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Featured Article: “On the Trail of America’s First Women to Vote” by Jennifer Schuessler
The year 2020 marks 100 years since the United States signed women’s suffrage into law with the 19th Amendment. In the featured article, you will learn about a time in early American history when women and free black people were allowed to vote in New Jersey. Then, you will engage in your own analysis of the historical events discussed in the article, or research the history of suffrage in your area using both primary and secondary sources.
What do you know about women’s suffrage? Where does your knowledge come from? When you think about women’s suffrage, do you picture a particular time period, key figures or narrative?
What is your reaction to hearing that women and free black people had the right to vote in the late 1700s in New Jersey? Is that information surprising? What more do you want to know about that history?
If it is helpful, you can record your thoughts on this K/W/L chart or discuss it with your classmates.
Teachers: If your students have limited background knowledge on women’s suffrage, we recommend watching this History Channel video:
As you watch, note what you are learning, and also your questions, in your K/W/L chart.
Questions for Writing and Discussion
1. What is significant about the “New Jersey exception”? What different beliefs and theories do historians have as to the significance of that exception?
2. Philip Mead, the chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, said that period of time was the “American democratic system in its primordial ooze.” What does Mr. Mead mean? What have you learned about the American Revolution that supports his statement?
3. How did New Jersey’s first state constitution and a subsequent 1797 statute allow women and free black people to vote? What are some of the things that are unique about the language used?
4. Have you ever conducted genealogy research or worked with primary sources? Why do you think it was so hard for researchers to find “hard evidence” of women who had voted in New Jersey in that time period?
5. The article states that the voter lists are not unusual, which Jane Kamensky, a historian at Harvard, thinks is significant. What conclusion does Dr. Kamensky draw about the women who were voting?
6. What are some of the different speculations that researchers have as to why women often voted together in groups? Do you agree with any of their theories, or do you have other speculations?
7. According to the article, what were some of the events that eventually led to the 1807 New Jersey law excluding women and black people from voting? Do you agree or disagree with Dr. Mead’s concluding statement, saying, “This is a story both about what we might have been, and about who we’ve become”?
Option I: Debate
The article demonstrates how historians and researchers must employ speculation to understand moments in history that have limited primary sources or documentation. Read the article again and highlight different instances when multiple historians present different perspectives about how or why something happened in the past.
An example of this from the article is, “the debate over whether the New Jersey story is a grim tale of rollback, or an inspiring first chapter of the struggle for women’s suffrage that began in earnest a half-century later.”
Now, employ some of your own speculative thought or supposition. What do you think? Do you believe that the history of suffrage in New Jersey shows regression in women’s rights, or does it emphasize that those struggles began earlier than most people think?
As you defend your position, be sure to use examples from the article to support your case. You should also use background knowledge that you have about the time period, about later examples of women’s suffrage or about women voting in other states or countries.
You can engage in a classroom discussion, or share your response with others in the comments section.
Option II: Research
Begin to do some of your own research about women’s suffrage. You can focus your research on one of the two following tracks:
Local Suffrage: What do you know about the history of women’s suffrage in your state or country? Do you know when women legally got the right to vote? What do you know about the activism and organizing that led to their enfranchisement?
Intersectionality and Suffrage: Intersectionality is defined by the Times writer, Alina Tugend, as “the complex and cumulative way different forms of discrimination like racism, sexism and classism overlap and affect people.” How did intersectional identities affect who was given the right to vote in your state or country? Whose stories do you hear most often when learning about women’s suffrage? Were people of color included in your region’s history of suffrage?
To support your research, you may want to explore these sources:
Women’s suffrage research guide from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Their online collection includes information about suffragists, suffrage organizations and anti-suffragism, as well as some digitized periodicals, photographs and posters.
The Library of Congress has a digital National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection with 1,935 digitized items. Its collection includes “newspapers, books, pamphlets, memorials, scrapbooks, and proceedings from the meetings of various women’s organizations that document the suffrage fight.”
You might also find information in The Times, such as this Opinion piece, “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women” or this article, “The Complex History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.”