Remembering… and then Forgetting… Female Suffrage in Early New Jersey
by Jed Quinn Peterson
Trenton, New Jersey. November 16th, 1807
Dr. Lewis Condict stood slowly as his name was called and the floor given him. Nodding to James Cox, the Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly, he made his way solemnly past the circular rows of fellow assemblymen. Arriving at the oak lectern at the front of the ornately decorated chamber, he faced his peers, hands at his side, chin up, chest out, and eyes narrowed in concentration. Dressed smartly in the fashion of the day, a dark short-fronted tailcoat and fitted waistcoat, white linen shirt, a white neck cloth, tan pantaloons and Hessian boots, he looked every bit the part he was there to play: the disinterested representative of the people.
The young doctor was a rising star in state politics. Raised by his influential uncle Silas Condict, a delegate to the Continental Congress, Lewis was handsome, well connected and part of one of the wealthiest families in New Jersey. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, the thirty-five year old physician had served as Sheriff of Morris County, County Judge and Justice of the Peace. His wife Martha was expecting their fourth child back at their expansive home back in Morristown, but he was here in Trenton speaking on behalf of a bill he’d helped write that would alter the voting requirements from the original New Jersey state constitution.
The revolutionaries of the 1770s held firmly that only the propertied were qualified to vote for magistrates, as those without a tangible stake in the republic could be easily swayed to elect the wrong sort of leaders. A new generation of leaders had come to believe that men of all levels of wealth and property deserved a place in the electorate. While lowering the property requirement to vote was ideologically progressive, men like Condict knew that bringing in tens of thousands of new voters would help them in the upcoming elections. This support could prove vital, as the past decade had seen a massive political shift in New Jersey state politics.
The Republican Party, created and controlled by Thomas Jefferson and counting Lewis Condict as a devoted member, had taken power at the expense of the Federalist Party, first led by George Washington and then by John Adams. A great deal had changed in New Jersey since Jefferson had taken power in what he called the Revolution of 1800, and the pall of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton at the Heights of Weehawken still hung over the state. The two parties were locked in a political battle royale, with the stakes as high as ever.
Condict knew extending the vote to men of the lower classes would be a wildly popular decision and would do much to gain him and his party power, but he was aware of an undesirable side effect. The state constitution, written in 1776, thirteen years before the passage of the US Constitution, had stated all ‘inhabitants’ with enough money who had lived in New Jersey over a year could vote. Whether intentionally vague or not, this meant women, African-Americans and immigrants had voted in elections large and small for decades. Dropping property requirements would substantially increase in particular the number of female voters, something state leadership was desperate to avoid. The easy way out of this seemingly untenable situation was to simply insert the words ‘free, white male citizen’ in the new legislation as a replacement for the original ‘inhabitant.’
There was just one small problem standing in the way of making this switch, which was that the new bill as written was unconstitutional and would never stand up to a challenge in court. The 1776 New Jersey state constitution hadn’t included the mechanisms for adding amendments, which meant the only legal way to change ‘inhabitant’ to ‘white male’ was to call for a Constitutional Convention and open up the entire document for revision. And that just wasn’t going to happen. Condict knew he was therefore proposing to alter the constitution illegally, but he was unconcerned he would be charged with any improprieties for his actions this day. As he gazed out across the chamber he knew he was among friends here, comrades in arms, dedicated as he was to protecting the patriarchy and ridding New Jersey of the pox of female suffrage. The die had been cast, the decision made, and the people would cheer him for his role in it. Smiling widely, Dr. Lewis Condict began his prepared remarks.
No man can suppose the framers of the constitution intended under the term ‘all inhabitants’ to include married women, negro slaves and aliens of every description, as entitled to the right of suffrage. Such a supposition would be an absurdity—would be an impeachment of their understanding and a perversion of reason. Besides, if women, negroes and aliens are entitled to vote, it must follow that they are eligible to office, as the right of electing and of being elected are reciprocal and inseparable. Yet it cannot for a moment be supposed, that the authors of the constitution meant to entrust the command of our armies and the direction of the state, either to women, to negroes, or to aliens. In the term ‘inhabitant’ they meant to include the free, white, male citizens being then inhabitants.
Dr. Condict paused, took a sip of water, and continued, speaking to the absurdity of anyone of intelligence believing the previous generation had ever intended women, African Americans, or aliens to vote and that it was up to them, there, in that hour, in that room, to end this great ‘mistake.’ And end it they must, and quickly, for his greatest fear, the rise of a Napoleonesque figure in America and the loss of all their hard won freedoms, was a surety if no action was taken. As he finished, the room bust into applause. It was a fine speech: convincing, thorough, and precise, but in the end wholly unnecessary. These men needed no further motivation to close the books on female and minority suffrage in New Jersey.
That afternoon the New Jersey General Assembly affirmed the removal of the voting rights of women, African Americans, and non-citizens. The “Act to regulate the election of members of the legislative council and general assembly, sheriffs and coroners in this state” stated that “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…” And just like that, with a whimper, not a bang, New Jersey ended its brief experiment with African American and female suffrage. It would be another fifty years before the Fifteenth Amendment allowed African-Americans to vote, and over a full century before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment brought women into the franchise.
For the past two hundred years we’ve been left to wonder what drove this moment. Were these men rectifying a mistake based off a decades-long faulty reading of the state constitution? Or were they maliciously reversing an intentional choice made by revolutionaries incorporating principles of the enlightenment into the government? It makes sense that this state, straddling New York and Philadelphia, could have stretched republican ideals on suffrage to their limits. But then, it also makes sense this could have been the furthest thing from their minds. Regardless, the tale of how we got here in 1807, when sixty men dressed in their finest sat in an ornate and spacious chamber and voted one by one to take away the right to vote from women, is worth telling. And it starts, as stories like this often do, at the beginning of a revolution.
Burlington, New Jersey. July 2nd 1776.
Samuel Tucker walked slowly forward, his footsteps echoing in the near empty great hall, his mood heavy but resolute. A former county sheriff, he was the current President of the New Jersey Provincial Assembly and a member of the Committee for Safety. He knew this wasn’t the proper way to bring a new government to life, but he had little choice. The Assembly had already been forced to move twice, first from Trenton to New Brunswick and now to Burlington. The purpose of their gathering this day was to debate and, hopefully, ratify a new state constitution.
Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, a Princeton lawyer and associate of John Adams in the Continental Congress, had been tasked with constructing a first draft. He’d arrived at the end of June, where he led a group of ten men working feverishly to create a document steeped in antimonarchist ideology but pragmatic enough to unite and govern the state as it plunged headfirst into war. Sparse by design, it needed to strike the perfect balance between specificity and vagueness, offering much and promising little. Nowhere in the constitution was this more on display than in the description of the future electorate.
Men like Tucker and Sergeant would be included, of course. But others? Native Americans were out. So were slaves, married women, children, idiots, lunatics and the poor. But what of foreigners? Or religious minorities like Catholics or Quakers? What about the growing numbers of free African-Americans? Or wealthy single women? If someone paid taxes, shouldn’t they vote? Wasn’t that the point of the revolution? That those paying taxes should be represented? These were questions every other state had answered with little to no debate amongst its propertied, protestant male leadership. Vermont decreed only men could vote, Georgia reserved suffrage for “white male inhabitants,” South Carolina proclaimed a voter a “free white man,” Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and Delaware all required voters to be a “freeman,” and New York and Massachusetts left voting to “male” inhabitants or persons. New Jersey, for reasons all its own, had gone in quite the opposite direction.
A scant week after arriving in Burlington, Sergeant brought his draft to the Assembly for debate and, hopefully, a quick ratification. News had arrived that the Red Coats had landed at Sandy Hook and rumors were swirling that General Howe and his army of 20,000 were on their way as well. The revolutionaries had run out of time. As the delegates gathered, only half their membership, barely a quorum of thirty-five men, remained. The choice before them was daunting: sign the document as is, knowing it was flawed and hurried, or flee the city as the other assemblymen had done without a constitution, leaving it for a day that might not ever come. In the end, the path before them was clear. There could be no more waiting. War had come to their doorstep and half measures wouldn’t do. With the vote twenty-six to nine, New Jersey joined the revolution. The section detailing who could vote in the new government was left as it was:
IV. That all inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.
The only thing left to make it official was for the president of the Assembly, Samuel Tucker, to affix his signature. He paused momentarily, the weight of the moment hanging over him. He couldn’t help but wonder what they might have crafted if not under duress. They knew the intentions that lay beneath this blueprint for a radically new government, but it was anyone’s guess how future leaders of New Jersey would interpret and implement this. Standing over the parchment, Tucker took a deep breath, lifted his quill, dipped it in ink, and signed his name. The scattered applause this day was muted in the empty hall, but Tucker smiled nonetheless. Their task accomplished, he shook the hands of the other delegates, wished each one good luck on their journey out of the city, and left to ensure his wife Elizabeth and their children were safe and his farm in good hands before he went on to play his part in the ensuing conflict.
We’ll never know if the use of the generic word “inhabitant” was a slip up, a mistake made in haste, or a deliberate attempt at inclusion. Whether intentional or not, however, the framers of this state constitution left open the tiniest crack through which citizens who didn’t fit the expected mold could squeeze through and claim a voice in the new government. The men who’d written this document hadn’t said women, African Americans or non-citizens could vote, but they also hadn’t said they couldn’t. It would take almost two decades before these words had any meaningful impact on voting in New Jersey. While the possibility remained open for some women to vote, we have no evidence this happened during the American Revolution. We do know, though, that wealthy single women understood their unique situation in a government based on individual freedom, representative taxation and property rights, and that many of them fought for greater inclusion. Not surprisingly, this was something men of that time were unwilling to accept.
Chantilly, Virginia, March 17, 1778
General Henry “Light Horse” Lee, by 1778 already a hero of the American Revolution, sat in deep thought behind the giant oak desk at his family’s ancestral plantation. Before him lay an impossible question posed by his sister, Hannah Lee Corbin, a widow with considerable property and influence in her community. The complaint she’d lodged was that she was paying taxes to a government she didn’t have a voice in selecting. Since ‘no taxation without representation’ was one of the driving forces behind the American Revolution, she believed she was justified in asking why she had been left out of this basic equation. The easy answer, of course, was that she was a woman and women simply didn’t vote in 1778, but Corbin had found a loophole and she was eager to convince her brother to help her exploit it. At issue was how to interpret the legal injunctions English Common Law, brought over fully formed from the mother country, placed on women. Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s, was very specific about a woman’s place in a man’s world.
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture… For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence.
That a woman ceased to exist legally after marriage was accepted practice throughout the British Empire, and not even the most radical revolutionaries argued against this form of discrimination. That didn’t mean, however, that all women were legally non-existent. As Corbin pointed out to her brother, under Common Law widows and women of age yet unwed were considered a Feme Sole, literally a woman alone. While a married woman wasn’t allowed to conduct business or bring a lawsuit or even retain ownership over the home she brought into a marriage, a Feme Sole had full legal rights and control over the property and assets left behind by deceased fathers, brothers or husbands. Under the British monarch, while women were allowed entrance into the economic world, they remained fully locked out of the political sphere. Corbin knew that at the moment Revolutionaries were holding up every aspect of society and examining whether or not they wanted to keep it in their new world or discard it for something different. She knew the time was now if she was going to make this change. Her only question was, who would side with her?
Her argument was simple: it went against the spirit of the contest for a subset of wealthy, tax-paying, single female citizens, of which she was a member, to support a government they had no role in electing. Reason and expediency warranted their inclusion in the electorate, and if the political leadership was unwilling to concede her the vote, she should be exempt from taxation. Since revolutionary Americans accepted that paying taxes and voting went hand in hand, it seemed fair to argue that she should have the privilege of both or the burden of neither. As Lee shifted in his chair, the empty page before him lit only by a flickering oil lamp, he struggled to find an acceptable answer to this query. After much thought, he went to work. It wasn’t the most articulate letter he would ever pen, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances.
You complain that Widows are not represented, and that being temporary Possessors of their estates, ought not to be liable to the Tax. The doctrine of representation is a large subject, and it is certain that it ought to be extended far as wisdom and policy can allow.Nor do I see that either of these forbid Widows having property from voting, notwithstanding it has never been the practice either here or in England. Perhaps ’twas thought rather out of character for Women to press into those tumultuous Assemblies of Men where the business of choosing Representative is conducted.
