It was a short-lived New Jersey miracle: There, at the dawn of the republic, women and free people of color voted—a century before the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution and 150 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This singularly inclusive period is explored in How Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776-1807 at the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR), where a permanent virtual exhibit has joined the physical exhibition, open through April.
The exhibit pursues questions you’re likely asking right now: how did women get the vote in 1776, and why in New Jersey? How was it lost? And what did women do afterward? (Hint: they didn’t withdraw to the hearth and forget about politics.)
A multitude of videos, images, text, and links enable visitors to chart their own paths through this little-known period. Meet Mumbet, the enslaved Elizabeth Freeman, who sued for her freedom in 1781. Portrayed by Tiffany Bacon, Freeman tells her story in a dramatic video. Discover Deborah Sampson, who joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment disguised as a man, and examine her 1785 wedding gown. Or explore recently discovered poll lists that prove when and where women voted, and gradually, who they were.
Not just “he”
In 1776, legislators in each former colony wrote state constitutions, and there was something special in New Jersey’s: voters were described as “they” rather than “he.” Later statutes were even more explicit, using “he or she.”
New Jersey voters were required to own property valued at 50 British pounds, a stipulation which, while equally applied, was more difficult for women and people of color to achieve. In that time, married women generally relinquished their property to husbands. Thus, female voters tended to be single or widowed.
The property requirement was unevenly enforced at the polls, and that fact was used, along with other real and imagined arguments, to rewrite the voting law in 1807. This time, New Jersey lawmakers fell in line with their brethren in other states, removing the property requirement and extending the vote specifically and exclusively to white men.
“Within our power”
Paging through rare documents, visitors can virtually peek over the shoulders of Abigail and John Adams as they write to one another in the spring of 1776, when she was in Braintree, Massachusetts, and he in Philadelphia, attending the Second Continental Congress. Their handwritten missives include Abigail’s original "Remember the Ladies" letter, on loan from the Massachusetts Historical Society.
“This letter’s display at the museum marks what we believe to be the first time this letter has returned to Philadelphia since John originally received it,” according to Marcela Miccuci, exhibit cocurator and museum postdoctoral fellow.
The correspondence turns testy when John’s reply appears not to take Abby seriously, leading her to respond: “You must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken – and not withstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims, we have it within our power not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”
Proof at the polls
Poll lists from four townships in southwest and north-central New Jersey confirm women voted in the Revolutionary era. The lists, found in 2018 by MoAR researchers, inspired the exhibition, which reveals many aspects of women’s lives in the 18th century, and the political influence they wielded, irrespective of whether they had the vote.
“To date we’ve identified 18 poll lists…nine of those identify women voters,” Micucci said. “Those are dated 1800 to 1807.” Research to date confirms 163 women and four free Black men voted during the period. According to exhibit text, analysis “refutes any suggestion that women in the Early Republic were only passive witnesses and bystanders of the political processes that shaped the nation.”
An interactive tool enables visitors to sift through the handwritten lists, read biographies of some voters, and link to resources used to learn about the people behind the names. “These are entirely new assemblages of information,” said Philip C. Mead, chief historian and curator. Staff are hopeful that visitors pursuing their own searches will add to what is known.
Losing the vote
How did it end? The exhibit’s explanation sounds all too familiar: “The combination of rising partisan rancor and increasingly inclusive elections sparked accusations of fraud.”
An 1802 petition on view claims fraudulent voting in Maidenhead (now Lawrenceville) by married women, underage persons, slaves, and even “Citizens of Philadelphia.” Though dismissed by the legislature, fears of fraud, added to arguments over slavery and concerns over “foreign influences” in state elections fueled a backlash that eventually stripped the vote from women and free people of color.
But something unstoppable was already in motion. Though denied the vote, women now knew what was possible. They became activists, pressing for social and civic change. They founded schools for girls and created organizations to abolish slavery, address poverty, and heal social ills. Their daughters and granddaughters would take up the fight to vote.
A beacon to future suffragists
New Jersey’s early voters were a beacon to 19th- and 20th-century suffragists, many of whom had connections to the state. In Orange, New Jersey, in 1858, Lucy Stone refused to pay her property tax, echoing the Revolutionary rallying cry taxation without representation. In 1880, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of the Declaration of Sentiments, read at the first women’s rights convention, attempted to vote in Tenafly, New Jersey. And Alice Paul, founder in 1913 of the National Women’s Party and one of the movement’s more militant members, was a Jersey Girl, born in Mt. Laurel.
One artifact perfectly symbolizes New Jersey’s remarkable place in voting history. A humble blueberry crate, intended to contain the famous berries of Vineland, New Jersey, was redeployed in 1868 as an ersatz ballot box, to hold the illegal votes of 172 women who envisioned the day when they would reclaim the most basic democratic right and this time, allow no one to take it away.
Image description: A close-up on a yellowed document from the late 18th century. It’s a handwritten list of names from a polling place. A hand in the frame points to the name “Sarah Van Dike,” and other women’s names are visible above and below.
Image description: A photo of actors inside the When Women Lost the Vote exhibition, showing a line of three women in elaborate costumes of the Revolutionary era waiting to put votes into a locked wooden voting box.