After its passage in Congress on June 4, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified on August 18, 1920. The amendment finally guaranteed that the federal government could not discriminate suffrage — a citizen’s right to vote — on their sex, stating: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” With or without the right to vote, women have been active change makers, demanding their freedoms, representation and equal rights under the law. August 18 is not just a commemoration of the ratification of the 19th amendment, but a celebration of women who, for centuries, fought to make their voices heard.
Unfortunately the development of Virginia — and what would become the United States — has a long history of legislating women’s voices. Most women in early Virginia already had no legal standing when assemblymen successfully codified a law to punish their speech, particularly that of “brabbling women.” The 1662 law states, “Whereas oftentimes many brabling women often slander and scandalize their neighbours for which their poore husbands are often brought into chargeable and vexatious suites, and cast in greate damages…after judgement passed for the damages the women shalbe punished by ducking…” Previously husbands could pay damages on account of their wives’ “brabbling” tongues, but this law gave men’s pocketbooks a reprieve, while forcing women — physically and psychologically — to pay the price instead. It’s hard to imagine whether Betsey Tucker had any say in the matter as she was submerged in water — 5 times for 30 seconds each — while clasped into a ducking chair, in front of family and neighbors on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 1634 (30 years before ducking became the official law of the land).
That same year, the Virginia Assembly also passed a law legislating the freedom of some women, owing in part to one woman’s voice. In 1662, the Assembly decreed, “be it therefore enacted and declared by this present and grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” Years earlier in 1656, Elizabeth Key, through her lawyer (and father to her son) William Grinstead, sued for her freedom and that of her son. Elizabeth, the daughter of an unfree Black woman and free English planter, eventually won her case on the basis that though her mother was enslaved, her father was free and she herself was a baptized Christian. Noting this dangerous court precedent that made Elizabeth a free woman, Virginia codified its hereditary law in 1662. Elizabeth had used her voice and changed her life — but it had dire consequences.
As men used their voices to decry king, parliament and taxes in the years leading to Revolution, women were far from silent spectators. Though they had no voice in colonial or state assemblies or the Continental Congress, patriot women spoke up and made their opinions known. As nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements circulated throughout the colonies, women were among the first signers, adding their names (sometimes only their marks) to the broadsides, pledging their allegiance as patriots. As early as 1767 women in Massachusetts added their names to circulatory letters in defiance of the taxes levied on the American colonies. As revolutionary fervor intensified, some women made their voices heard by writing and signing their own documents, such as those led by Penelope Barker in the famous Edenton “Tea Party” of 1774. Women made bold political statements through nonverbal action, too. Just one example of how some outwardly expressing their patriotic sentiments was to wear homespun clothing or adopt modest dress, rejecting more fashionable imports and British rule itself.
For all women did to support the Revolution, when (male) patriots built a new government women were not at the top of the agenda, and the American Revolution did little to change women’s rights or legal standing (the Declaration, after all, had stipulated that “all men” are created equal). One enslaved woman, Mum Bett, used her voice (and revolutionary rhetoric) to secure her freedom in 1781, arguing that slavery was incongruous with the new Massachusetts constitution. In terms of suffrage, state constitutions did have a role to play in determining who could exercise political agency. The New Jersey constitution written in 1776 left out any qualifiers for sex in its discussion of voting rights. Qualified voters were “all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds…and have resided within the country…for twelve months.” In 1790, the first gendered language appeared when the legislature further added the words “he or she.” It was not until 1807 that New Jersey struck down its previous suffrage laws, and voting became a privilege of free, White men only. Until then, free (and possibly enslaved) women, Black and White, had their voice legally recognized as a vote in New Jersey.
Instead of universal suffrage, many Founding Fathers envisioned a unique role for free, White women as “Republican Mothers,” whereby women instilled the tenets of republicanism in their children early and often, using their voices at home so that the seeds of the American experiment in democracy would be sowed for future generations. Many contemporary, as well as modern critics of this movement have postulated that Republican Motherhood sought to undo the political participation women enjoyed during the Revolution, relegating their voices back from a public realm to a domestic one. Though women were continuously denied the vote, they refused to silence their voices in support of abolition and other progressive agendas.
Perhaps inspired by the popular history of Penelope Barker’s “Tea Party” of 1774, in 1848 Jane Hunt hosted a tea party for her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Seneca Falls Convention was born. Later that year at the Convention, Stanton delivered her Declaration of Sentiments: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Echoing Jefferson’s grievances to King George III, Stanton likewise outlined that “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman…” By appropriating Jefferson’s language, Stanton used her voice — and the very birth certificate of the United States — to demand equal treatment under its law.
Sixty-eight women signed the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 — only one lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. 144 years after the Declaration of Independence and 286 years after Betsey Tucker was ducked for “brabbling,” women could finally voice themselves with their vote.
Today and every day, we invite you to explore how women tenaciously shaped early American history. Learn more about women who blazed the trail for citizenship on our Tenacity Legacy Wall.
Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
About Elizabeth Key: historyisfun.org/blog/commemorating-a-loving-day
About “Brabbling” Women: historyisfun.org/blog/punished-by-ducking
Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis, “‘The Petticoat Electors’: Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807,” Journal of the Early Republic 12/2 (Summer 1992):159-93.
Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.