A Vote and a Voice by Carla Olson Gade
|Photo of colonial elections from history.org.|
"If I cannot be a voter upon this occasion I will be a writer of votes.
I can do something in that way.” ~ Abigail Adams
I can do something in that way.” ~ Abigail Adams
In Colonial America, the right to vote was given to property owning male adults. When a man cast a vote in any sort of election, the vote was cast on behalf of his family. Under the English common law doctrine of coverture, the husband covered his wife’s legal identity under the authority of their marriage. William Blackstone’s Commentaries on English Law (1765-69) describes it as such:
"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the 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."
Husband and wife were considered "one person at law", with most interests governed by the husband. This was not necessarily a burden for most colonial women, however, although the concept is astounding to most of our current generation. And some wives did maintain a degree of financial independence from their husbands through dowries and pre-nuptual agreements. Yet, if the family had no males who could cast a vote, or the husband was indisposed at the time of the election, the wife, or most important woman of the household could vote, such that the family was still represented.
Though a married woman, or feme covert, was a dependent her husband in most legal matters, a feme sole, an unmarried woman, could own property, enter into contracts and sue or be sued.
"Came Mrs Margaret Brent and requested to have vote in the howse for herselfe and voyce allso for that att the last Court 3d Jan: it was ordered that the said Mrs Brent was to be lookd uppon and received as his Lps Attorney. The Govr denyed that the sd Mrs Brent should have any vote in the howse And the sd Mrs Brent protested agst all proceedings in this pnt Assembly unlesse shee may have vote as aforesd." (Note: Mrs./Mistress was used interchangeably for married and unmarried women until the second half of the 17th century.)
Margaret Brent exclaimed, "taxation without representation is tyranny." And here you thought colonial lawyer, James Otis, Jr. was the first to say that in 1765.
In 1655, Lady Deborah Moody cast a vote in New Netherlands (later, New York) in a colony-wide election. The widow Moody, a Quaker, had a land grant in her own name and frequently consulted by the governor for nominations to various civil offices.
1701 Albany, New York, a jury of men and women first heard criminal and civil cases. And a woman had a right to vote as long as a man permitted it. By the end of the 17th century, women who owned property in their own names were given permission to vote in Massachusetts. In 1756, Lydia Taft, a wealthy Massachusetts widow, was allowed to vote in town meetings on at least three occasions in her town of Uxbridge. In In 1724 Vermont included the names of women land-owners on its polling lists. Women's names appeared on the polling lists in Massachusetts and Connecticut as late as 1775.
At the time of the American Revolution each colony drafted its own state constitution. While the country won her independence, women did not. Most states incorporated language that excluded women from having the right to vote. Various phrases were used issuing the vote to “freemen”, “free white men”, “male person”, and “man”. By 1777 women lost the right to vote in New York, by 1780 in Massachusetts, and by 1784 in New Hampshire. The United States Constitutional Convention of 1787 placed voting qualifications in the hands of each state. In 1776, New Jersey gave the right to vote to "all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds. . .and have resided within the county. . .for twelve months." Thus, large numbers of New Jersey women regularly participated in elections and spoke out on political issues.
|"Women at the Polls in New Jersey |
in the Good Old Times." – Howard Pyle
Late in the 1780’s the two politcal party systems developed and the Federalist and Republican parties began courting New Jersey women for their votes. “Whole wagon loads of the ‘privileged fair” were brought in to cast their ballots. Amidst party conflicts, members charged their opponents with coaching the women about their choice of candidates, physically coercing them into voting, and even taking sexual advantage of the women whom they brought to the polls. By 1807 there was in actuality a voter fraud problem, and the Democratic-Republicans seized the opportunity to silence the women’s vote. The vote was rescinded, but for five Presidential elections, women had their vote.
Women still had a voice and their sphere of influence was not without its political reach. Women had to work hard to help maintain the household status, supporting political ideals in many ways through society events, political rallies, through industry and boycotts, and even through the transfer of property.
Marrying a women of property was one means that a man could gain the qualifications to vote if he did not have the necessary property requirements on his own. In 1755, a Thomas Roberts of Virginia, voted “by virtue of his interest” in his wife’s property. Historians have learned that some women intentionally provided male family members with land to enable them to vote. In some parts of Virginia as much as 1/5 of the electorate owed their ability to meet election requirements due to property transfers made to them by women. Anne Holden granted deeds to her male relatives in 1787.
“In consideration of the Natural Love and affection which she bears to John, Francis and Joseph Boggs aforesaid and that they will always Vote at the Annual Election for the most Wise and Discreet men and who have proved themselves real friends to American Independence to represent the County of Accomack, the Receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged.”
If only John Adams heeded the advice of his wife Abigail when she charged him on the eve of American Independence to,
"Remember the Ladies and be more generous and favorable 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 particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation."There was truth in what she said, for it was not until 1848 at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention that women wrote their own Declaration of Independence. Women rallied on and in 1920 the states ratified the 19th amendment and women were at last given the right to vote.
“Thus has the Love of Liberty and dread of Tyranny, kindled in the Breast of old and young, a glorious Flame, which will eminently distinguish the fair Sex of the present Time through far distant Ages.” ~ Unkown