How Did the Vote Expand?
1790: The Revolutionary “She”
In 1790, New Jersey became the first state to explicitly enfranchise women by describing voters as “he or she” in a new election law.
The New Jersey Assembly adopted the new law on November 18, 1790. It increased access to the polls by adopting township instead of county polling, and improved voter privacy by establishing a ballot system. It also stated that a voter could only cast a ballot wherever “he or she” resided.
The new law applied at first to only 7 of the 13 counties in the state, all in West Jersey. By including a feminine pronoun in their description of voters, the new law made clear what the 1776 Constitution had only implied — that women could vote in New Jersey.
Electoral Reform Enrolled Law, New Jersey State Archives, Department of State
…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.”New Jersey Electoral Reform Enrolled Law, November 18, 1790
1797: The Revolutionary Edit
For women voters, a small omission in the 1797 voting law represented a big change.
The new law retained the property qualification, but it excluded the term “clear estate,” which meant clear ownership of property. Its absence may explain the apparently dramatic rise in women voting after 1797.
Wives often had, as Abigail Adams put it, property “I call my own,” even if their legal ownership was unclear. Widows often had limits placed on their property by a husband’s will. Arguably, neither types of property were truly “clear estate.”
This 1797 law expanded the election reforms of the 1790 statute to include all 13 counties. By allowing possession of property without “clear estate,” it may have been a subtle but dramatic win for women voters.
Neither the 1790 or 1797 statutes included directions for confirming a voter’s possession of 50 pounds, other than the voter’s own word. In addition, the nation had started shifting currency from British pounds to American dollars. This made it difficult to accurately determine taxpayers’ property ownership. The lack of regulations added confusion to some elections.
Electoral Reform Enrolled Law, New Jersey State Archives, Department of State
All free inhabitants of this State of full age, and who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money…shall be entitled to vote for all public officers…and 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.”New Jersey Electoral Reform Enrolled Law, 1797
Did You Know?: The 1797 Election in Elizabethtown
After the adoption of the 1797 electoral reform law, the number of women voters at the polls significantly increased.
In Elizabethtown in 1797, a bitter contest for a seat in the New Jersey State Legislature erupted between Jeffersonian Republican John Condict from Newark, and Federalist William Crane, from Elizabethtown. Despite many women voters turning out to vote for Crane, Condict won the election by a narrow margin (just 93 votes). This election alerted politicians of the potential power of women to shape elections.
New Brunswick, New Jersey, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs; Print Collection, The New York Public Library.
In Elizabethtown, the federal ladies, maids as well as matrons, believers in the democratic Wollstonecraft’s ‘Rights of Woman,’ turned out in support of their favourite candidates, and gave their votes to the number of 75 heads.”The Bee, October 25, 1797
The Naturalization Act in the Nation and New Jersey
While women were explicitly enfranchised with the 1797 election reform law, the Federalist majority — both nationally and in New Jersey — increased its effort to regulate and limit the vote for others, like “aliens” or foreigners.
Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 in response to growing fears that French people living in the new nation would sympathize with France during the undeclared Quasi-War. Republicans vehemently opposed the Acts, instead urging for diplomacy and an end to the French crisis. They also passed the Naturalization Act, which increased immigrants’ wait period for gaining United States citizenship from 5 to 14 years, essentially barring many foreigners’ right to vote.
Tensions came to a head in New Jersey in the election of 1798, when the Federalist legislature divided the state into districts and decreed that national and state polls be held at the same time. The belief was that this would increase Federalist votes in Republican-majority regions, like Essex and Morris Counties, and counteract opposing votes from New Jersey Democratic Republicans.
Who Could Vote?
The 1787 Federal Constitution left decisions about who could vote up to each state. In New Jersey, the experience of voting was not uniform or consistent. It was a source of contention and debate.
Since New Jersey’s 1776 Constitution lacked an amendment clause, the electoral statutes of 1790 and 1797 attempted to clarify the constitution’s voting law without altering the document itself. This inspired critics to argue that the new laws had misinterpreted New Jersey’s Constitution by opening the vote to women and people of color.
