When talking about women’s suffrage in the United States, we usually focus on the efforts of first-wave feminists who worked to get women the vote from the mid-19th century until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But during colonial times and in the earliest days of the nation, a small number of women managed to vote despite circumstances stacked against them. Below, we’ve collected four very early stories about women who voted, or demanded to vote, under English and later American law, as well as one popular myth about an early female voter.
All of these stories concern women in a particular category—they weren’t married. Under the legal tradition of coverture [PDF], married women did not exist as legal persons separate from their husbands. This English common law tradition was imported into the United States along with English colonists. Under coverture, a single woman could own property and exercise legal rights, like entering into contracts and suing or being sued, but upon marriage, a woman’s legal existence disappeared into that of her husband—she became a feme covert. Her husband took control of her property and she could no longer act on her own behalf in legal matters, which included voting. So while we have scattered instances of women voting in the United States before women’s suffrage was granted, the voting women were primarily widows—married women didn’t legally exist, and young single women usually didn’t own property. (The various colonies and early states each set their own voting laws, but all required the possession of a certain amount of land, personal property of a certain value, or payment of a certain amount of taxes, though the amount of property that was required varied by jurisdiction [PDF].) States began eliminating property requirements for voting in the early 19th century.
1. MARGARET BRENT DEMANDS A “VOTE AND VOYCE.”
Margaret Brent immigrated to the colony of Maryland in 1638 with several siblings. Though the Brent family was descended from British nobility [PDF], they were Catholic and so faced persecution in Anglican England [PDF]. Taking refuge in the colony established by fellow Catholic Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore), Margaret Brent accumulated significant wealth and became a prominent citizen [PDF], developing a close relationship with Maryland’s governor, Leonard Calvert, the brother of Lord Baltimore. Margaret Brent never married, and thus retained complete power over her extensive property. She also became a frequent presence in colonial court, representing herself, her brothers, and family acquaintances in legal suits more than 130 times.
Despite being a woman, Margaret Brent was a forceful presence in Maryland society, both economically and legally, and when her friend Governor Calvert lay dying in 1647, he appointed her the “sole Execquutrix” (sic) of his estate, instructing her to “Take all, & pay all.” But settling Calvert’s debts turned out to be quite complicated.
A Protestant ship captain named Richard Ingle had led an insurrection against Maryland’s colonial government and its Catholic leaders two years before Calvert’s death. Calvert had struggled to put down the rebellion, but eventually defeated the rebels with a group of mercenary troops, whom he had pledged to pay out of his own estate or that of his brother, Lord Baltimore, which he controlled. When Governor Calvert died, however, these troops had still not been paid, and his estate did not have enough available funds to compensate them.
Under English law, as executor, Brent could not easily sell Calvert’s land, so she found another way to get the money. Before his death, Governor Calvert had possessed power of attorney over the Maryland possessions of his brother, Lord Baltimore, who lived in England. On January 3, 1648, Brent asked the Maryland General Assembly to transfer the power of attorney to her, as Calvert’s executor—a request the General Assembly granted.
Now Margaret Brent had two options: liquidate some of Lord Baltimore’s property to pay the mercenaries, or convince the General Assembly to levy a tax on the colony. To resolve the matter quickly, she would have had to sell the property without Baltimore’s permission, which would likely have angered him. Meanwhile, holding his power of attorney gave her the chance to serve as his proxy in the General Assembly, and thus try to push through a tax. On January 21, 1648, Brent appeared before the Maryland General Assembly and appealed for the ability to vote in their council, requesting “to have vote in the howse for her selfe and voyce also … as his [Lordship’s] Attorney” [PDF]. Brent was demanding that she receive two votes: one as a landowner in her own right, and another as the legal representative of Lord Baltimore. Acting Maryland Governor Thomas Greene rejected her request, and Brent furiously protested against the Assembly’s proceeding without her.
Without an official voice in the General Assembly, Brent was unlikely to convince them to pass a tax to pay the mercenaries, and thus she decided to sell some of Lord Baltimore’s cattle and use the money to compensate the soldiers. But since Lord Baltimore lived in England and Brent needed to move fast, she made the sale without his permission—a move he angrily protested in a letter to the Maryland General Assembly. The Assembly, however, recognized that Brent had taken a necessary step to placate the grumbling mercenaries, who otherwise might have decided to obtain their compensation by plundering the countryside. The Maryland legislature defended Brent to Lord Baltimore, writing, “We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that [your estate] was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province.” Lord Baltimore was not convinced, and became hostile to the Brent family.
