Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, July 1, 2022

That Other Time Women Lost a Fundamental Right

When Women Became No Longer Equal, Part 5: New Jersey Women Lose the Right to Vote, 1807

So the Supreme Court has decided that women are not, after all, fully autonomous humans, capable of making decisions about their lives--the state needs to decide for them. As Ruth Bader Ginsberg put it in her 1993 Senate confirmation hearings, "When Government controls that decision for [a woman], she is being treated as less than a fully adult human respons­ible for her own choices."

And so a fundamental right that women had had for some fifty years disappeared, taken away from them by the stroke of a pen. 

But it's not the first time . . . 

Despite John Adams's delight in making a joke of his wife's plea to "remember the ladies," one soon-to-be state did choose to "remember" women, at least for a while. On 2 July 1776, just months after the request of Abigail Adams--and her husband's outright rejection of it--the New Jersey state constitution was adopted. The new document enfranchised not only male property owners, but women as well: 
[A]ll inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, 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 "all" and "they" was not an accident or a goof or an oversight. The inclusion of women--or, at least, of some women, those who owned property--was intentional. To make a big fuss about "taxation without representation" and then to deny taxpayers the right to vote would be hypocritical, right? At least in New Jersey, lawmakers thought it would be: and so the state "carried Revolutionary doctrine to its furthest—but logical—extreme." (The word "inhabitants" also included free Black men and unnaturalized "aliens" living within the state.)

Still, women were not enfranchised on quite the same basis as men--to be able to vote, a woman property owner needed to be unmarried

On 18 November 1790, women's enfranchisement was made explicit, at least in seven of thirteen New Jersey counties. The Electoral Reform Law specifically referred to voters as "he or she." 

Passage from the New Jersey Electoral Reform Law,
1790, identifying voters as "he or she"
(from the Museum of the American Revolution
enrolled copy --page 9, if you care to look at the entire document)

In 1797, a "revolutionary edit" to the New Jersey law expanded women's access to voting. On 22 February of that year, the state legislature passed a "statewide act," extending women's right to vote through all thirteen counties and lowering the property requirement. (The fifty pounds needed to qualify to vote could be in money rather than land, and enforcement of this requirement doesn't seem to have been all that rigorous.)

Passage from the New Jersey Electoral Reform Law,
1797, preserving "he or she"
(from the Museum of the American Revolution.
enrolled copy, page 10 if you care to look at the entire document)

While not many women had exercised their right to vote before this 1797 reform (indeed, Campbell Curry-Ledbetter notes that "there is little evidence that women voted between 1790 and 1797"), the number of women voting after the reform grew--and their votes seem to have made a critical difference in some elections. Or that, at least, was the fear. And so began the effort to rescind the right of women--of some women, still, unmarried women with property--to vote. In Curry-Ledbetter's words, women's votes were "weaponized."

The state turned down a proposal to amend its constitution in 1800, and turned away further efforts in 1802, one an attempt to overturn an election because, it was believed, married women had voted and a proposal that would exclude anyone from voting except "free white males."

But the pressure was relentless: "From 1783 to 1807, 73 petitions were submitted to the state (37 for voter suppression, 36 voter fraud)." And by 1807, it was all over. On 16 November 1807, the state legislature amended the New Jersey Constitution:
Whereas doubts have been raised and great diversities in practice obtained throughout the state in regard to the admission of aliens, females, and persons of color, or negroes to vote in elections, and also in regard to the mode of ascertaining the qualifications of voters in respect to estate.--And whereas, it is highly necessary to the safety, quiet, good order and dignity of the state, to clear up the said doubts by an act of the representatives of the people, declaratory of the true sense and meaning of the constitution, and to ensure its just execution in these particulars, according to the intent of the framers thereof, Therefore, . . . Be it enacted by the Council and General Assembly of this State, . . . no person shall vote in any state or county election . . . unless such person be a free, white, male citizen of this state of the age of twenty-one years worth fifty pounds. . . . (see page 2, if you check the enrolled document).
And it was gone. A right granted to some women for some three decades was taken away from them by the stroke of a pen.

Women in New Jersey did not regain the right to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. That's 113 years, in case you were interested. More than a century to regain a right they once had.

What else might women lose, now that control over their own bodies is gone? Here is lawyer, legal writer, and editor Dahlia Lithwik:
Justice Samuel Alito’s radical opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is noteworthy for its casual dismissal of the economic and medical hardships of women forced to carry pregnancies to term. But it’s also striking for the dismissal of any privacy or bodily autonomy interests for the mother, who is deemed a vessel for constitutional purposes largely because she was deemed a vessel when the relevant constitutional provisions were written and ratified. After Dobbs, women’s lives will be subject to more invasive ultrasound readings, denials of health care, whims of vigilante neighbors, and electronic surveillance. Women will be spied on, turned in, and arrested. States are attempting to restrict pregnant people’s right to travel and to receive medication through the mail. They are now less protected from their rapists and predators. Effective last weekend, millions of American women will be less safe from government surveillance and intervention everywhere, both in their physician’s offices and in the privacy of their own homes. (Article's original links retained.)

For more on the years when women voted in New Jersey, see the two legal articles cited above, Jan Ellen Lewis, "Rethinking Women's Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807" (Rutgers Law Review) and Campbell Curry-Ledbetter, "Women's Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807: A Political Weapon (The Georgetown Journal of Gender & the Law).