J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, September 21, 2020

When Women Lost the Vote in New Jersey, and Other Troublesome History

Yesterday I wrote about what might be the first and only example of women voting in an official forum in colonial America, two property-owning widows expressing their views at a special Sudbury town meeting in 1655.

The next documented example of American women voting in a governmental election came in New Jersey after the Revolution. As I wrote back in 2010, the state constitution allowed widows and single women meeting the property requirement to vote.

Newspapers at the time made clear that some women did exercise that right—it wasn’t just an abstraction. However, most of what we knew about the custom came from each party complaining that the other side was doing too much to woo female support. In 1807, the men in charge of New Jersey took care of that problem by rewriting the constitution to restrict the vote to men only.

This year we’re observing the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and of the first national election in which American women voted. (Those who weren’t disenfranchised because of race, that is.)

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia decided to use that occasion to dig deeper into the history of female suffrage in New Jersey. As reported earlier this year in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in the New York Times, researchers from the museum went looking for voter rolls that might name women who actually cast ballots.

Jennifer Schuessler reported on the challenge in the New York Times:
A 1920 article in a small historical journal included a transcript of a 1787 poll list from Burlington Township showing two women’s names. But the original list could not be found, and some scholars wondered if the names were transcription errors. (Was “Iona” a woman’s name, or a misreading of “Jona,” a common abbreviation for Jonathan?)

A footnote in a 1992 scholarly article mentioned an 1800 list from Bedminster apparently showing a few women’s names. But that, it seemed, was it.

And so Dr. [Marcela] Micucci began trying to locate surviving poll lists — rarities in themselves — to see if they included women’s names that could be verified against other records.

The first big hit was an 1801 poll list from Montgomery Township, held at the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton, which had acquired it in 2016 from the descendant of a long-ago county clerk.

Dr. [Philip] Mead recalled being on the phone when Dr. Micucci walked in, waving a photocopy with what turned out to be nearly four dozen women’s names highlighted.
As of February, the research team had found eighteen poll lists from four townships, half of those rolls including women’s names. A detail from one such document appears above.

The pandemic disrupted the M.A.R.’s initial plans for its “When Women Lost the Vote” exhibit, but it’s opening next month. The museum says:
Featuring original objects including textiles, works of art, and newly-discovered poll lists highlighting women voters from the period, the exhibition will bring to life the forgotten stories of the women who first pioneered the vote and became role models for women's suffragists two generations later. “When Women Lost the Vote” is an inspiring story that will encourage visitors to reconsider their understanding of the timeline of women’s history in America, but it is also a cautionary tale about one of America’s first voting rights crises. The exhibition will be integrated within the Museum’s permanent galleries and connected by an audio tour.
This exhibition will run through 25 Apr 2021. There are restrictions for visitors to preserve public health.

Also from the M.A.R., on Thursday, 24 September, Annette Gordon-Reed, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University, will deliver the Carl M. Buchholz Memorial Lecture on the topic “The Past in the Present: Dealing with Troublesome Histories.”

Gordon-Reed has written extensively about some of the troublesome aspects of Thomas Jefferson, as well as his more admirable sides, in her books Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, The Hemingses of Monticello, and “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” with Peter S. Onuf. She has also written a short biography of—talk about troublesome!—President Andrew Johnson.

Watching this online lecture live requires registering in advance. The log-in period will begin on Thursday at 5:45 P.M., and the lecture at 6:00. There will be a question period afterward.

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