The Madison Vision Series hosted Rosemarie Zagarri on Monday evening to discuss the impact of women on the founding of the U.S. Zagarri, a professor at George Mason University and preeminent early American scholar, focused on the civil rights of women in developing America. She explained the evolution of women’s political roles from the start of the revolution to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Zagarri used the story of a “brief experiment of suffrage” for women in New Jersey from 1776 to 1807 to illustrate the climate of women’s political participation in this time period. Within that period, New Jersey allowed women who met property requirements for voting to participate in elections.
“This story offers a little-known but really important lens into the development of American democracy and into the changing status of women,” Zagarri said.
While introducing Zagarri, President Jonathan Alger expressed the importance of JMU being inclusive when retelling the history of the U.S. He said he believed that the university “embraced that responsibility” when it dedicated Paul Jennings Hall in October.
“At this university, I believe we have a special responsibility to focus on civic engagement and also to tell that more complete story of our nation’s founding,” Alger said. “As we reflect upon the full meaning of ‘we the people,’ and as we seek to become that ‘more perfect union,’ it’s incumbent upon all of us at James Madison University to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of all Americans in the founding and development of our democracy.”
That conscious search for historical perspective was reflected in audience member Charlie Conner, a freshman political science and history major. As a history major, he explained that he’s learned very little in his classes about women and people of color during the early American period. He said he believes that the focus of historical study should shift to include everyone.
“When we’re looking at the pre-Civil War era, we usually focus on the accomplishments and actions of white men,” Conner said. “But, by doing that, we fail to shine a light on women [and] African Americans who agitated during this period in [an] attempt to gain the revolutionary promises that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
Women began to express and exercise their interest in politics during the Revolutionary War, Zagarri said. The political world was male-dominated and believed to be a male realm, but as the colonies prepared to fight for independence from Great Britain, women expanded into the political sphere with their fundraising and published political writing. While Zagarri explained that most of the participating women were white and wealthy, middle class and above, she also stated that this was an important expansion of inclusivity in politics.
“It certainly was not the intention of Thomas Jefferson or the other founding fathers to create new opportunities for women in this way,” Zagarri said. “But, they welcomed women’s participation because they knew they needed women to participate in order to fight this fight against the greatest military power in the world.”
After the Revolutionary War, all states but New Jersey excluded women from participating in elections. In 1776, the New Jersey state constitution gave “all inhabitants” of the state who met property requirements the ability to vote. This included unmarried and widowed women, who could legally own property. Women’s names appear on polling records for this time Zagarri said, and women may have been 12% of total voters in some New Jersey locations. In addition to women with property, the constitution allowed free black men to vote in New Jersey.
Zagarri explained that after voting corruption in a New Jersey election, the state government reformed New Jersey election policy in 1807 to exclude women and free black men from voting while expanding white male enfranchisement by removing property requirements. Women remained disenfranchised in New Jersey until the 19th Amendment was passed for all states in 1920. Voting became a right instead of a privilege, an idea that originated in western states.
“It’s a sobering lesson,” Zagarri said. “This tells us that history doesn’t always expand toward the progression of more inclusiveness, of the inclusion of new groups, the expansion of rights. Sometimes, rights can be lost as well as gained. We must defend the right to vote, especially for those groups that may be vulnerable to disenfranchisement.”
Contact Jamie McEachin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.