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Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic by Rosemarie Zagarri

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This Women’s Equality Day, passed by Congress in 1973 to commemorate the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920, we observe women’s continued work for equality since the early decades of American Independence. Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri’s groundbreaking book, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (2007), offers the foundation for understanding women’s political activism and American “female politicians” in the 1790s, when the right to vote was considered a privilege of property rather than a natural right. Zagarri defines “The New Jersey Exception” and explains how and why women exercised their right to vote between 1776 to 1807. We cite this book as a foundation for interpreting this surprising story in When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776-1807.

In these excerpts, Zagarri defines women’s legal rights from the perspective of early New Jersey legislators and presents what John Adams thought about Nelly Parke Custis’ political activism in Virginia, long after Adams was elected second President of the United States.

Excerpt 1 on the New Jersey Exception

“At the very time that [John] Adams was ruminating about the dangers of women voting, one state actually experimented with that possibility. In May 1776, anticipating the coming of independence, the Continental Congress sent out instructions ordering each state to devise a new framework for governing. Meeting in convention, the legislature of New Jersey wrote a new state constitution. Describing who would be entitled to vote, the document stipulated that “all inhabitants of this colony of full age, who are worth fifty pounds…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 use of gender neutral language--”all inhabitants”—was not in and of itself significant. In fact, only five of the first state constitutions—those of New York, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts—specified that the vote be limited to men, by using the word “male,” or inserting a reference to “sons.” Since voting had customarily been a male prerogative, there was probably little need to be more specific.

It soon became clear, however, that the New Jersey legislators had more radical intentions. Their initially ambiguous formulation gave to more unequivocal assertions. Although in 1777 and 1783 the legislature enacted laws regarding election procedures that used only the male pronoun, beginning in 1790 the assembly passed an election statute, pertaining to seven of the thirteen counties in the state, that explicitly enfranchised women. It said, “No person shall be entitled to Vote in any other Township or precinct, than that in which he or she doth actually reside at the time of the Election” (emphasis added). A 1797 law extended these privileges to all qualified women throughout the state. Voters, the law stated, should “openly and in full view deliver his or her ballot.” Seldom has the use of a single pronoun effected such a radical change in political practices.

In actuality, the New Jersey law applied to only a small proportion of the women in the state. Because married women could not own property, and voting required ownership of a substantial amount of property, widows who had inherited their deceased husbands’ estates were the women most likely to vote. Although single women who had never been married could theoretically exercise the franchise, they were less likely to have accumulated enough wealth to meet the property qualification that the constitution required. As a result, female suffrage in New Jersey never pertained to more than a small proportion of the state’s female population. In any given election, it was likely that not more than a few hundred cast ballots. Nonetheless, among those qualified, women could vote—and did vote—in both state and federal elections for a time.”

“In 1821 former president John Adams wrote a letter to his grandson admonishing him for his enthusiasm over expanding the franchise. Always the social conservative, Adams feared that abolishing property qualifications among white men might open the door to new challenges, particularly from women. “You make very light of the argument for the ladies,” he told his grandson, “& evade it by a twin of wit and gallantry.” This he insisted, “is not an argument. 

Upon what principle of liberty, justice, equality, and fraternity would you exclude [women]?” Women, he pointed out, were already growing restive with the restrictions placed on them. In the 1790s in Virginia, he recalled, Nelly Parke Custis, the step-granddaughter of George Washington, had once mounted her steed and “galloped to the hustings & demanded her right to vote as a freeholder.” Even Adams had to admit that she had valid grounds for doing so. As an unmarried property owner, she was a “freeholder…to a large amount.” The lesson was clear. “Once [you] let [women] know they have rights,” he warned, “you will find them as fond of displaying them…in public as the men and as ardently aspiring to offices and dignities.” 

Excerpt 2 on Nelly Parke Custis and Female Politicians

Nelly Custis’s ride to the hustings was but one example of women’s desire to claim a new political role for themselves in postrevolutionary America. At the same time that Mary Wollstonecraft was opening up the public debate about women’s rights, women were becoming increasingly active in and engaged with politics. Growing female literacy and increasing access to printed materials allowed them to form their own political opinions. As readers and writers, they felt freer to express their views in private conversations, letters, and in print. As more men came to serve in government at both the state and federal levels, more women became partners in serving the public good. The nature of politics in postrevolutionary America also facilitated women’s involvement. Conducted out of doors and in the streets, this kind of politics enabled non-voters as well as voters to participate in activities and events of importance. As a result, middle-class and elite white women found more ways to involve themselves in politics than ever before. 

Widely observed and reported, these changes provoked a variety of responses among American women and men. Some supported the innovations, others resisted. Highly politicized women even gained a name for themselves: female politicians. In contrast to republican wives and mothers, who affected politics indirectly by influencing their sons and husbands, female politicians saw themselves as independent political beings. Like Nelly Custis, they demanded that their political views be heard and sought out opportunities to express themselves. Along with Mary Wollstonecraft and female suffrage in New Jersey, these “female politicians” came to symbolize both the perils and the possibilities of women’s rights in the early republic.” 

Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007 and 2008 Paperback), 30-31 and 46-47.

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