Lee knew his reasoning was dubious at best. Why couldn’t his sister vote? Because it had never been the practice. Because it wasn’t in her character. Because it would be tumultuous. Because… I said so. Knowing this wasn’t good enough, he was left to offer his condolences.
This then is the Widows security as well as the never married Women who have lands in their own right, for both of whom I have the greatest respect, and would at any time give my consent to establish their right of Voting, altho I am persuaded that it would not give them greater security, nor alter the mode of Taxation you complain of.
Lee agreed single women with property met the legal requirements to vote, but he was unwilling to push further into the issue. He wasn’t about to risk his place within the inner circle of the Revolution arguing for something he couldn’t support. And yet, it’s hard to imagine he was the only one in the former colonies having this conversation. What influence might he have had if he’d responded differently to his sister and used his significant influence in support of female suffrage? Would others have joined him? Could Virginia have joined New Jersey in allowing female suffrage? We’ll never know, because Lee wasn’t about to cross a solid black line for something he didn’t really believe was of benefit to women or society. Women had never voted before and they weren’t about to start now, no matter how indefensible that position was within the republican ideology of the day. Lee folded the letter in half and slid it into its envelope. As he sealed the flap with wax he let out a lengthy sigh. He hadn’t given his sister an answer, but then again, he had.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. April 14, 1776
John Adams sat at the small desk in his office, laughing so hard his eyes watered. He’d just received the most charming and hilarious letter from his beloved wife, Abigail, who had remained home in Braintree, Massachusetts while he attended the Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia. They were moving ever closer to declaring independence from England, and he was grateful for any diversion from home to keep his mind from the heavy work at hand. He wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, opened up the letter and read it again.
In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
Adams started laughing again. No, this was too much. Just simply too much. He was doing serious work here, building a new country. This band of revolutionaries was looking to restructure society, this was true, but not if it kept men like them from achieving their place at the head of the table. Handing that hard-fought power over to women would not only make them the laughingstock of the world but would be the shortest route to ending this rebellion before it began. They would never get help from the French, and they were as open minded toward gender relationships as anyone in the Western world. He shuddered to think what the Spanish or Germans would think. No, what his wife asked was simply out of the question. Picking up his quill, he dipped it in ink, let out another chuckle, and began to write his wife.
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient -- that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent -- that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. -- This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out. Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy. -- A fine Story indeed. I begin to think the Ministry as deep as they are wicked. After stirring up Tories, Landjobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, Scotch Renegadoes, at last they have stimulated the [women] to demand new Priviledges and threaten to rebell.
He put the quill down and laughed once more. It had taken him a full half hour to finish his list of groups the British had arrayed against them. He was particularly proud of the Scotch Renegadoes, although he wasn’t entirely sure that was how to spell that word or even if such a group existed. Still, that should do it. He could picture Abigail reading his letter and knew she’d be disappointed but that she’d also realize she wasn’t to bring this up again. While the letter had made him laugh, he wasn’t about to continue this conversation. God had created Adam to rule, and Eve as his helpmeet, and he saw no reason to reverse rolls now. He was working frantically to convince his fellow delegates to issue a Declaration of Independence, and there just wasn’t time to ‘remember the ladies.’ Not with a war to win. This was men’s work, and it was time to get back to it.
Burlington, New Jersey. November 18, 1790
Jonathan Dayton shut the door carefully and quietly behind him. It was well past midnight, and he knew his wife Susan and their two daughters would be sound asleep. He stole upstairs silently, avoiding the two creaking steps as he made it to the girls’ room. He peeked in to find them fast asleep, the smiles on their little faces like angels. They were truly the light of his life. A few steps more and he’d made it to his room. He looked in on his wife and paused. He was desperate to wake her, but it would have been cruel to rouse her from her dreams now, knowing how long her days were taking care of the house and children. No. He would let her sleep. He could share in the achievements of this day tomorrow.
Dayton had turned thirty years old just last month, but he was already recognized throughout the new nation for his immense contribution to the early Republic. A teenage friend of Alexander Hamilton, he had left Princeton to join the revolution at the age of fifteen and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually serving under George Washington. After the war came to an end he was chosen as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where, at twenty-six, he became the youngest signer of the United States Constitution. The voters of New Jersey had elected him to the House of Representatives in 1789, but he’d made the difficult decision to remain in the state legislature. He felt his talents would be better used fighting for the Federalist cause here at home, and today had born the fruits of that labor.
As speaker of the General Assembly, he’d pushed a bill through the legislature entitled “An Act to regulate the Election of Members of the Legislative Council and General Assembly, Sheriffs, and Coroners, in the Counties of Bergen, Monmouth, Burlington, Gloucester, Salem, Hunterdon and Sussex.” On the surface it didn’t seem like much, but he had fought for one word in particular that he was immensely proud of.
And be it further Enacted, That all free Inhabitants of this State of full Age, and who are worth Fifty Pounds Proclamation Money clear Estate in the same, and have resided within the County in which they claim a Vote, for twelve Months immediately preceding the Election, shall be entitled to vote for all public Officers which shall be elected by Virtue of this Act, and no person shall be entitled to vote in any other Township or Precinct, than that in which he or she doth actually reside at the Time of the Election...
There, at the end, was the word. She. The state constitution of 1776 had said inhabitants could vote, which had lead to some confusion when single women who met the other qualifications had shown up to participate in local elections. As this bill came to the floor, Dayton had agreed that adding gendered pronouns would help end any doubt as to whether women were included in the word inhabitants. The state constitution had been very clear that enough wealth bought you a ballot on election day. It didn’t make sense that if a man died that the remaining family members wouldn’t continue to enjoy the benefits of engaging in the representation process. The household hadn’t changed. The single daughter or widow still paid the same taxes. It seemed a logical decision to make.
There’d been a heated debate in the legislature over including she in the bill, with some in the room nervous where a path that included female suffrage might eventually lead them, but a compromise had been worked out in the end limiting this experiment to specific elections in only seven of the thirteen counties. And since those seven counties were Federalist strongholds, the Republicans believed it wouldn’t aversely affect their chances for victory where they already held power. The end vote had been thirty-two to four. Not unanimous, but still a sizable mandate. New Jersey had added women to its electorate. Jonathan Dayton couldn’t have been prouder.