Exasperated with Maryland’s leaders, Brent moved to Virginia with her siblings, even though that colony did not offer religious freedom for Catholics. In 1650, she wrote to Maryland’s new governor from Virginia, “[I] would not intangle my Self in Maryland because of the Ld Baltemore's disaffections to me and the Instruccons he Sends agt us.” Gradually selling off her Maryland property, Margaret accumulated land in her new home, and by her death in 1671 she and her siblings reportedly owned almost 10,000 acres in Virginia.
2. JANE GOODENOW AND MARY LOKER MAKE THEIR VIEWS KNOWN ON GRAZING RIGHTS.
In a Massachusetts town in 1655, groups of men arguing over land use ended up empowering two women to vote—in what may be the earliest instance of women voting in the colonies.
When the town of Sudbury was established in the mid-17th century with a land grant from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, each head of household received a 4-acre house lot as well as a portion of meadow land—but the allotted portions of meadow were not equal. Sudbury’s founding committee ranked each settler in a financial hierarchy and determined the amount of land he would receive based on that ranking [PDF]. This hierarchy was self-perpetuating, because each man’s initial meadow grant would determine the amount of land he could claim each time the town divided more land among its inhabitants.
For ten years, this system worked reasonably well, but in 1649, the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) granted the town an additional 6400 acres at its western boundary. By that time, Sudbury was home to many young men who had been children when the town was founded, or who had only recently moved there. They were thus not part of the original list of meadow grantees, and pushed the older town selectmen toward an egalitarian division of the new territory. The conservative selectmen attempted to block this change, but after much political jockeying, the youngsters flooded a town meeting with their supporters and passed a motion awarding each townsman an “equal portion” of the new land. The town selectmen, angry at being overruled and worried about a wave of liberal changes to Sudbury, decided to use their power over the town’s common areas to reassert the primacy of the town’s established elite.
The town commons had served as unrestricted grazing area for residents’ livestock, but the town selectmen reserved the right to “size” the commons—i.e., determine how many animals each person could graze on the land—whenever they judged fit. They presented a new proposal that would allow only those who owned meadow acreage to graze livestock on the common, and would tie the number of animals allowed to the amount of meadow a person owned. The young men saw this as retaliation, so in preparation for a vote on the proposal at the next town meeting, they recruited as many supporters as possible, and the old guard did likewise. In their search for votes, each side enlisted a propertied widow.
Jane Goodenow and Mary Loker were both widows of men who received land in the original division of the meadow. As their husbands’ heirs, each had a stake in this question of sizing the commons. Jane Goodenow owned 25 acres of meadow land, and thus benefited from any policies that favored those with a large acreage. Mary Loker, on the other hand, only owned 5 acres of meadow, and she recognized that tying grazing rights to meadow acreage would disadvantage her. As landowners, both women were theoretically eligible to vote in Sudbury, where the access to the franchise depended on property, though according to custom, women did not vote. But on January 22, 1655, Goodenow and Loker packed into the Sudbury meeting house with over 50 other people to determine how the town commons would be sized.
Acting for herself and as a proxy for a (male) neighbor, Goodenow issued two votes in favor of tying grazing rights to meadow ownership, while Loker issued two votes against the measure (it’s unclear if she was also acting as a proxy) [PDF]. When the town clerks counted all the votes, they quickly realized there was a tie: 27 to 27.
Immediately, people on each side began questioning certain opponents’ right to participate in the vote, arguing that the vote of a man who owned meadow land but did not live in town should be discounted, and that another man claiming to be a proxy did not have the consent of the man he was supposedly speaking for. Interestingly, the historical record shows no evidence that the townsmen disputed the widows’ right to weigh in—perhaps because their opposing views canceled each other out.
In the end, the townspeople could not agree on how to size their common land, and had to petition the colonial legislature to decide the matter for them. The Massachusetts General Court concluded that the town could base grazing rights on property ownership, but not just meadow ownership: they had to take a person’s entire estate into account [PDF]. But even after it was resolved, the conflict over the commons had continuing effects on the town. A few months later, the old guard of town selectmen were voted out of their posts. Then, in 1657, a group of young men who were still dissatisfied with matters in Sudbury left to start their own town—which survives today as Marlborough, Massachusetts.
