January 1917, the Party posted silent “Sentinels of Liberty” at the White House gates. Nearly 500 women were arrested over the next year, and 168 served time in jail, where some were brutalized by their jailers.

In 1918, an appellate court ruled that the arrests were illegal, and President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for suffrage. Battles in the House and Senate finally resulted in the passage of Suffrage Amendment in 1919, and — again after state-level struggles — the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified by a sufficient number of states and became law on August 26, 1920.

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