Personally, though, this was a great comfort for him. He was heavily involved in land speculation and was in the process of purchasing a quarter million acres in Ohio. If all went well he would soon join the upper echelons of society. Passage of this bill meant if anything should happen to him, God forbid, that his wife would have a say in choosing magistrates who would protect their growing fortune, and the future he was building for his daughters. Smiling to himself, he headed back downstairs, once again missing the creaking steps. Spending his night on the couch so his wife could enjoy slumber uninterrupted felt like the perfect way to end a day where some women had officially been granted the right of suffrage in New Jersey.
Trenton, New Jersey. October 7th, 1799
William Griffith picked up the top book on the stack, smiled wide, opened it up and began to leaf through its pages. He couldn’t have been prouder of his first published book. It was perfect. Entitled “Eumenes: being a collection of papers, written for the purpose of exhibiting some of the more prominent errors and omissions of the Constitution of New-Jersey,” this was his attempt to convince the government to rewrite the state constitution. As a young Federalist lawyer and member of the Burlington Common Council, he had high hopes he could bring about real change. While the constitution had too many failings to count, one of its most egregious defects was the fact that women were voting in large numbers.
How New Jersey had become the lone state in the Union to allowed Feme Soles to vote was beyond him. In an update to election laws in 1790, Jonathan Dayton and the General Assembly had included the phrase ‘he or she’ in their voting bill. It was hard for him to imagine that was anything but a partisan ploy. Seven years later, the legislature included this phrase again, now allowing wealthy single women to vote throughout the entire state in all elections. He’d read the law so many times while writing his book that he had the offending section memorized: “And no person shall be entitled to vote in any other township or precinct, than that in which he or she doth actually reside at the time of the election.”
Saying ‘inhabitant’ in 1776 with an invading army at the doorstep was one thing. No one could blame anyone for that. Saying ‘he or she’ in 1790 was easy to explain away as well. But including it again, in 1797? It was preposterous. Embarrassing. Ridiculous. It had to have been the Quakers behind the whole thing. Those damn Quakers with their outrageous notions of gender equality. Pacifists, too. These men, if you could call them men, were handing power to Jefferson and his Republicans with the help of the petticoat electorate. This had to be stopped, and Griffith knew how. He turned to the page where he had put forth his solution to this vexing problem, his eyes scanning his argument.
Those who support the rights of women, say, that “all inhabitants,” must mean all women inhabiting, as well as all men; whereas, it is urged on the other side, that the makers must have meant all male inhabitants, and that the expression is to be restrained, so as to arrive at the intent of the framers of the instrument. To my mind (without going into an historical, or philosophical deduction of particulars on the subject) it is evident, that women, generally, are neither, by nature, nor habit, nor education, nor by their necessary condition in society, fitted to perform this duty with credit to themselves, or advantage to the public. (It is perfectly disgusting, to witness the manner in which women are polled at our elections. Nothing can be a greater mockery of this invaluable and sacred right, than to suffer it to be exercised by persons, who do not even pretend to any judgment on the subject.) The great practical mischief, however, resulting from their admission, under our present form of government, is, that the towns and populous villages gain an unfair advantage over the country, by the greater facility they enjoy over the latter, in drawing out their women to the election. Why a man should be worth fifty pounds clear estate, to qualify him properly to choose the person he would wish to have the charge over his life, liberty and privileges as a citizen, is a problem not easily solved, by an appeal to reason and justice… Every citizen has (besides property) his liberty, his life, and his just rights in society to be protected; and these are equally important, and common to all the members of the community.
Yes, he nodded. He’d summed it up perfectly. Despite his meticulous arguments pointing out the numerous issues with the constitution as written, its fatal flaw lay with who was and who wasn’t allowed to vote. The state needed to include more men if it was to live up to its revolutionary heritage, and it had to remove women as voters if it wanted to ensure respectable elections and preserve the public good. There was too much at stake to get this wrong, and his book, soon to find its way into the hands of the politicians of New Jersey, was the first step in making things right before too much damage was done.
Newark, New Jersey. November 7th, 1800.
Margaret McDonald picked up the Newark Centinel lying on the table at the tavern she’d run since the untimely death of her late husband three years past. As she scanned the paper, she was pleased to find an article from a member of the state legislature discussing the debate over a bill for “a General Election of Members of Congress for the state of New Jersey.” She set her cleaning rag down and focused intently on the small print.
While the aforesaid bill was pending before the House of the Assembly, a motion was made to amend the bill by adding the following section thereunto, vis ‘That it is the true intent and meaning of this set, that the inspectors of election in the several townships of this state, shall not refuse the vote of any widow or unmarried woman of full age, or any person of color of full age, provided each of the said persons make it appear on oath, or otherwise, to the satisfaction of the said inspectors, that he or she is worth 50 l. clear, estate proclamation money of this state. The house unanimously agreed that this section would be clearly within the meaning of the Constitution, and it would be entirely useless to insert it in the law. Our constitution gives the right to vote to maids or widows, black or white.
And of course it did, Margaret thought as she smiled to herself. Proud of the opportunity she had to engage in this most important civic activity, she’d already chosen her preferred candidate in the upcoming election. Still, a thought nagged at the back of her mind. While kind of the legislature to remind everyone that maids or widows could vote, it would’ve been nice if they’d actually put that wording into the bill. There were lots of people running around saying women shouldn’t vote, which seemed like a whole stinking pile of poppycock to her. If anything, New Jersey had proven women should vote everywhere. The more she thought about it, though, the more concerned she got. It never hurt to get things in writing, and if something isn’t in writing, well, it’s easy to forget it, isn’t it? There wasn’t much she could do, though, as women could vote but they still couldn’t run for office. Those decisions would have to be made by the men, as disappointing as that was. Shrugging her shoulders, she laid the paper down, picked her rag back up, and got back to cleaning. She had to keep the tavern in tiptop condition or she’d lose her business, and with it her vote, and she wasn’t about to let either of those happen.
