The 2020 election is approaching quickly. For the first time ever more than one woman has decided to run for president. It’s been a long time coming, but women are finally taking their places among the leaders of the country. And it all started with the right to vote!
During this election year, women across the country will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote. A hundred years may seem like a long time, but what many of us have forgotten is that it took much longer than a hundred years for women to win that right.
When Europeans settled in North America, they carried with them traditional European voting traditions. Women didn’t vote—period. Of course there were a few exceptions. The first recorded vote legally cast by an American woman was in 1756 when Lydia Taft voted at a township meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Taft, a wealthy widow, was allowed to vote in place of her recently deceased husband in an election designed to settle the question of whether the town should support the French and Indian War.
The reason for allowing Taft to vote was based on the idea of “no taxation without representation” and not on the fact that women should be given a vote. At that time, and for many years afterward, the right to vote was limited to property owners. It was wealth that gave a person the right to vote. Men owned almost all property, therefore they controlled all the votes.
Twenty years after Lydia Taft had voted, Massachusetts and the other British North American colonies declared their independence from England. As representatives from the thirteen colonies met in the Continental Congress, another Massachusetts woman asked about whether women would have a voice in the new country. Abigail Adams did not directly call for votes for women, but she raised the question of women’s rights.
On March 31, 1776, in a letter to her husband, John Adams, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress, Abigail wrote: [I]n the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.
Mail between Massachusetts and Philadelphia moved slowly in 1776 and it was not until April 14 that Abigail received an answer.
John Adams wrote: As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented… We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.
Well, as we all know, the men at the Continental Congress did not yield to the hated “despotism of the petticoat”. They laughed and dismissed Abigail Adams’s quiet suggestion that women be given a voice in government. As far as we know, Abigail never again pressed her husband on the subject of women’s rights. But the idea did not fade away.
After the United States became an independent country, voting rights for men were expanded. State by state starting in the 1820s, property ownership was gradually dropped as a voting requirement. By 1860, almost all white men in the country were allowed to vote. It would take another sixty years for white women to get the same right. But women did not forget and many continued to remind men to “remember the ladies” as Abigail Adams had asked.
Over the next few months, leading up to the Centennial year of 2020, I plan to write about some of the less well-known figures who helped to ensure that right.