When lawmakers drafted the New Jersey state constitution in 1776, they granted the right to vote to any person who lived in New Jersey and owned property worth at least 50 pounds sterling. This allowed independently wealthy women and people of color to vote in state elections. Most women, however, did not qualify because married women could not own property separate from their husbands. Even so, this was radically different from the accepted custom that women should not have any political power. New Jersey was the only state in the new United States to allow women to vote.
This experiment in women’s suffrage was never popular. It faced many challenges in the New Jersey legislature. Some argued that women lacked the education to make informed voting choices. Others claimed that the process of voting was too rowdy for delicate females. Most believed that women’s suffrage undermined male authority. But the New Jersey state legislature confirmed that women could vote in 1797 when it included feminine pronouns in a new law clarifying how voting should work across the state. For the next decade, political candidates and parties actively campaigned for women’s votes.
The suffrage experiment came to an end in 1807. During a heated local election, men and boys dressed as women to cast extra ballots. Opponents of women’s suffrage seized the opportunity to take voting rights away from women. They claimed it was necessary to prevent voter fraud. State legislators passed new legislation that disenfranchised women. The new law was part of a political deal that also disenfranchised men of color.
These three excerpts from New Jersey law tell the story of the women’s suffrage experiment in the new state. The state constitution allowed any person who lived in the state to vote if they were wealthy enough. The 1797 act used both masculine and feminine pronouns when describing how voting should work across the state. This confirmed that women were allowed to vote in New Jersey. Finally, the 1807 act disenfranchised women and men of color by stating that a person must be white and male to vote in New Jersey elections.
The picture from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine shows what elections looked like when New Jersey’s women first had the right to vote. The rowdy nature of elections was a popular argument against women’s suffrage in the new nation.