Today is the anniversary of the Constitution’s 19th Amendment in 1920, guaranteeing American women the same voting rights as men.
Some sources, such as this Wikipedia article, say that a widow named Lydia Taft actually voted in the Uxbridge, Massachusetts, town meeting in 1756. In recent years people have named a stretch of highway and a nursing home after Taft.
However, the earliest description of her vote apparently dates from over a century later. In 1881, Rushton D. Burr published an 1864 address in Uxbridge, adding extensive appendices on town history. One of those appendices, titled “The Taft Family,” said this about Lydia Taft:
Her husband died in 1756. The French and Indian war was at hand; the Revolution not far distant [i.e., nearly twenty years later]. A requisition was made upon the town of Uxbridge for a certain sum of money for colonial purposes [i.e., a tax hike]. A meeting of the legal voters was held to see if the money should be granted. The estate of Josiah Taft paid the largest tax in Uxbridge, and his son Bezaleel was a minor [six years old]; but with a sturdy sense of justice that there should be “no taxation without representation [a phrase not coined for years],” the citizens declared that the widow Josiah Taft should vote upon the question. She did so, and her vote was the one that decided in the affirmative that the money should be paid.More recently, Carol Masiello mined Uxbridge’s vital records to find details of Lydia Taft’s life for this local newspaper article. For example, while Burr remembered her youngest son Bazaleel Taft, the town apparently forgot his older brother Asahel, who was also a minor in 1756. And what about the oldest son, Josiah Taft, who turned twenty-three in 1756 and would ordinarily inherit his father’s place as head of the family with voting rights?
All in all, I’m a little suspicious of the story, for a few reasons. First, I’m not seeing any quotes from 1756 documents. When Uxbridge bent the usual rules to let Lydia Taft vote on the tax hike, was there no complaint from the voters who opposed the tax? There was supposedly an equal number of men on each side. People of the time would complain about “a trifling majority” after losing a close vote, so why accept a decision made by an illegal voter?
Why was there no comment in newspapers or government records on Lydia Taft’s vote or what precedent it might set? (I just looked for reports, and couldn’t find any.)
Second, I see some “memory creep” as people interpret previous writings to make more of Lydia Taft’s suffrage. For example, Masiello’s article reports: “She is mentioned in town records a few times more, once in 1758 to reduce her highway rates and another in 1765 was to change her school district.” In the Wikipedia entry, those mentions of her as a property owner become additional times that Taft voted.
Finally, several articles about Taft (not Masiello’s) reflect later customs, such as stating “she became known as Lydia Chapin Taft.” Actually, she didn’t; she appears in Uxbridge records as “Lydia Taft.” Most eighteenth-century wives didn’t keep their maiden names as middle names; later genealogists (and collateral descendants) like to do that. That makes me question how reliably authors can interpret information about colonial customs.
I can picture the men of Uxbridge deciding to let Lydia Taft participate in this town meeting as her late husband’s administrator, and a sort of proxy for her son. She was a member of the Uxbridge elite, her husband having been one of the richest men in town. Her support for the new colony tax might have carried weight. But I can’t see the men of Uxbridge bending the rules on such a close vote, at least without causing a lot of talk.
It would be nice to see the official records of this town meeting. They might be very skimpy—clerks often tried to avoid recording divisive controversies, so they wrote down only final decisions. If Uxbridge’s 1756 records confirm that “the citizens declared that the widow Josiah Taft should vote,” then Lydia Taft’s place in history is clear. If not, this looks like a local legend—interesting, but not well supported.