Voting Rights Pre-Independence

Before the War of American Independence, the legal status of free — primarily white — women typically depended on whether or not they were married.

Married versus Unmarried Women's Legal Rights

Women in Early America

Women in Early America
Women in Early America

Most colonial laws were based on English laws, meaning that unmarried women, including widows, had more rights than married women. They could enter into contracts, buy and sell real estate and own personal property.

Unmarried women had other legal privileges and responsibilities that married women did not. They could sue and be sued, write wills, serve as guardians When someone is legally responsible for the care of another and act as executors of estates. Married women had fewer rights, especially in terms of property. A married woman could not own property independently of her husband.

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.”
from "Commentaries on English Law" by Sir William Blackstone

Voting Rights and Colonial Women

Sir William Blackstone argued voters must be independent.  Married women were considered dependent — they could not own property and were considered legal extensions of their husbands, whose vote counted for theirs.

It was up to individual colonies or local voting districts whether women who owned property or paid taxes could vote, and places that allowed women to vote were rare.  For the most part, voting rights in early America were limited to white male property owners over the age of 21.

When white women were allowed to vote, it was usually because they were unmarried or widowed and controlled property. The first record of a woman voting in colonial America was Lydia Chapin Taft at the Uxbridge, Massachusetts town meeting on October 30, 1756.

The purpose of the meeting was to decide how the town should fund costs for the War for Empire Also known as the French and Indian War. Because most of that funding would come from the taxes her family would be paying, she had a proxy vote When someone votes on behalf of someone else because they are unable to vote themselves, as the widow of Josiah Taft, one of the largest landowners in town.

Interestingly, only New Jersey recognized “the right of [white] women to vote across the state” in 1797. It was quickly taken away again in 1807, an effort led primarily by a legislator who almost lost in 1797 due to women voting against him.   

Unequal Laws

These voting laws primarily applied to white women of a higher social class. Poor white women that came to the region as indentured servants had far fewer or no rights in the colonies.  

African women — who were brought to America as slaves beginning as early as 1619 — and Indigenous women — many of whose land was stolen and tribes massacred — also had far fewer rights or no rights in the colonies.

It should not be assumed, however, that people in either of these groups wanted to belong to the European-colonial system that oppressed their people.