Elizabethtown, New Jersey. November 7th, 1804
There was a nip in the air. The last few brightly colored leaves clung tenuously to the red oaks spread through the city, but no one was thinking about the coming winter. No, today was Election Day and the city was buzzing with excitement. For the first time in the state’s short history, the citizens of New Jersey were voting directly for the members of the Electoral College who would elect the president. Before now, Electors were chosen by the state legislature, meaning there wasn’t an actual election day for the office of the president. Today, though, hundreds of men and women congregated in the town center in a scene not played out anywhere else in the nation. While men lined up to vote, so too did single women and African Americans. The poor weren’t included in this act of civic pageantry, but everyone with enough wealth was.
John Adams had barely held off Jefferson in 1796, and the rematch in 1800 had been incredibly tight as well. Every vote had counted, and Jefferson had sent numerous dignitaries to new Jersey, including Alexander Hamilton and Matthias Ogden, to convince female voters to cast their votes for the Republican Party. The end result here had been mixed, with Adams carrying the state while Jefferson had won the presidency. Grateful for the victory, yet desirous to ensure Jefferson would win the state in 1804, the Republican leadership thanked the women of New Jersey for their continued support and loyalty to the party in a series of public events. In Stoney Hill, glasses were raised to “the Republican fair; May their patriotic conduct in the late elections add an irresistible zest to their charms; and raise the female character in the estimation of every friend to his country.” At Bloomfield, a toast was made to “the fair daughters of Columbia , those who voted in behalf of Jefferson and Burr in particular.” The message was clear. Thank you women for voting for Jefferson in 1800, and let’s do it again in 1804.
Now that Election Day had finally arrived, all their hard work had paid off. Jefferson’s popularity had risen dramatically with the unexpected windfall of the Louisiana Purchase, and the Federalist Party in New Jersey had basically self-destructed over the past year. As such, the Republicans had placed eight men on the ballot as electors: Phineas Manning, Alexander Carmichael, Thomas Newbold, Solomon Freleight, William Rossell, Jacob Huffy, Abijah Smith, and Moore Furman. The Federalists had placed… no one. And so while the 1804 election was never in doubt, this only caused greater exuberance by those in the town square. The women of New Jersey had done their part to ensure the Republican Party won, and they expected the thanks of their victorious leaders just as they’d received four years earlier. As the crowd began to disperse and families found their way home under the setting sun, the mood was festive and light. Democracy had worked and the Republicans were firmly in control. Winter was coming, but to the women who had just voted in the presidential election, the world was as it should be.
Newark, New Jersey. February 10, 1806
Something had gone wrong. No, that wasn’t strong enough. Something had gone terribly, horribly wrong. As the election officials finished their count, they could only sit back and scratch their heads. 13,857 votes had been cast in the referendum to determine the location of the new courthouse, a record amount for an election in Essex County. Of course, the reason it was a record was because that was three times the number of registered voters in the county. The Newark Centinel had reported in the day’s edition that the election would be “the most warm, active, and perhaps disputed election, ever witnessed in the county of Essex.” They couldn’t have been more on target. The legislature, now thoroughly in the hands of the Republicans, had been unwilling to decide whether to put the new courthouse in the rival cities of Newark or Elizabethtown. It was a referendum that promised real economic results for the winner, and with such high stakes there was no incentive to play by the rules.
As the dust settled, it was clear that every avenue possible for cheating had been used. While no one involved had behaved well, the worst of the lot, at least to hear the men say it, were the women. This was nothing new, as the past ten years had seen account after account testifying to the wickedness of women voting. Everyone knew the Federalists in New Brunswick had been accused in 1803 of “rallying the petticoat electors and hurrying them and others to the polls.” Stories of “wagon loads of the privileged fair” being driven from precinct to precinct to vote in numerous locales were common. There were tales of women voting, changing outfits, and returning to vote again. Married women and women without property were seen voting in numerous cities. One terrible rumor too salacious not to be true was that men were voting, changing into their wives’ clothing, and returning to vote once more. It was all too much.
The town of Newark wasn’t large enough for that many people to have voted illegally or repeatedly without the complicity of those running the plebiscite, and beyond that, any women involved in the shenanigans of the day were certainly put up to it by men. But then, that was the whole problem, wasn’t it? The last thing state officials wanted was large groups of voters easily swayed and easily controlled, and most men in New Jersey believed female voters were both. No other state in the Union allowed women to vote, which meant none of them had to deal with these issues. And the men of New Jersey were tired of it all. As the election officials closed the books, they knew there would be hell to pay for this election, and there was no doubt in their minds who’d be paying.
Trenton, New Jersey. November 16th, 1807.
The day of reckoning had come and gone. The legislation was passed, and the blight of African-American and female suffrage was finally behind them, the Folly of Dayton expunged. Dr. Lewis Condict had returned after a night of celebration at O’Hara’s Tavern to his small apartment just down from the state capitol on West State Street. He removed his Hessian boots, placed his tailcoat on the coatrack, pulled back the green curtains on his four poster featherbed and laid down for some well-deserved rest. It had been a risk, bringing this legislation before the Assembly, but the risk was a calculated one. If the election of 1804 had proven anything, it was that the addition of women and African Americans to the voting register was completely unnecessary. The Republicans won without them, so keeping them on served no purpose.
In a way he almost felt bad for those he’d cut loose today. They’d never had a chance. The bargain removing African-Americans from the voting rolls had been struck a few years earlier with a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in New Jersey. It called for all slaves born in the state after the Fourth of July, 1804, to be freed. The freed children, however, were to be apprenticed to their mothers’ owners, with females gaining freedom at 21 and males at 25. The process was intended to move so slowly that it would literally be generations before slavery died out in the state. Regardless of the speed at which emancipation happened, this had been considered a step in the right direction, and one African-Americans, which consisted of only six percent of the total population, weren’t about to risk losing over a vote few of them got to use.
He didn’t expect pushback from women either. Only five percent of property owners in New Jersey were women, and only widows or those yet to be married could vote. Once a man became a voter, it was a privilege held for a lifetime. A woman, though, lost her vote the second she said “I do.” Between societal, economic, religious, familial and political pressure, it was nearly impossible for a woman to choose not to marry. Condict was sure few women, if any, were willing to lessen their chances at matrimony and motherhood by being labeled a troublemaker protesting the loss of a right they’d lose on their wedding day anyway. This left these petticoat electors powerless, without friends in the government, suddenly at the end of the voting spectrum, where he hoped they’d remain forever.
