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When Women First Won the Vote


Article by Paul Soltis

Photography by Paul Soltis

One hundred years ago, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution brought the right to vote to women nationwide—but the 19th Amendment meant not the introduction but the return of women's suffrage to New Jersey.

1776 was as tumultuous a year in New Jersey as it was in any other of the 13 Colonies of British North America. Militia placed the Royal Governor of New Jersey under arrest at his official residence in Perth Amboy, preserved today at Proprietary House. Delegates assembled in a Provincial Congress to take over the affairs of New Jersey. Two men from Old Dutch Parsonage State Historic Site were among the delegates who gave New Jersey's support for American independence and then drafted New Jersey's first Constitution.

While New Jersey's first Constitution limited the right to vote based on wealth, it did not limit suffrage according to race or sex. Article 4 of New Jersey's first Constitution asserts:

That all Inhabitants of this Colony of full Age, who are worth Fifty Pounds proclamation Money clear Estate in the same, & have resided within the County in which they claim a Vote for twelve Months immediately preceding the Election, shall be entitled to vote.

While the requirement for "worthy Fifty Pounds" sounds at first restrictive to us today, in an era when only landholders were permitted to vote, this clause expanded the right to vote to people who did not own real estate.

Married women in this era were "covered" in the legal persons of their husbands. According to the law, all their real estate was considered the property of their husbands alone.

To meet the qualification to vote, women turned to personal property like the lady's pocket and fan on display at Wallace House State Historic Site. These objects were of great value and, importantly, belonged uniquely to women. Women voters argued these objects were evidence of their financial "worth" independent of their husbands, fathers, brothers or other men in their lives because women alone owned and used them.

Due to the wealth qualification, women's suffrage remained limited in early New Jersey. By 1807, the all-male Legislature repealed women's suffrage entirely.

Old Dutch Parsonage's Frederick Frelinghuysen was among the delegates who first introduced women's suffrage to New Jersey in 1776. His descendant, Joseph Frelinghuysen, voted in favor of the 19th Amendment as a senator from New Jersey in 1919. Join me online at Wallace House & Old Dutch Parsonage State Historic Sites for a series of discussions as we follow the New Jersey drama in the national struggle for women's suffrage.

Discover the story of New Jersey's first women voters in an upcoming special exhibition from the Museum of the American Revolution.

Celebrate 100 years since the return of women's suffrage to New Jersey this fall with NJ Women Vote.

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