As far as town records show, neither Jane Goodenow nor Mary Loker ever voted again.
3. PROPERTIED SINGLE WOMEN VOTE IN EARLY NEW JERSEY.
In 1776, New Jersey rewrote its constitution upon transitioning from colony to state. The new constitution defined eligible voters as “all inhabitants” over 21 years old who owned property worth £50 and had resided in their New Jersey county for at least 12 months [PDF]. The language “all inhabitants” reflects a situation unique to New Jersey at the time: single women, both black and white, could vote, provided they satisfied the property requirement. While only five states’ early constitutions explicitly limited voting to men, New Jersey was the only state in which women actually voted (at least from 1776 to 1807, after which the first enfranchisement of women took place in what was then the Wyoming Territory in 1869). The unique extension of voting rights to women in New Jersey was likely due to the state’s large Quaker population, as the Quakers had a much more egalitarian vision of gender roles than other Christian sects at the time.
Initially, very small numbers of women participated in New Jersey elections. In Burlington County, for instance, just two women’s names appeared on poll lists in 1787, though the county had a population of 18,095 in the 1790 census. But in 1790, a law was passed regarding seven New Jersey counties that explicitly used the language “he or she,” and in 1797 a statewide law used the same phrase to reinforce women’s right to the franchise. And women first made a real mark at the ballot box that year in Essex County.
In October 1797, Essex County held an election for the New Jersey legislature. A Federalist candidate, William Crane, faced off against a Democratic-Republican, John Condict (or Condit, sources vary), for a seat in the upper house. Federalists reportedly went to great effort to bring voters to the polls, and as voting was nearing the end, while worried Crane was losing, they “had recourse to the last expedient; it was to have women vote […] They scurried around collecting them,” according to an eyewitness. The Newark, New Jersey newspaper The Centinel of Freedom reported that 75 women voted in the election—most of them seemingly for the Federalist candidate. Condict, the Democratic-Republican, ultimately won the legislative seat by just 93 votes.
The Federalist Party’s embrace of the women in Essex County was not unique: the growth of the first political parties seems to have caused a massive increase in women voting in New Jersey, as party leaders wooed the female electorate. In their history of women’s suffrage in New Jersey, Reclaiming Lost Ground, social studies professor Margaret Crocco and history teacher Neale McGoldrick estimate that as many as 10,000 women voted in New Jersey between 1790 and 1807. It’s even reported that women voted in the 1804 presidential election, after the state switched from legislative selection to a popular vote. Some newspapers and public figures celebrated women’s electoral participation and many joked about it, composing humorous poems about the “government in petticoats.” But other men were concerned women weren’t voting for the right reasons—or for the right candidates.
New Jersey elections were often close, so while women voted at a much lower rate than men, their votes still could make the difference between winning and losing. The Democratic-Republicans had, by this point, realized that white women tended to vote Federalist, as did African American men and women. After the state legislature passed a gradual slave emancipation law in 1804, the Democratic-Republicans grew worried about the growing number of free blacks, and thus Federalist-leaning black voters. Then, in early 1807, an election over the location of a new Essex County courthouse led to an explosion of fraudulent voting. One township of 350 eligible voters recorded nearly 1900 votes. Some men, reportedly, dressed in drag in order to vote more than once.
An investigation found that more votes had been cast across the county than eligible voters existed—indeed, in the town of Elizabeth, turnout was 279%— and accusations flew about illegal voting by married women, slaves, underage men, nonresidents, and people who could not meet the property requirement. The election results were thrown out and the matter received widespread press. Democratic-Republicans took this opportunity to submit a bill to the legislature altering the state’s election laws to allow only free white men to vote. Both houses passed his bill by significant margins. Beginning on November 16, 1807, only taxpaying white men could vote in New Jersey.
4. “TWO OLD WIDDOWS” VOTE IN QUEENS COUNTY, NEW YORK.