Too tired to even remove his waistcoat, the good doctor rolled over on the featherbed and found a comfortable soft spot to fall asleep. His victory this day had been complete. Female suffrage in New Jersey would now be remembered as a horrible mistake, if remembered at all. With any luck, his service in resetting the patriarchy back to its natural course in New Jersey wouldn’t be soon forgotten, and the events of this day would propel him toward a very bright future indeed. His work done, Dr. Condict closed his eyes and went to sleep, content.
Trenton, New Jersey. June 29, 1844
The gavel came down, hard, striking the podium with force, the reverberation echoing throughout the chamber. The Ayes had it. Fifty-eight to zero. The new constitution of New Jersey had officially replaced the wartime one written in haste sixty-eight years earlier. There weren’t enough changes to make men like William Griffith happy, but the biggest problems had been addressed and fixed. For example, the people would now elect the governor and there was the possibility of adding amendments. The constitution’s first section was a Bill of Rights, which was followed immediately with the ‘Right of Suffrage.’ It began:
Every white male citizen of the United States, of the age of twenty-one years who shall have been a resident of this State one year, and of the county, in which he claims his vote five months, next before the election, shall be entitled to vote for all officers that now are, or hereafter may be elective by the people…
The men crafting this document knew and understood the confusion that had wracked their state when leaders a generation earlier had written ‘inhabitant’ instead of ‘white male’ in their requirements for suffrage. This generation was not about to make the same mistake. They also weren’t about to let the loose end of the 1807 law removing women and African Americans from voting left open to possible debate and a return to the ways of the past. There was still lingering surprise that the decision a quarter century earlier hadn’t met with protestation. There had been no marches, no angry letters, no petitions, nothing. The law had worked perfectly, but that didn’t mean these men were about to miss their chance to codify the dominance of men in the highest law of the land. The time had come to officially end the legacy, and the memory, of female suffrage in New Jersey, once and for all.
Morristown, New Jersey. September 22, 1971
Margaret Eckman, Club Historian of the Woman’s Club of Morristown, smiled as her right index finger tapped the ‘period’ key on the newly purchased typewriter. To the sound of applause, she pulled the white paper out with a flourish and placed it on top of the other five completed pages. The small gathering of women, crammed into a backroom in the Federalist era home, were exuberant. After months of hard work, they’d completed the application to add their meetinghouse to the National Registry of Historic Places. Most of the application, as expected, focused on the house and its unique history. Constructed in 1797 and purchased by the Woman’s Club in 1936, the original home had gone through extensive updates but still maintained the shape and style of the time. Located at 51 South Street, the clapboard home was “an excellent example of a late eighteenth century town house of a rather well-to-do professional person.”
And that well-to-do professional person, as it turned out, was our honorable Dr. Lewis Condict. As the good doctor had been a prominent figure in Morristown for over a half century, the application included a lengthy section extolling the original homeowner’s virtuous and giving life. They noted he began his medical studies at the age of fourteen and that, “Dr. Condict was a forward-looking man in his profession.” He served as vice president of the American Medical Association, was credited with the creation of a national pharmacopeia, was a commissioner of the state’s first lunatic asylum, was one of the founders of the New Jersey Historical Society in 1845, served as the first president of the Morris and Essex Railroad and was a lifelong member of the choir in the Presbyterian Church of Morristown.
His experiences in politics were just as varied and impressive. The application noted how he’d been elected twice to the State Assembly, and in 1808 was named Speaker of the House. He was elected to the United States Congress numerous times, serving from 1811 to 1817 and again from 1821 to 1833, and the women noted with pride in their report that he was “always elected with a large majority.” He spent his days working with John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. He joined the movement to return freed slaves to the West Coast of Africa and was “a strong temperance man” who presented a bill to “prevent the manufacture of distilled spirits.” They left off that he was a trustee of Princeton College for thirty three years and a member of the 1840 Electoral College on the Whig ticket, but they were happy to quote Dr. Henry L. Coit, who wrote in a 1925 biography that Lewis Condict was a “man of strong convictions, sound judgment, and exceptional organizing ability.”
While one of the great ironies of this story is that Condict’s home was eventually purchased by women and turned into a social club, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these women continued the work of whitewashing this episode from history. It’s unknown whether Margaret Eckman or the other members of the Woman’s Club of Morristown knew about Condict’s speech decrying female suffrage as “an absurdity” and “a perversion of reason,” or the legislation he wrote stripping wealthy, single women of the right to vote. While the events of that day in November, 1807 weren’t included in their application, the men who elected Condict to Speaker of the House in 1808 certainly remembered it and the newly enfranchised men who agreed that women shouldn’t vote in New Jersey remembered his deeds on their behalf when they sent him to Washington D.C. four years later as their congressman.
Once in congress, he’d made a name for himself that opened the door for those later accomplishments, but his distinguished career never would have been possible without his first demonstrating his fidelity to the patriarchy. Which is exactly the point of all of this. Condict ensured that the New Jersey experiment with female suffrage would long be remembered as a cautionary tale to other places and times and men, if it was remembered at all, and he was rewarded handsomely for his efforts. Men bought him drinks, voted for him repeatedly, appointed him to influential offices, and opened up business opportunities for him to make fortunes many times over. And women bought his home long after his death and turned it into a historic landmark showcasing all the good he’d done in his beloved New Jersey. Dr. Condict cheerfully and happily paid his dues to the patriarchy, and it paid him back in spades.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa. March 21, 2019.
Sifting through the few sources remaining on female suffrage in early New Jersey, I’ve noticed something that needs a conversation to happen around it. There seems to be a concerted effort by politicians, historians, bigots and feminists alike to shift this incredibly gendered moment as far away from a gendered framework as possible. The loss of voting by women in New Jersey is portrayed, almost exclusively, as a political affair, as if being women had nothing to do with the outcome. A recent article in the Atlantic said, “America’s first women voters didn’t lose the franchise because of sexism. They lost the franchise because a party wanted to win an election, and women’s votes stood in the way.” This summary, beyond being error prone, is indicative of almost every interpretation over the past two hundred years of this time period. There is such a pronounced effort to support the interpretation that these events couldn’t possibly be about gender that we’ve ignored what the men who lived at that time actually said. Which seems, I don’t know, wrong.