But defenders of the vote prevailed, at least at first. In 1800, a letter published in a newspaper by a New Jersey legislator argued, “townships of the state shall not refuse the vote of any widowed or unmarried woman of full age, nor any person of colour…provided each is worth fifty pounds…Our Constitution gives this right to maids and widows black or white.”
Problems with voting in New Jersey increased in 1798 when a new law allowed only white male taxpayers to vote for town officials (town clerk, collector, poll inspectors, and judges). Property owners, regardless of race or sex, still elected county, state, and federal officials. This law created an awkward conflict of interest problem at the polls. Poll inspectors (town officials) who oversaw county, state, and federal elections would have to turn away people who did not meet the property requirement, such as some taxpayers who elected the inspectors. In response, some poll inspectors stopped enforcing the property requirement. Curiously, the evidence from manuscript poll lists suggests that these poll inspectors also admitted more women to vote, even though women were barred from voting for these town officials.
In some ways, the later 1807 statute on voting, which took the vote away from women and free people of color, aimed to resolve voting discrepancies by making the voter qualifications for county, state, and federal offices the same as town offices.
“Extract of a Letter from a Member of the Legislature of this State to the Editors,” Centinel of Freedom, Library of Congress, Serial and Government Publications Division, Washington, DC
Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced…and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers — but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen…in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?"Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, taken from “The Casket, or the Flowers of Literature, Wit and Sentiment,” 1828
Could Married Women Vote?
Because it was harder for married women in New Jersey to own property, it was harder for them to meet the property requirement to vote.
Some married women maneuvered around “coverture” restrictions and safeguarded the property they brought into marriage. Widow Mary Cortelyou of Somerset County, New Jersey, for example, signed this prenuptial agreement when she married her second husband, Hendrick VanArsdalen, in 1788. The agreement protected Cortelyou’s ownership of property she had brought into the relationship from her previous marriage to Jacques Cortelyou.
Other married women may have taken advantage of the fact that elections were loosely regulated and tried to vote despite the restrictions. And still others, like women of color, may not have had marriages recognized by the state of New Jersey, creating a loophole that may have allowed them to own property.
Prenuptial Agreement between Mary Cortelyou and Hendrick VanArsdalen, New Jersey State Archives, Department of State
The Widow’s Thirds
Many married women outlived their husbands and never remarried. If, or when, a husband died, a widow was entitled to regain her dowry (an amount of property or money she or her family brought into the marriage) and a legal portion (usually one third) of her husband’s estate.
Though the law of “dower thirds” was designed to support women through widowhood, it also designated them stewards or legal owners of their husbands’ property, until it could be passed down to his male heir. Because of their “dower thirds,” widows were more likely to own property than single or married women, making them more likely to meet the property requirement to vote.
Explore below to see the types of objects that widows and other New Jersey women owned.
Because the New Jersey Constitution defined the property requirement simply in terms of value, rather than specify a type of property, like real estate, it is possible that women could have used valuable personal and household objects to meet the property requirement. Many of the objects here belonged to women living in or near New Jersey.
The true reason (says Blackstone) of requiring any qualification, with regard to property in voters, is to exclude such persons, as are in so mean a situation, that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them, under some undue influence, or other.”Alexander Hamilton, “The Farmer Refuted,” 1775
The New Jersey Constitution’s inclusive electorate influenced and took inspiration from Revolutionary ideas in the states and across the Atlantic. A new kind of women’s “rights talk” emerged in the 1790s and, along with it, a new generation of women activists, intellectuals, educators, and politicians. These women — and men — pushed gender boundaries and advocated for equal rights for women in Europe and America, some even drawing from the example of women voters in New Jersey.
An upsurge in women’s publishing in the post-Revolutionary era accompanied calls for women’s rights and inspired a dialogue between women activists, among them some of New Jersey’s most political women.
Were these men and women “feminists?”
A Lady Copying at a Drawing Table, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
The Boudinots and Stocktons were some of the most politically-active families in early New Jersey. The women expressed knowledge of political issues and participated in their communities.