In the colony of New York, beginning in 1699, the law defined voters as “people dwelling and resident” in the colony who owned “Land or Tenem’ts” with a value of at least £40. Local sheriffs were assigned the responsibility of announcing and conducting the elections for the state General Assembly, and were given the power to verify that each voter satisfied the property requirements. While election law referred to voters as “he,” it didn’t explicitly disqualify women. Under coverture, married women, of course, could not vote, but single women and widows who owned enough property potentially could—if they had the guts to try and the local sheriff allowed it. But those women who tried to vote were few and far between, as doing so flew in the face of strong social norms.
In June 1737, the New York Gazette reported that “Two old Widdows […] were admitted to vote” in a recent election for the General Assembly held in the town of Jamaica in Queens County. A man named Adam Lawrence was then the sheriff of Queens County, and he either had no problem with these women voting or did not want to go up against two rich (and thus likely socially powerful) widows. The Gazette quipped, “It is said, these two old Ladies will be chosen Constables for the next year.” Unfortunately, without access to poll books or other voting records, we can’t learn the identities of these gutsy women—or discover whether they voted on more than this one occasion.
5. AN EARLY VOTING MYTH: LYDIA CHAPIN TAFT
Lydia Chapin Taft is often cited as the first woman to vote in what would become the United States. In 2004, the Massachusetts state legislature even dedicated a highway “in recognition of Mrs. Taft's unique role in American history as America's first woman voter.” Unfortunately, available evidence suggests that the story of Taft’s voting in a town meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 1756 is simply a myth.
Born in Mendon, Massachusetts in 1711 (Julian calendar), Lydia Chapin married Josiah Taft in 1731, and the couple took up residence in the nearby town of Uxbridge. Given a swath of farmland by his father, Josiah Taft became a wealthy man who was prominent in local politics and also served as Uxbridge’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court. He died in September 1756, leaving his land to his wife, who was also named the executor of his estate. That year, the colonies were embroiled in the French and Indian War, and—legend has it—the town of Uxbridge held a vote on October 30, 1756 to appropriate funds for the war effort. Josiah Taft had been one of the largest landowners in the town, and since his widow was the legal representative of his estate, the town selectman allowed her to vote on whether to tax the local citizens to pay for the war. Lydia Taft voted in favor of the tax—casting the tie-breaking vote, per historical legend.
But according to records from Uxbridge’s town meetings, there wasn’t any meeting on October 30, 1756, and the town did not appropriate any funds that year for the war or for unspecified colonial purposes. (They did vote to raise money for the local schools, to repair the roads, and to pay the town minister’s salary.) Further, even if Lydia Taft had voted, we’d have no way of knowing, since the official minutes for the town meetings do not list the names of people voting or their votes. The minutes simply state when a vote happened and that a given measure passed or failed.
The myth about Lydia Taft seems to have first arisen in the 19th century. In 1864, a man named Henry Chapin gave a speech about his family history during which he told the tale of the “widow Josiah Taft,” who supposedly voted in a town meeting after her husband’s death. Henry Chapin stated that Lydia voted because “The estate of Josiah Taft paid the largest tax in Uxbridge, and his son Bezaleel was a minor,” so it went against the town’s “sturdy sense of justice” to have “taxation without representation.” While Henry Chapin is correct that Bezaleel Taft was a child in 1756, Lydia and Josiah had two other sons who were older: Josiah Jr., who would have been 23, and Asahel, who would have been 16. Josiah Jr. had gotten married in Uxbridge in 1755, where he and his wife owned property; he died in the town in 1761. Unless he was away fighting in the war, we’ve no reason to believe Josiah Jr. wouldn’t have been in Uxbridge in the fall of 1756, able to vote on behalf of his father’s estate, and we haven’t been able to find his name on any colonial muster rolls.
Sometimes it’s reported that Lydia Taft voted three times in town meetings, but that claim seems to have appeared in the 20th century, and looks to be based on times her name appears in town meeting records—for any reason—rather than on times the record says she voted. Available historical documents make no mention of Lydia Chapin Taft voting, to support the French and Indian War or for any other purpose.
“Democracy and Politics in Colonial New York,” New York History, 1959; “Election Procedures and Practices in Colonial New York,” New York History, 1960; “‘The Petticoat Electors’: Women's Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807,” Journal of the Early Republic, 1992; The Centinel of Freedom, Oct. 18, 1797.