If you read the words of Condict and Griffith and Lee and Adams and the poets and song writers and politicians and newspapermen and nearly everyone else involved even peripherally, they were unequivocal in asserting that THE reason women should be denied suffrage was entirely because of the limitations of their gender. They were frail, fragile, unsuited, too emotional, uneducated, etc., etc., etc.. They were incredibly clear on this subject. So let’s try something. What if we took them at their word? What if we tossed out the political nonsense and focused on how this story interacts with American patriarchy? What could we learn?
First, the fight over female suffrage in New Jersey should remind us that early America was run entirely by men. This isn’t a shock, I know. And yet, we don’t really think of the revolutionary era in these terms. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We perform elaborate mental acrobatics to portray our founding fathers as noble, selfless, righteous men. Don’t get me wrong, here. These men did a lot of good. But that doesn’t mean we should worship them at the expense of glossing over their flaws. Despite our most desperate yearnings to convince ourselves that Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement that “all men are created equal” applied to women as well, Adams’ declaration that he was not about to “repeal our Masculine systems” is all the proof we need that when these men said men, they meant men. And when they said men, they meant men. They didn’t mean the poorer sort, or the darker skinned sort, and they most specifically didn’t mean women.
Which leads us to this. Yes, women could vote in New Jersey, but it was because powerful men said they could. And when it was taken away, it was because a new generation of powerful men took it and gave it to men of a lesser station. And it was taken away, in large part, because these men were frightened women might eventually run for office and get elected. This reaction to female suffrage sheds light on one of the dirty little secrets of revolutionary America. Over the years, the men who crafted federal, state and local governments became less opposed to include different groups of citizens in the electorate as long as wealthy, educated white males were still the only ones getting elected. They knew power didn’t come from voting but from holding office, and they weren’t about to let African Americans or women gain real power.
The second lesson we learn from this period is how easily history can be buried when it doesn’t fit the storyline we want to teach our children. American history, as told in our textbooks and shown in movies and on monuments, is a story of white men. We’re told in every context imaginable that only white men are capable of making the difficult choices that better our lives and society at large. It’s why white men are on our money and carved into our mountains and get museums. It’s why a white man is pictured at the end of the March of Progress showing our evolution from ape to man.
In a world where politics, religion, society and our shared history have all been created by white men, it’s easy to see how the message that white men are the only ones who can lead us might percolate to the top. Only it’s a false narrative. Our history is rife with disastrous decisions made by these men. Decisions that have hurt and killed millions and millions of people. So how do we continue to believe this is the only group of Americans capable of ruling when there is so much evidence to the contrary? Interestingly enough, the March of Progress has our answer. If you take your eyes away from the apes walking in line and look at the timeline above the illustration, you’ll notice the earliest groups lived side by side for tens of thousands of years. If you read the article this picture accompanied in the 1965 Time-Life book Early Man, the author is clear human evolution isn’t a linear progression at all.
And yet, we see this picture and believe what we think it’s telling us. Small ape becomes big ape becomes ape-like human becomes white man taking, not surprisingly, the widest stride of all. This is how we want it to have happened, even if we know it didn’t happen quite like that at all. And that same level of willful ignorance to fit a preconceived outcome into a comfortable narrative, regardless of what has to be ignored or forgotten, has shaped the understanding of our history. From earliest elementary school onward we’re taught the American story is one, long, straight March of Progress. It begins with elite white men, the descendants of the Puritans, who rose up against the British to fight for all our natural rights. After the war was won, our founding fathers created a national and state governments that ensured they alone maintained the authority to rule. Eventually these enlightened men expanded the electorate to bestow suffrage to poor white men, and after the Civil War to African American men as well. And then, only after every man in American could vote, a new generation of leaders reluctantly let women into the voting booth after World War I.
It’s progress, but notice it’s progress in the wrong direction. And if you’re wondering how the social hierarchy in place today is set up, I think I just described it for you. Men of all levels of wealth and melatonin first, and then, and only then, women. And somehow, almost unbelievably, the wealthy white men look like heroes every step of the way. Which is why remembering that some women in New Jersey voted in the 1800s while most men didn’t is so disruptive. It upsets the entire apple cart. It places women in front of large groups of men, and in so doing completely disorders the straightforward narrative of political evolution we’re so attached to. There was a step forward in New Jersey 1776 and a step back in 1807. And if white men can take a step back, perhaps they aren’t always right. And if white men aren’t always right, well, that’s a dangerous thought for those in power to let linger for too long. Which is why historians have gone to such inordinate lengths to reconcile this era with the traditional narrative by calling it a mistake and discarding it so that we would miss perhaps an even larger point they don’t want us to see.
Our third lesson is that highlighting the men who included women as voters in 1776, or 1790, or 1797, cuts into the other storyline of this time: that it was impossible for our founding fathers to accept female suffrage because the world hadn’t caught up to that idea yet. Which, let’s be honest, is bullshit, and New Jersey proves it. The result of ignoring post revolutionary female suffrage in New Jersey is that generations of scholars and politicians have let ALL these men off the hook for the barbaric way they treated half of the nation’s citizens. If you recall, Abigail Adams wrote her husband John in 1776, imploring him to include legislation in the new government protecting women from, well, let’s be as blunt as she was, men. John came back at her hard, letting her know in no uncertain terms that she was asking the ridiculous and to just drop it, lest she be associated with Landjobbers, Trimmers, and Canadians. If you’re wondering how Abigail took this reply, it’s worth noting here that you won’t find another letter in the next forty years of their correspondence where she asks her husband to ‘remember the ladies.’ She knows he isn’t going to, so she doesn’t bring it up again. Ever.
We read John Adam’s response today and think, sure, he was unnecessarily cruel, bordering on abusive, and definitely in need of spell check, but what else could we expect? That’s what life was like back then. Men were in charge. Women obeyed. It was a simpler time, and it’s wrong of us expect more of these men than they were capable of. But, and I don’t think this is too much of a stretch to ask, what if these men were capable of being better? What if, for example, late one night in June 1776 Jonathan Dickenson Sergeant climbed into bed with his loving wife after a long day of working on the New Jersey state constitution and she turned to him and asked him to remember the ladies? And what if, just perhaps, he did? Or what if he didn’t even need prompting? What if he just sort of got it? What if, like Jonathan Dayton after him, they simply couldn’t come up with a reason to keep people who met every other requirement to vote besides wearing pants from voting, so they didn’t? How would that be?
