The Suffragists' Rainbow:
Women of European Descent Had Almost No Rights in Early America
Women, Property, and the Right to Vote
WE hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (and women!!!) are created equal…
Not everyone could vote in Colonial America nor in the early years of our country. Suffrage was restricted to white men who owned “substantial” property. That was defined as land.
If you didn’t own land, you couldn’t vote.
If you didn’t pay taxes, you couldn’t vote.
If you were a married woman, you couldn’t vote.
If you were a Jew, you couldn’t vote.
If you were a Catholic, you couldn’t vote.
If you were a Quaker, you couldn’t vote.
If you were an “alien” (immigrant), you couldn’t vote.
If you were a free Black man, you couldn’t vote.
Single women who owned land could vote. In some states. Sometimes. Under certain circumstances. That ended in 1787 when New Jersey was the last state to repeal such a law.
Men who owned property other than land and paid taxes and were veterans could vote after 1776.
Immigrants, free whites, could vote after 1790.
Freed Black men could vote (but could not hold office) in 6 states after 1790.
Married women had very few property rights and no voting rights in early America. This was based on English Common Law which maintained that the legal existence of a woman was suspended during marriage. Legal existence. Suspended.
She became her husband’s property.
Her property became his.
The other half of that pact was that he had to support her and her children according to his “Social Status,” so she could not be divorced, impoverished, and become a ward of the state.
Tradition and Law in early America held that the best and truest “protection” of a woman was marriage. She had no political power. There were public ruminations that giving wives the right to vote was the equivalent of giving husbands two votes since it was assumed that women were not capable of, nor had the right to, their own political opinions.
Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams in March, 1776:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws…, I desire you would remember the ladies…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.
Seneca Falls, New York, 1848
For women’s rights advocates, property law reform and suffrage demands were connected and was a focus of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton began the Convention with this speech:
We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed – to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.
They went on to develop The Declaration of Sentiments, which echoes the wording of the Declaration of Independence. They compiled a list of 19 “repeated injuries and usurpations” that included the idea that if a woman were married, “in the eyes of the law” she was “civilly dead,” and called on women to “throw off such government.”
Next, they developed a list of eleven Resolutions.
“The sacred right to the elective franchise,” the Ninth Resolution, was the subject of great controversy and debate. It was the only one of the 11 proposed Resolutions that did not pass on a unanimous vote. Many women’s rights proponents withdrew their support of the Convention as a result of this demand for suffrage.
In 1869, Wyoming become the first state to grant women the right to vote.
On August 26, 1920, after much pain, suffering and sacrifice on the part of many brave women, the 19th Amendment, granting women universal suffrage, became law.
by Judith Kovacs-Long
Democratic Women of Comal County
2nd Vice President