New Jersey Women's History



Notable Facts



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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 women’s 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 secondary sources.

Period I
-- 1775
Period II
Period III
Period IV
Period V
Period VI
1961 --


Period I: --1775

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]


Period II:   1776-1843

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 Jersey’s 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 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.

 [Period In Detail]


Period III:  1844-1879

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.

[Period In Detail]


Period IV:  1880-1920

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.

[Period In Detail]


Period V:  1921-1960

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 in1924.  

From 1930 to 1945, the Great Depression and World War II focused everyone’s 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 square mile.)

The state’s 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 women’s groups, to promote better government, improved education, economic equity and increased community services.

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 state’s declining cities, and women from these groups organized to build new religious and social institutions. By 1960, New Jersey was the country’s most densely, diversely populated state with wide disparities of income between urban and suburban dwellers.

The pace of institutional and legal change suddenly seemed slow compared with the accelerating rate of demographic and economic change.

[Period In Detail]


Period VI:  1961 --

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 women’s movement.  The establishment of a national Commission on the Status of Women put the realities of women’s 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.

[Period In Detail]

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