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Certain Inalienable Rights: New Jersey Women and The Right to Vote

By Marty Kane I May 03, 2022



As we commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage in America, it is interesting to revisit New Jersey’s unique role in the story. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” The framers of New Jersey’s first state constitution, adopted on July 2, 1776, two days before the Continental Congress issued the Declaration, interpreted that concept literally.


While the revolutionary-era constitutions of most other states limited the vote to “freemen” or “male inhabitants,” New Jersey’s constitution gave the right to all adults, provided “they” (the document does not specify only men) could credibly declare ownership of property worth 50 pounds. Even more plainly, a 1797 New Jersey law explicitly refers to voters as “he or she.”

New Jersey thus became the first state to enfranchise women, giving everyone with a certain level of property the right to vote.


Fifty pounds in 1776 was a sizable, but not excessive, amount. (The dollar was yet to be established as America’s currency.) The property requirement ruled out most married women, who typically surrendered control of any property or income to their husbands. But for the first time in America, New Jersey’s law allowed women the right to vote—and not just white women. As a New Jersey lawmaker noted in a letter published in 1800, “our constitution gives this right to maids and widows, white and black.”


For three decades at the dawn of the new nation, the women of New Jersey had equal voting rights with men. How was this right lost? The event blamed most frequently was an 1806 Essex County election in which nearly 14,000 votes were cast—more than the number of eligible voters.


Charges of rampant fraud and corruption in this and other elections caused an uproar in which women and African-Americans were made the scapegoats. Newspapers printed stories of chaos caused by incompetent and easily manipulated “petticoat electors.”

In reality, some elected officials sought an excuse to restrict voting by groups over which they feared they had little control. Voter fraud is not a new concept. In 1807, New Jersey law was changed to explicitly limit the vote to white men, while also loosening the property requirement.


It is one of the dark ironies of American history that the broadening of the franchise to virtually all white male citizens coincided with the disenfranchisement of women and African- Americans. More than half a century would pass before women were again allowed to vote anywhere in the United States in a general election. In 1869 the Territory of Wyoming provided full voting rights to women, followed by several other western territories. Women began to organize and collectively fight for suffrage at the national level in July of 1848, when suffragists convened at Seneca Falls, N.Y. In the following decades, women marched, protested, lobbied and often went to jail, led by such activists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone.


In 1857, Stone refused to pay her property taxes in the village of Orange, N.J., claiming “taxation without representation.” Stone became an organizer of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association in 1867 and a national leader in the fight.


As the 20th century dawned, New Jersey’s Alice Paul emerged as a committed and tireless leader of a new generation of women’s rights advocates. Alison Turnbull Hopkins, Julia Hurlbut and Phoebe Scott, all of Morristown, were also leaders in the New Jersey movement.

Women across New Jersey continued to fight for the reversal of the 1807 legislation. A 1912 referendum to allow women the vote was soundly defeated but brought women’s suffrage to the forefront of the state’s political issues. A second referendum pursued in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in 1915 received just 42 percent of the male-only vote in New Jersey and was defeated in all four states. It became clear that getting men to give women the vote through the election process was just too difficult and the only way to proceed would be through the legislative process.


An amendment to change the United States Constitution to specifically provide the right to vote regardless of gender was first introduced in Congress in 1878. It was quickly defeated and made little progress in the ensuing decades.


By 1916, major suffrage organizations stopped working on state-by-state approval and united behind the renewed effort for a constitutional amendment. Suffrage leaders lobbied Congress heavily and when President Woodrow Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.


On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, followed quickly by the Senate. It then needed the approval of 36 state legislatures (three-quarters of the then 48 states). In February 1920, New Jersey became the 29th state to ratify the 19th Amendment when the New Jersey Senate approved it by a vote of 18 to 2 and the Assembly 34 to 24.


Once Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment in August 1920, the amendment was adopted and women finally had the right to vote. Shortly after, Margaret Laird and Jennie Van Ness became the first two women elected to the New Jersey Assembly in 1921. Four years later, Rebecca Estelle Bourgeois Winston of Estell Manor in Atlantic County became New Jersey’s first elected female mayor.


Lake Hopatcong did not play a major role in the women’s suffrage movement. It appears most people were happy to leave politics behind while enjoying their time at the then-bustling resort.


As the suffrage debate heated up in the 1910s, there were naturally both pro- and anti-suffrage groups that gathered socially. Dressing as a suffragist by donning a “Votes for Women” sash became popular at the frequent costume events held at the lake. There was little doubt about where the editor of the Lake Hopatcong Breeze stood on the issue of women’s suffrage. First mentioning the movement in the July 6, 1912 issue, the Breeze reported that “all young and unmarried fellows around the lake are welcome at Camp Nervie if they believe that women should vote, for the crowd are all suffragettes.”


The sarcasm was dripping in the July 19, 1913 edition, when the Breeze noted that a “suffragette meeting which was held at Turtle Point last Wednesday afternoon was a tremendous success. Matters of great importance were discussed and affairs of state were settled to the evident satisfaction of all present” and added that, “it is expected that the results of these ponderous deliberations will be reflected to such an extent as to warrant daily meetings next season. The cocktails were unusually effective as was evident by the zig-zag courses taken by the boats as members returned to their respective bungalows.”

Of a meeting later that month in Hopatcong Park, the Breeze opined that “the good ladies had a glorious time and many of the most momentous questions of the day were settled to the evident satisfaction of all present. By general consent several ‘mere men’ were permitted to take part in the ceremonies, thus adding to the dignity of the occasion.”


By contrast, the Breeze reported on the activities of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage as an actual news story, stating in the July 31, 1915 issue that they “had a booth in front of the post office for the furtherance of their cause. Literature has been distributed and wherever possible, speeches have been made at the hotels. Mrs. T. E. Browne of Westfield, one of the staff of the State Association, was in charge of the booth which was very attractively decorated with their colors.”


In the same issue it was reported that “a flying squadron of The Woman’s Suffrage Political Union of New Jersey… stopped over and kept the men busy. They were all good-lookers and judging by the boys, they made quite a few converts.”


Following the approval of the 19th Amendment, the Breeze snidely remarked in 1921 that “the only difference that woman suffrage will make is that some wives will have two votes where formerly they had only one.”


One individual at Lake Hopatcong played a larger role in the suffrage debate. Internationally known and never shy with his opinions, Hudson Maxim had supported women’s suffrage by 1908 when he addressed the Equal Suffrage Association in New York City. Maxim credited his partnership with his wife, Lillian, as having convinced him that women should have the right to vote.


A Philadelphia Record article dated Nov. 5, 1911 and headlined “Hudson Maxim Stands by Woman Suffrage and Explains Why” quoted Maxim explaining that “men and women are equal and have equal rights to opportunity, and with equal opportunity then let the best man win, whether he be a man or a woman. There is one great, broad foundation of liberty, resting on the bed rock of justice, and it is the inalienable right of every human being to equal opportunity, absolutely regardless of race, color or sex.”


One hundred years later, the four lake communities have had women council members, mayors, freeholders, legislators and now a congressional representative. It is worth pausing to consider the grit and determination of those earlier New Jerseyans who fought to broaden the franchise, ensuring that their— and our—voices would be heard.


A boat carrying supporters of the suffrage movement travels around Lake Hopatcong publicizing a suffrage meeting, circa 1915.


Top and left: New Jersey political pinbacks from 1915 supporting suffrage. Above: A Philadelphia Record article featuring Hudson Maxim and his strong support for the women’s suffrage movement dated Nov. 5, 1911.

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