I congratulate the ladies of New Jersey that they are in some thing put on a footing with the gentlemen and the most extraordinary part is, that it has been done by the gentlemen themselves...”Susan Vergereau Boudinot Bradford, 1818
I think the women have their equal right of every thing.”Annis Boudinot Stockton to Julia Stockton Rush, 1792
The best known among the Boudinots and Stocktons was Annis Boudinot Stockton, one of the nation's first published poets and a notable supporter of the Revolution. During the war, she helped create a relief fund for Continental Soldiers and rescued Revolutionary documents from the British Army at Princeton.
If our State constitution [in Massachusetts] had been equally liberal with that of New Jersey and had admitted the females to vote, I should certainly have exercised [my vote] on his behalf.”Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, November 15, 1797
Women across the nation, and perhaps even the Atlantic, drew inspiration from the New Jersey “exception” and its early women voters. In 1797, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her sister supporting women’s suffrage in New Jersey.
Women also began calling for “a few small privileges” in national newspapers. This published letter to Congress is signed “Ten Thousand Federal Maids.”
John Adams recalled a story to his grandson in which Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis rode on horseback to her local polling place in 1797 in Virginia to attempt to vote as a freeholder. Perhaps Custis was inspired by New Jersey’s example.
[She mounted her steed and] galloped to the hustings and demanded her right to vote as a freeholder.”John Adams about Eleanor Parke Custis, November 25, 1821
Quaker Women and Women’s Rights
The Society of Friends advocated for gender equity, especially at religious meetings. These beliefs may have translated to Quaker women’s increased political participation across the state of New Jersey.
In fact, some historians suggest that Quaker women, many of whom remained single throughout their lives, were more likely to have been eligible to vote, or perhaps, more likely to have voted.
Courtesy of the Monmouth County Historical Association
The Many Faces of Feminism
While white middle and upper-class women were among the most vocal and visible advocates for the equality of the sexes in the Early Republic, they were not alone. Women of color, and some men, too, voiced their support for women’s equal opportunities, especially in education.
The rights of women are no longer strange sounds to an American ear, and I devoutly hope the day is not far distant when we shall find them dignifying in a distinguishing code, the jurisprudence of several states of the Union.”Elias Boudinot, 1793
Women were born for universal sway, Men to adore, be silent, and obey."Susanna Rowson, “Slaves in Algiers,” 1794
Discovering the Nation’s First Women Voters
In 2018, the Museum of the American Revolution discovered polling records that document – for the first time – that large numbers of women voted in New Jersey between 1776 and 1807.
Between 2018 and 2020, the Museum uncovered the names of 163 women voters on nine poll lists dating from 1800 to 1807. These lists have made it possible to research the stories of these women, the first women voters in the United States.
These lists document women’s political significance and participation in local, state, and federal elections in early New Jersey. This in-depth analysis of existing poll lists from early New Jersey challenges the idea that women in the Early Republic were only passive witnesses and bystanders of the political processes that shaped the new nation.
Museum of the American Revolution’s Index:
Poll Lists and Women Voters 1797 – 1807
18the total number of poll lists the Museum’s staff have found
9the total number of poll lists the Museum’s staff have found that include women’s names
163the total number of women identified on the 18 poll lists
208the total numbers of ballots cast by women on the 18 poll lists
2,695the total number of ballots cast by all voters on the 18 poll lists
7.7the percentage of women’s ballots cast on those 18 lists
10the average percentage of women voters on the 9 lists the Museum staff found that include women’s names
How Many Women Are on the Poll Lists?
3the percentage of women voters on the October 1800 Bedminster Township poll list
14the percentage of women voters on the October 1801 Montgomery Township poll list
13the percentage of women voters on the December 1800 Upper Penns Neck Township poll list
7the percentage of women voters on the October 1801 Upper Penns Neck Township poll list
12the percentage of women voters on the October 1802 Upper Penns Neck Township poll list
12the percentage of women voters on the October 1803 Upper Penns Neck Township poll list
3the percentage of women voters on the December 1803 Upper Penns Neck Township poll list
11the percentage of women voters on the October 1806 Upper Penns Neck Township poll list
15the percentage of women voters on the October 1807 Chester Township poll list