Colonial New Jersey
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 house holds.
Revolutionary and Industrial New Jersey
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 experiences as workers in New Jersey’s economy - for their own households, as enslaved workers, as wage workers, and as volunteers in their communities – and women’s experiences as citizens and voters with subordinate status 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 males.
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 Civil War in New Jersey
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 slaves.
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.
Reform Efforts in New Jersey
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, successful 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.
The Great Depression & WWII
Woman suffrage failed to produce the dramatic social changes some of its supporters and opponents predicted.
One significant change, however, was 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 in 1924.
New Jersey’s Modern History
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.