New Jersey Women's Heritage
Notable Facts gives a chronological
overview of important facts from New Jersey women's history. It is cross-linked to
relevant images and documents.
New Jersey women, from diverse time
periods, from many walks of life, from varied religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds,
and from different economic classes, have always been significant in the history of the
state. We have not always known about their history, and most books on New Jersey history
do not tell their story adequately, but that is now changing. The following chronological
lists of interesting and important facts from New Jersey womens history are grouped
into six time periods for easier access. Each period includes a brief general overview.
Many of the women and events included in this historical compilation are profiled in Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women (Syracuse, NY:
Syracuse University Press, 1997). At the end of each chronology is a selected list of
The seventeenth century witnessed the beginnings of
European and British settlement in the regions that became New Jersey. It also witnessed
the introduction of chattel slavery and the decimation of the indigenous Native American population.
In 1664 a British victory over the Dutch
established English control over the area and the Concessions and Agreements of the Lords
Proprietors stipulated that any free person, male or female, worth L50 was considered a
landholder. (This property requirement, of course, excluded indentured servants and
slaves.) Generous land grants, religious freedom, and self-government attracted numerous
settlers to the colony.
Colonial New Jersey was an agricultural society
comprised primarily of self-sufficient households. Women produced food, manufactured
goods, and provided health-care and instruction for their households.
[Period In Detail]
Two fundamental characteristics have
shaped the history of New Jersey as a state: the diversity of its people and its central
location between two major urban centers that stimulated commercial development. Two
fundamental themes have shaped the history of women in New Jersey: women's experience as
workers in New Jerseys economy: for their own households, as
enslaved workers, as
wage workers, and as volunteers in their communities; and their
subordinate status as citizens and voters under state law.
The anticipated independence of New
Jersey from the British Crown necessitated the writing of a state constitution, and New
Jersey was unique among the states in allowing everyone worth L50, men and women, African
American and white, the right to vote. Some New Jersey women reportedly took advantage of
their right and cast ballots in local elections. In 1804 the state legislature passed the
Gradual Manumission Act providing for the eventual end of slavery in the state. But many
people were not happy with the state of affairs. In 1807, as a result of a hotly disputed
election, a law was passed by the legislature restricting the right to vote to white
By the 1840s, increasingly productive farming
practices, expanding rail transportation and factory-based manufacture were changing
patterns of household sufficiency. The middle class was growing rapidly and more affluent
women became home managers, responsible for the acquisition of goods and the direction of
servants. Less affluent women, especially young, single women, sought wage-work outside
their households. As the economy expanded, increasing numbers of women worked in a variety
of jobs, especially as domestic workers in other people's homes, as farm workers, and
factory workers. Teaching began to open up as a work opportunity for women.
When the state wrote its second Constitution in
1844, however, there was no significant effort to expand the electorate to include women
or African Americans.
The number and diversity of New Jersey women
increased dramatically during the 19th century. New Jersey was a primary destination for
immigrants because its expanding industrial economy and rich farmland offered
opportunities. Immigrant women easily found domestic work in the homes of the rising
middle and upper classes, contributing to the quality of their employers life style.
The families of skilled immigrants themselves rose to more affluent lives. By the 1850s,
people were attracted to the picturesque rural areas close to urban centers and the
suburbanization of New Jersey began.
As elsewhere in the nation, if somewhat later, the
Jacksonian Era saw the beginning in New Jersey of myriad efforts to improve society. The
state legislature was petitioned to grant married women property rights and all women the
right to vote. Utopian communities were established, and public institutions, from schools
to prisons to asylums, were scrutinized and efforts made to reform them. Societies were
established to promote everything from sobriety to woman suffrage. White women played a
leading role in all these efforts to cope with the rapidly urbanizing society. Black women
fared less well. Conservative New Jersey, unwilling to tamper with property rights,
granted freedom to enslaved blacks very gradually, and provided for the return of fugitive
After the Civil War, women increasingly entered the
paid labor force. While most working women were employed in agriculture and domestic
service, new jobs in manufacturing and offices began to expand.
