Despite the hopes of women like Judith Sargent Murray (The Sentiments of an American Woman) and Abigail Adams, most of the men drafting constitutions for the newly independent states during the American Revolution did not, in fact, “remember the ladies.” Only New Jersey’s 1776 constitution left open the possibility that women might be voting citizens, since it used the comparatively open terminology “all free inhabitants” (and not “men,” “freemen, “or the like) to describe those qualified to vote in state elections. Over the next thirty years, single women who met the property qualification (£50) and were over the age of twenty-one regularly participated in local and state politics. Although scholars have sometimes treated this encompassing language as an unintended consequence of the hasty composition of the 1776 constitution, two separate acts of legislation (November 18, 1790, and February 1797) described voters using the phrase “he or she.” Indeed, New Jersey’s legislators had multiple opportunities to clarify or constrict the meaning of the bill, yet for thirty years refused to do so, allowing women to vote. The state’s experiment with female suffrage came to an end only after the intensely partisan election of 1800, in which women were accused of illegitimately influencing the outcome. As a result, in 1807, as part of a larger political compromise, the state legislature passed an act restricting suffrage to white men. New Jersey’s women would not vote again for more than one hundred years.
New Jersey’s experiment with female suffrage was noted and remarked upon by both proponents and detractors of the idea: in Minor v. Happersett the U.S. States Supreme Court referred to the singularity of New Jersey’s constitutional provisions for female suffrage as evidence that while citizenship rights might include suffrage, they did not necessarily do so in the case of women.
Source: November 16, 1807, §1, Acts 32nd General Assembly of New Jersey, 1st sitting, ch. 2, p. 14.
A Supplement to the act entitled “Act to regulate the election of members of the legislative council and general assembly, sheriffs, and coroners in this state,” passed at Trenton the twenty-second day of February, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven
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, as 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,
Section 1. Be it enacted by the council and general assembly of this state, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same,
That from and after the passing of this act, no person shall vote in any state or county election for officers in the government of the United States, or of this state, unless such person be a free, white, male citizen of this state, of the age of twenty-one years, worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate, and have resided in the county where he claims a vote, for at least twelve months immediately preceding the election.
A. This document almost has to be read between the lines: that is, if the aim was to reduce confusion “in regard to the admission of aliens, females, and persons of color, or negroes to vote in elections,” then what must we surmise had been going on in New Jersey up to that point?
B. How would Judith Sargent Murray’s understanding of gender equality cause her to evaluate the “clarification” offered here?