Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Women Voters in New Jersey: Vengeance is Bittersweet

In the course of the partisan rancor and culture wars that shape our American political scene nowadays, pundits and politicians will occasionally appeal to the Founding Fathers to buttress their respective views. In their hands, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and the rest are either homophobic, slave-owning chauvinist white men or they’re sagacious, enlightened souls who seemingly possessed a preternatural understanding of this nation's future. They’re both pious Christians and atheists of the Enlightenment. Well, whether you see them as reprobates or luminaries, the U.S. Constitution is an amazing document, and oppressed peoples abroad wish their government had an equivalent. This document has put us Americans on a journey toward true democracy ever since. We still have a ways to go, but we’re getting there. How strange it is that half of humanity did not have the right to vote, despite the vaulted claims of freedom and equality in our founding documents. The 19th Amendment of 1920 finally enfranchised women, but it took well over a century of struggle to make it happen.

In the opening years of the 19th century only the state of New Jersey gave women the privilege of voting. Whether it resulted from a hard-won battle fought by Quakers in the southern part of the state or from an oversight on the part of legislators, a law in the state constitution of 1776 extended the franchise to “all free inhabitants” who owned a certain amount of property. This requirement excluded most women and African Americans, but free blacks and white widows and spinsters who met the property qualification needed no convincing to capitalize on the new law. State lawmakers would change their minds over a decade later. No state would again allow women the right to vote until 1890 (Wyoming). Why could New Jersey women vote throughout the Revolutionary Era? Was there a more liberal spirit among the state's legislators who fully realized the implications of the Revolution? And why did women lose the vote? We can find answers to these questions in the specific circumstances of local politics.

Today our political culture is pockmarked with contention between two major parties. In the 1790s there was a bitter dispute between Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson over the future direction the country should take.* As today, the partisan conflict was as much visceral as philosophical. We tend to think that our present partisan politics are rather nasty: Republicans despised Clinton and Democrats despise Bush. And whatever President Obama’s merits, he hasn’t brought the healing touch of bipartisanship to Washington. But these animosities do not compare with the late eighteenth century. Amid the fear that women would take the reign of power, a larger number of women turned out to vote in the 1800 state elections, some of whom did not meet the property qualifications. The turnout was much higher than the paltry seventy-five or so women in the 1797 election when they voted against the Republican candidate John Condict. The women of New Jersey, it would seem, perceived their political importance in this revolutionary era. Years later a conflict arose between the residents of Newark and Elizabethtown. The 1806 election would determine where to place the proposed country courthouse. This issue brought new voters out of the woodworks and electoral violations were rampant. Ultimately the state legislature decided to reform election procedures in the state. In charge of the reform committee was John Condict who was determined to squash female suffrage. Despite objections from some of his colleagues, he prevailed and women had to wait another century for their national right to vote.

* The Republican, or Democratic-Republican, Party of this period was the forerunner of the Democratic Party founded in the 1830s. Today’s Republican Party, which shares some philosophical tenets with the Federalist Party, was founded in 1856. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President of the United States.