No one knows whether New Jersey meant to do it. Later though, the state constitution’s signers made it clear they meant to keep it.
In the summer of 1776, the colonies were about to collectively declare independence, and the Provincial Congress in Trenton was in a rush to write a state constitution. The state’s framers wrote and passed it in only five days.
In the document, where it explains rules for elected officials, the governor is referred to as “he”; each assembly member, “he”; each county’s sheriff and its coroners, a “he.”
But for some reason, when it describes the rules for the electorate, it says “they.” All inhabitants who are worth at least 50 pounds and have lived in New Jersey for a year, “they” shall have the right to vote.
And that is how, for the first three decades of American independence, it was legal for some New Jersey women to vote, more than a century before the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Even if it started out as an accidental loophole, a 1790 statute clarified that “they” meant “he or she” in seven New Jersey counties with large Quaker populations. In 1797, another statute expanded female suffrage from those counties to the entire state.
For decades, there has been mostly anecdotal evidence that any women actually used this right — newspaper accounts complaining about women voting, and a copy of a poll list with two names that could have been women’s names, or men’s names incorrectly transcribed.
“This is the kind of detective work that historians love, because it’s an untold story,” said Philip Mead, chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Starting in 2018, museum staff led by curatorial fellow Marcela Micucci dug into the New Jersey State Archives, local historical societies and other cultural institutions looking for harder evidence.
After months of searching, they hit pay dirt.
“We found a poll list … from an election in Montgomery Township, Somerset County, in October of 1801. There were 343 voters on that list and 46 of them were women,” Micucci told The Washington Post. “I barged into [Mead’s] office, the list printed out in my hands, jumping up and down. It was very exciting.”
Since then, museum researchers have found 18 more poll lists, ranging from 1797 to 1807, nine of which contain women’s names. In total, they have identified 163 women who voted.
“This was not just some women, but quite a substantial number of women,” Micucci said.
The women’s names often appear together, indicating that they arrived at the polls in groups, perhaps for their own protection, Mead said.
“That in itself, I think, is an expression of bravery,” he said.
There were limitations. At the time, married women generally had no property rights — a woman’s property went to her husband upon marriage — meaning only single and widowed women could meet the property requirement to vote.
But there was also another surprising benefit — that “they” in the state constitution wasn’t just gender neutral but race neutral. The museum team has found evidence that at least one free Black man legally voted in 1801. And though it is theoretically possible that free Black women voted, too, the team has yet to prove it happened. It’s already difficult to track White women in the historical record, Micucci explained, and even more so Black women. It is possible there is a Black woman among the 163 names already found, and researchers just haven’t been able to find biographical information about her in other extant records yet.
And though researchers know now that female voting was widespread, the team hasn’t found evidence of any type of organized proto-suffrage movement in the colonial era, Mead said.
That doesn’t mean it escaped notice in the young nation.
Nelly Custis, George Washington’s step-granddaughter, was once described by John Adams as having “jumped on a horse and galloped off to the polling place demanding the vote” as a property owner, Mead said.
In a 1797 letter to her sister, then-first lady Abigail Adams asked her to tell a losing candidate in a local race that if the Massachusetts state constitution “had been equally liberal with that of New jersey and admitted the females to a Vote, I should certainly have exercised it in his behalf.”
And there is, of course, Abigail’s famous letter to her husband in 1776, urging him to “remember the ladies” as he and the other founders deliberated on independence.
Both of these letters, along with the unearthed poll lists, will be included in a new exhibit at the museum called “When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story 1776-1807.” Originally scheduled to open in August, it has now been delayed until October because of the pandemic.
So how did New Jersey women lose the vote?
In a most American way — on the altar of partisan politics.
By the time Washington left office in 1797, fights between the nascent political parties — the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans — were becoming so bitter that the first president spent much of his farewell address warning against them.
The situation worsened over the next decade, and with that came a rise in accusations of voter fraud. In 1802, political leaders in Hunterdon County urged the New Jersey legislature to overturn a local election, claiming some people on the poll lists were Philadelphia residents, immigrants, enslaved and, in particular, married women, Micucci said.
In 1806 in Essex County, women and people of color were blamed again when more votes were mysteriously cast than there were eligible voters.
“This was a moment, in 1807, where Americans were having serious doubts about their democracy,” Mead said. “I think [legislators] were looking for a big action they could take to restore confidence in the voting system, and they crudely scapegoated women, people of color, immigrants.”
The law was changed to remove the property requirement and limit the franchise to White men only.
“And, of course, that wasn’t a solution. Voting problems continued,” Mead said.
Eight years later, in neighboring New York, a woman named Elizabeth Cady was born. She grew up to be an activist, married fellow abolitionist Henry Stanton, and, in 1848, met with other supporters of women’s rights at Seneca Falls, where she presented a draft of the Declaration of Sentiments.
By 1880, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was living in New Jersey, and since she had to pay taxes there, decided she would attempt to vote. She went to the polling place donned in her “Sunday attire,” she recounted, with her friend Susan B. Anthony, who was “always ready to make an escapade on the ballot-box.”
The inspector refused to give her a ballot, explaining there was no precedent for a woman to vote.
On the contrary, she told him, “On the sacred soil of New Jersey, where we now stand, women voted thirty-one years, from 1776 to 1807.”
The inspector said he knew nothing about the matter. He had never read the state constitution.