In the later nineteenth century, the nature of
housework for middle class women changed as labor-saving devices and availability of
immigrant women working as domestic workers gave middle class women precious leisure to
pursue social and community activities.
The women of New Jersey, both white and black, organized to promote
suffrage through a revived New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association as well as to advance
their communities in general. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the women's club
movement, nursing associations, various business and professional women's groups, and the
Consumers League were established and thrived. Working women organized to improve working
conditions and wages through the Knights of Labor and later, to a lesser extent, the
American Federation of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World.
The Progressive Era, flourished briefly in New Jersey. In 1910,
gubernatorial candidate Woodrow Wilson ran on a platform urging reform. Elected president
in 1912, Wilson was met with appeals by women's groups for a federal suffrage amendment.
However, he was slow to abandon his states' rights views on the issue. He did return to
his voting district in Princeton Borough for New Jersey's special election on October 19,
1915, to endorse woman suffrage on the state level. He also agreed to be a speaker at the
annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) held at
Atlantic City on September 8, 1916. His participation and speech finally lent support to a federal suffrage amendment. In the meantime, New Jersey's radical
suffragist, Alice Paul, and the members of the National Woman's Party maintained their
vigil as "Silent Sentinels" before the White House. New Jersey suffragists were
among those arrested for picketing in front of the White House in 1917. Three years later,
the New Jersey legislature became the 29th state legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment.
Woman suffrage failed to produce the dramatic
social changes some of its supporters and opponents predicted. One significant change,
that women could now lobby politicians as voters and could themselves become participants
in governing. Challenging a powerful bastion of male prerogative, some women began to run
for political office, and New Jersey elected its first Congresswoman
From 1930 to 1945, the Great
Depression and World War II focused everyones attention on economic and political survival. The immediate
post-war decades saw dramatic growth in the state. Between 1940 and 1960 the state grew
from 560 people per square mile to 818. (By 1990 there would be over 1,000 people per
The states governmental structure, shaped by
the 1844 constitution, was inadequate to cope with vast social and economic changes.
Constitutional revision in 1947 began an effort, supported by many womens groups, to
promote better government, improved education, economic equity and increased community
The demand for new housing combined with the
construction of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway opened vast rural
areas of the state to suburban development. Older, white populations moved out of cities
taking many industries with them. The suburban nuclear household was predicated on the
assumption of a full-time wife/mother homemaker. Meanwhile continued migration of
African Americans from the rural south and immigration from eastern Europe and Latin America repopulated the
states declining cities, and women from these groups organized to build new
religious and social institutions. By 1960, New Jersey was the countrys most
densely, diversely populated state with wide disparities of income between urban and
The pace of institutional and legal change suddenly
seemed slow compared with the accelerating rate of demographic and economic change.
The decade of the sixties saw suburbanization
accelerate as increasing numbers of whites moved to the expanding suburbs while
revenue-poor cities were home to the poor and immigrants from the Caribbean and Asia.
Questions of taxation and public spending became increasingly divisive as employment
opportunities also moved to the suburbs. Urban industrial manufacturing declined as
corporate research and service facilities expanded.
The sixties were pivotal years for many women. The
civil rights movement drew many minority women into its ranks at the same time as it acted
as a catalyst for a reactivated womens movement. The establishment of a national
Commission on the Status of Women put the realities of womens lives on the public
agenda for the first time.
New Jersey established a state Commission
on the Status of Women in 1964. Soon there were feminist organizations, conferences, newspapers and
candidates making headlines. The first focus of the new movement was on changing and
enacting laws. For the first time, two New Jersey women were elected to Congress in the
same year (1972), and there was pressure to elect and appoint even more.
In 1993, New
Jersey elected a woman governor.
It soon became apparent that simply passing new
laws and electing more women would not instantly or automatically improve the lives and
status of all women. Increased awareness of
the roles of New Jersey women in shaping the lives and futures of their
communities is a necessary factor in achieving such progress.
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