On the trail of America's first women voters

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On the trail of America's first women voters
Philip Mead, chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, and Marcella Micucci, a curatorial fellow, examine an 1801 poll list from Somerset County, N.J., held by the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton, on Jan. 10, 2020. At least 46 of the 343 voters on the list appear to be women. Michelle Gustafson/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

(NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It has long been seen as one of the flukes of American political history: For three decades after the American Revolution, the women of New Jersey had equal voting rights with men.

The state was the first — and for a long time, the only — to explicitly enfranchise women, in laws passed more than a century before the 19th Amendment enshrined the principle of gender equality at the polls in the U.S. Constitution. But this being New Jersey, things quickly came to mischief.

There were charges of rampant fraud and corruption, as newspapers filled with tales of elections thrown into chaos by incompetent and easily manipulated “petticoat electors,” to say nothing of men who put on dresses to vote five, six, seven times.

And so in 1807, New Jersey — which also had no racial restrictions in voting at the time — passed a law explicitly limiting the franchise to white men.

“The New Jersey exception,” as it’s sometimes called, has been puzzled over by historians, who have debated whether it represented a deliberate, widespread experiment in gender equality, or an accidental legal loophole whose importance was greatly exaggerated by the era’s partisan press.

But curiously, there has been little to no direct evidence that more than a handful of women had actually cast ballots — until now.

After scouring archives and historical societies across New Jersey, researchers at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia have located poll lists showing that women really did vote in significant numbers before the right was taken away.

The newly surfaced documents, which will be featured in an exhibition opening in August cheekily titled “When Women Lost the Vote,” may seem to speak to a hyperlocal story.

But the discoveries, the curators say, shed fresh light onto the moment when the meaning of the Revolution’s ideas was being worked out on the ground, in elections that had more than a little resemblance to the messy, partisan and sometimes chaotic ones we know today.

“What we are looking at here is the American democratic system in its primordial ooze,” Philip Mead, the museum’s chief historian, said.

The museum’s research has yet to be widely scrutinized by scholars. But some outside experts who have consulted with the curators say it also reopens the debate over whether the New Jersey story is a grim tale of rollback, or an inspiring first chapter of the struggle for women’s suffrage that began in earnest a half-century later.

“It’s very, very exciting to find these names of actual women who voted,” Rosemarie Zagarri, a historian at George Mason University and the author of “Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic,” said.

“This was the moment when women were just starting to be thought of and to think of themselves as political beings,” she said.

The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” The framers of New Jersey’s first state constitution, adopted on July 2, 1776, two days before the Continental Congress issued the Declaration, took that idea seriously — and then some.

Most other states’ revolutionary-era constitutions limited the vote to “freemen” or “male inhabitants.” But New Jersey’s gave the right to all “inhabitants,” as long as “they” — the document uses that gender-neutral pronoun — could credibly declare they had property worth 50 pounds.

A 1797 statute made things even plainer, explicitly referring to voters as “he or she.”

Fifty pounds (the dollar had yet to be established) was a sizable but not exorbitant sum. And it ruled out most married women, who typically surrendered control of any property or income to their husbands, under a legal principle known as coverture.

But the law enfranchised many women, and not just white women — a fact not lost on New Jerseyites of the era.

“Our constitution gives this right to maids and widows, white and black,” one lawmaker wrote in a newspaper in 1800.

Or at least that’s how things worked in theory. In late 2018, when he and his co-curator, Marcela Micucci, began thinking about the exhibition, Mead mentioned the plans to Jane Kamensky, a historian at Harvard and a member of the museum’s board. He was surprised by her cautionary response.

“Jane said, ‘Just make sure you can find one woman who definitely voted,’” he recalled.

As it happened, for all the polemics about women’s voting in newspapers of the period, hard evidence of their participation was scant.

A 1920 article in a small historical journal included a transcript of a 1787 poll list from Burlington Township showing two women’s names. But the original list could not be found, and some scholars wondered if the names were transcription errors. (Was “Iona” a woman’s name, or a misreading of “Jona,” a common abbreviation for Jonathan?)

