Burlington County's own Alice Paul was among the most militant of suffragists.
|1919: Votes for women!|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|Unique among the original 13 states, New Jersey's constitution had given women the right to vote back in the heady Revolutionary War days of 1776.
It may have been nothing but an oversight, a hastily written reference to "all inhabitants of this colony" being allowed to vote. But women, much to the shock of the men in charge of political and societal affairs, took advantage of the law and actually voted.
Horrified at the spectacle of "petticoat government" -- that is to say, female citizens having a say in their own government -- the Garden State amended the constitution in 1807 to specify that casting ballots was for men only.
And so it remained until 1919, when the suffragist movement finally succeeded in appealing to menfolk's idealistic side, and won a governor's election that assured the triumph of women's voting.
It wasn't easy. For years, the women of New Jersey had fought for that basic right to vote, gathering hundreds of thousands of names on petitions, holding pro-suffrage balls in Trenton and even chaining themselves to the White House fence in protest.
The suffragist cause in Jersey grew strength slowly. For generations, no one seemed to complain about the "men only" provision for voting. But the Civil War freed the slaves and stirred up a thought among women: If men of all races can vote, why not us?
In 1867, Lucy Stone took that question right to the State House in Trenton. She testified before a committee that the constitution, even amended for
male voters only, still said that all power comes from the people. "If 'all political power is inherent in the people,'" Stone said, "Why have women, who are more than half the entire population of this state, no political existence?"
None of the men in charge of government could offer back a good answer, but none was willing to change the law either. So Stone -- together with her sister-in-law Antoinette Brown Blackwell, and a few other well-educated women - founded the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association.
Their fledgling efforts in the Victorian era, when women were supposed to be the guardians of home and church, went scoffed at by the male establishment.
The Trenton Times, for instance, said in 1884: "The moment woman votes, that moment she gets herself into politics, that moment she becomes unsexed and degraded ... Let woman be satisfied with her present sphere."
The suffrage campaign, however, gained momentum by the turn of the 20th century as women grew more active. They were involved in schools, clubs, social work and the anti-saloon movement, and it became harder and harder to justify why, if they could participate in these areas of the world, they shouldn't also be involved in politics.
Women also argued that they would bring a distinctly feminine viewpoint into the male world of politics -- helping to reform corruption, end exploitation of woman and child labor, maybe even end war. "After the long lapse of years,
woman stands before the bar of the nation asking to be recognized as an economic and intellectual factor," said one of them, Mrs. Rollo Winn of
Who were the suffragists? They were not bra-burning radicals, but well-educated, religious, reform-minded women. In Trenton, many of them went by their husband's names: Mrs. Thomas Tittensor, Mrs. D. E. Maxfield, Mrs. Winn.
For the most part, the suffragists kept to sedate activities like bake sales, banquets and an occasional meeting with a prominent public speaker. They did not engage in angry protests in front of the State House, considering such
activities provocative and, well, unladylike.
But not every suffragist held back. Alice Paul of Moorestown, Burlington County, became the leader of a more militant branch of woman suffrage, advocating civil disobedience. She chained herself to the White House fence
and was imprisoned three times.
One of her jailers later said she had "a spirit ... like Joan of Arc's, and it is useless to try to change it."
The first showdown on woman suffrage in New Jersey was set for Oct. 19, 1915. A referendum went on the ballot asking voters -- which meant men voters only, of course -- whether women should share in the franchise. The election had
special importance because no Eastern state had ever before adopted woman suffrage, although Western states like Wyoming, Utah and Colorado had long ago enacted equal rights at the ballot box.
The suffragists may have thought they had justice on their side, but the anti-suffragists had the power. They argued that women voting would crack down on the liquor trade - a tactic that divided women from immigrant and urban voters.
Some women fought against suffrage, too. One of them, Georgianna Breese of Trenton, founded the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman's Suffrage and put its headquarters on East State Street.
"We women should strive by every means in our power to uphold the men of our country who have so well protected our best interests in state and nation, and not try to wrest from them their well-earned prerogative," she said.
From Princeton University and the all-male faculty came arguments that women voting would undermine the family structure. But the psychology department aired an opposing view: "The feminine type of mind is in some respects more suited for political responsibility than the masculine type."
In the end, though, what mattered was the attitude of the county party chairmen and big-city bosses, and they were dead-set against any reforms. The
vote was 58 percent no, 42 percent yes. In Trenton, only 38 percent of voters were for suffrage.
Lillian Feickert, chairwoman of the suffrage association in New Jersey, warned against despair. "Instead of quitting, as our opponents have said we would, we have new plans in view," she said.
Those plans involved trying to get the federal government to make woman's suffrage law of the land with a constitutional amendment -- then getting 36 of the 48 states to ratify it.
World War I turned out to be a boost for the cause. With men away at war, women worked in factories and hospitals and showed themselves good citizens.
Congress passed the 19th Amendment -- the woman suffrage amendment -- in June
1919 and sent it to the states. In New Jersey, the governor's race that year would help determine whether the state ratified the amendment.
But another looming amendment -- the one to impose national Prohibition on all intoxicating beverages -- seemed to set off a far more lively debate.
The Democrat, Edward Edwards of Jersey City, said he was "as wet as the Atlantic Ocean." The Republican, Newton Bugbee of Trenton, the state
comptroller and a former bench player on the old Trenton pro basketball team, stood for dry laws.
Almost overlooked in the battle was the difference between the Democratic and the GOP platforms on the issue of voting rights. The Republicans, as they'd done for the last decade, took no stand for or against suffrage -- only saying the issue would have to be decided by referendum.
The Democrats, however, saw a chance to make friends with a new bloc of voters. So they endorsed votes for women.
Women's groups stood solidly for Edwards, who won decisively. Ironically, many of these same women's activists who had battled the saloon were now backing the most ardent anti-Prohibitionist in the state. But they wisely saw Edwards' victory as their best chance for the vote. And he won decisively in the November balloting.
Edwards, it turned out, could not stop Prohibition. But he did carry with him a majority of pro-suffrage legislators, and the very first measure they took up in January 1920 was ratification of the 19th Amendment.
The amendment passed the state Senate, then made its way through the Assembly on Feb. 9, 1920, making New Jersey the 29th state to ratify woman suffrage.
Betty Gram, an ally of Alice Paul, later described the historic scene: "Clear and decisive came the yeas -- inaudible and slow came the nays. After them all, the (call), 'Joint Resolution No. 1 adopted, 34 to 24.' Silence followed for long seconds and then, the wild, almost hysterical cheers ofwomen reverberated through the halls."
Woman suffrage became enshrined in the United States Constitution on Sept. 26, 1920, the day Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment. And so, two months later, women could vote in their first national election.
In the city of Elizabeth that November, 95-year-old Antoinette Brown Blackwell was helped to the polls by her daughter. In 1867, she was among that band of women who lobbied the Legislature for voting rights. Now, she was their last surviving member, frail, blind and nearly deaf.
Blackwell's daughter took along a stool, expecting that her mother would need to rest as they waited in line. However, once the aged woman showed up, the crowd of men and women stood aside and made room for her to enter the voting booth.
Then they broke into applause.