And while we might never know the answers to any of these questions, just thinking through these possibilities opens up deeper lines of inquiries. What if some men of this era didn’t trust what their institutions taught them about the inadequacies of women and instead believed their new government could govern more efficiently and more justly by including the petticoat electors? What if there were men who questioned the very essence of enlightenment era gender relations and wondered why men had the authority to bestow anything on women, let alone suffrage? Why couldn’t women bestow things on themselves? Why did their choices and power have to come from their relationships with men? We don’t have any records of any of this, but that doesn’t make it impossible. And more importantly, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. The narrative we’ve been given is the one we have, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one.
Regardless, if nothing else, by writing “inhabitant,” Sergeant and Tucker forced the leading men of New Jersey to own their choices in a public forum, at first accepting female suffrage and then later rejecting it in a way men in other states never had to. And, honestly, the actions of these men in New Jersey show us that Adams could have remembered the ladies. He could have been better, and it isn’t wrong for us to hold him and his fellow men to a higher standard. Because whether Adams and Jefferson liked it or not, women voted for them. Isn’t that incredible? And pretending like it didn’t happen, or it wasn’t significant, just so we can maintain the scaffolding that allows us to revere our founding fathers without holding them accountable for their shortcomings, is wrong. They were flawed men, some of them deeply, and their flaws created not just the political system we find ourselves in today, but a historically gendered hierarchy locked in place that has been detrimental to women for centuries.
Which brings me to my final point. In 1807, fearful of what a large free black population might do with the vote and scared of the possibility of a woman running for office, both Federalists and Republicans agreed it would be easiest if only white male citizens could vote. Dr. Condict and his crew got their law passed, and the state’s slaves, hopeful for a quicker freedom, and women, hopeful for a marriage and children, chose to let their political voice fade away. And that is, in a nutshell, exactly how the patriarchy works. Not by taking away your choices, but by giving you impossible ones. African Americans were forced to fight for their right to vote or possibly lose their freedom. Wealthy single women were forced to let their votes go or gain a bad reputation as rabble-rousers, which carried with it serious social, religious and economic consequences. Poor married women were forced to choose between supporting the wealthier women of their sex or standing by their husbands as they gained the vote. These women were forced to choose between complaining to the very body of men that had just unanimously taken their suffrage away, or letting it go so they could focus on the next battle. Because there was always a next battle. And there was always another impossible choice. And just like the vote for the courthouse in Essex County, there were very real consequences depending on which side of the line you chose to stand.
Which brings us fully to today, where we’ve been given a choice too. We know the truth, that there was a time and place in the early history of our nation where some women voted in elections that a majority of men didn’t. For too long this episode has been cordoned off into the darkest, cobweb infested corner of our nation’s history, where the leaders and writers of our history have preferred to keep problematic truths. They have refused to hold these men accountable. They have refused to hold the system accountable. They have refused to look at this as anything beyond a positive electoral reform that gave suffrage to tens of thousands of men. No one could argue that politicians were curbing the franchise. They were widening it, and the women were the collateral damage.
Except they weren’t.
They were the targets of the whole endeavor. And so, while almost everyone today seems hell-bent on turning this into an exercise in early political maneuverings, the time has come for us to accept this moment for exactly what it was and what it was meant to be. These men wanted women out of the political sphere, and they did it. The patriarchy was preserved. Order was restored. And we get to have a nice conversation about how early political parties worked to democratize the nation by including more men of diverse economic status, instead of a significantly messier one about how gender norms were stretched in a way that undermined the entire framework we attach to the Revolutionary era and then snapped back into place without fanfare to preserve a hierarchical system still very much in place today.
If we chose to have that conversation, the messy one, then we get to ask all sorts of other, more interesting questions about the patriarchy, like, how the narrative of suffrage in this country would change if we reset the ‘beginning of the women’s rights movement’ from the Seneca Falls Convention on July 19th and 20th, 1848 to July 2nd, 1776 and the ratification of the New Jersey state constitution? And how would that question force us to reinterpret unabashed misogynists like John Adams and Lewis Condict? How would we rethink Henry “Light Horse” Lee’s inactivity or William Griffith’s virulent loathing? Wouldn’t men like Samuel Tucker, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant and Jonathan Dayton be added to the noble pantheon of men who stood tall for the rights of women? At the very least, shouldn’t that make it onto their Wikipedia page?
In the end, wouldn’t this enable us to come to terms with the fact that our founding fathers saw the world through thick, rose-colored gendered lenses? And think of the ramifications of that. We could put to rest the misguided and damaging sentiment that Jefferson’s claim in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal,” refers equally to women. We could finally see the United States Constitution for what it was intended to be all along: a document made by men for men to maintain their “Masculine systems.” This is why every time the Supreme Court comes down on the side of women so many people call it an activist decision. Because it is. The Constitution wasn’t written for women at all, and by ignoring this we consign ourselves to continued governance by men interpreting these intensely gendered documents in intensely gendered ways.
Those looking to history to prop up the patriarchy would tell us these documents contain universal truths and therefore must be blindly followed, but that isn’t remotely true. And we know this not just because it feels wrong in our hearts, but because we’ve seen an example of a state constitution that offered a different solution. We’ve seen men that followed a different path. It wasn’t perfect, but it existed, and the great men of the day knew it existed and worked to revoke it and then erase it. That was their choice, but ours can be different. And a different choice means it’s time we stop excusing bad behavior from men like Dr. Lewis Condict and John Adams because they were men of their times. A different choice means demanding more of these men, but more importantly demanding more of ourselves. We must become the leaders we wish they had been. Now that we have heard Abigail Adams’ call to arms to ‘remember the ladies,’ it is our time to rise up with our answer. This, and only this, is progress.
Click below to view a
Jed Peterson is a Professor of History in the Distance Learning department at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A lifelong Iowan, Jed earned his BA from Iowa State University and Masters Degrees from both the University of Northern Iowa and the University of Iowa. He is currently working on a project detailing the evolution of the patriarchy throughout American history. A world traveler, school board member and father of five, he spends a fair amount of time stepping into wardrobes hoping to find his way into Narnia.