A footnote in a 1992 scholarly article mentioned a 1799 list from Bedminster apparently showing two women’s names. But that, it seemed, was it.

And so Micucci began trying to locate surviving poll lists — rarities in themselves — to see if they included women’s names that could be verified against other records.

The first big hit was an 1801 poll list from Montgomery Township, held at the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton, which had acquired it in 2016 from the descendant of a long-ago county clerk.

Mead recalled being on the phone when Micucci walked in, waving a photocopy with what turned out to be nearly four dozen women’s names highlighted.

“She was three feet off the ground, with her fist in the air, like she had just won the Olympics,” he said.

And more kept coming. So far, Micucci and the museum’s other researchers have located 18 poll lists from four townships from between 1797 and 1803, nine of which include women’s names.

In total, the lists include 163 unique women’s names, with women casting about 208 of the 2,695 documented votes. Overall, they found, about 7.7% of total votes recorded were cast by women — a figure that reached as high as 14% on some lists.

And there is no reason to think the surviving lists are unusual, which suggests that women’s political engagement spread far beyond the period’s very limited circles of explicitly feminist writers and thinkers.

“These are not people ahead of their time,” Kamensky said of the women. “These are just ordinary women voting in New Jersey.”

The lists, which record the voters in the order they presented themselves at the polls, also show a striking pattern: Women’s names almost always appear clumped in groups.

Sometimes they are female relatives. Other times, they are women whose names, the researchers discovered, are also associated in other documents like church records, suggesting that they were friends going to the polls together.

Given the din of controversy over women voting (not to mention the fact that voting often took place in taverns awash with drunkenness and guns), did they go to the polls together for safety? Or perhaps even, Micucci speculates, out of a sense of proto-feminist solidarity?

“We can really ask if this is the beginning of some sort of organization among women,” she said.

As fraught as voting may have for white women, it was presumably even more so for black women, if any managed to vote at all. (In 1800, free blacks made up only about 2% of the state’s population, while those who were enslaved totaled about 6% more.)

So far, the curators have not located any definite black women voters, though there may be some among the names they already have. (They have found biographical or demographic information connected with only about a third of the women’s names on the lists.) But they have identified at least one black man who voted.

On the 1801 Montgomery Township list, the name Ephraim Hagerman has a small “N” next to it. He is identified in contemporary tax records as a “Negro,” as are several other men whose names are also on the Montgomery list, but without any racial marker.

And Hagerman was hardly a rich man. “Tax records list his profession as householder — essentially a tenant — and his property as one cattle and one dog,” Mead said.

The difficulty of determining who met the property requirement, Mead said, appears to have led to the undoing of New Jersey’s radical experiment in gender- and race-neutral democracy. In the late 1790s, it began to unravel amid charges or rampant voter fraud, which coincided with the rise of contested elections and sometimes vicious party politics.

More than one election brought complaints of men rounding up carriage-loads of dubiously eligible women and bringing them to the polls, to help push their candidate over the top. In 1802, a candidate claimed that he lost a legislative race by a single vote only because a married woman and an enslaved woman had illegally cast ballots.

Finally, in 1806, came a bitterly fought election in Essex County to decide where a new courthouse would be built. Nearly 14,000 votes were cast — more than the number of eligible voters.

Again, the finger was pointed at fraudulent voting by women, African Americans and even “citizens of Philadelphia.” In 1807, the law was changed to explicitly limit the vote to white men, while also loosening the property requirement.

It is one of the dark ironies of American history that the broadening of the franchise to virtually all white male citizens coincided with the disenfranchisement of African Americans and women. It’s a tension, Mead said, that lives on in today’s battles over voting rights.

But he said he hopes the exhibit will also carry a hopeful message by underlining the fact that radical promise of the Revolution was not, even in the beginning, for white men only.

“In early New Jersey, we have women voting and African Americans voting,” he said. “This is a story both about what we might have been, and about who we’ve become.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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