Images: The engraving on the left depicts the so-called “petticoat electors,” women permitted to vote in the New Jersey electorate from 1776 to 1807. The painting on the right depicts a Missouri election in the 1850s. As the historian Rosemarie Zagarri writes, the contrast between these images captures a backlash against gender in early America. Although the political process was much more inclusive in the revolutionary era, only white men were empowered by the 1850s.
Introduction: Please excuse me. This historiographical essay begins in an unorthodox way: with a personal story. This past fall, I was serving as a teacher’s assistant for the very first time at UC Davis. I was assigned to Professor John Smolenski’s course, “HIST 17A: History of the United States to 1877.” On Wednesday morning, November 2, Smolenski gave the class a particularly memorable lecture. It was about the age of former president Andrew Jackson, and the theme was “An Age of Removals.” Of course, Smolenski talked about the Trail of Tears, and the removal of the five major Southeast Indian tribes west across the Mississippi River in the 1830s. Then he talked about the ongoing work of the American Colonization Society—their continuing effort to remove free black people from the country in the same era. Last, but not least, he talked about the so-called “petticoat electors.” Now this was a subject that I had come across before, but only in passing, as I skimmed textbooks in preparation for teaching at Solano Community College. Nonetheless, I am ashamed to admit that, as a twenty-eight-year-old PhD student in History, I had never appreciated the subject until Smolenki’s lecture. As most historians of early America know, the “petticoat electors” refers to a group of property-holding women in New Jersey. These women took advantage of a new state constitution from 1776 that did not specifically prohibit women from voting. They voted in local elections from the 1790s to 1807, when new state laws removed them from the electorate.
What is the purpose of discussing the “petticoat electors?” The forced removal of property-holding women from the New Jersey electorate is only one example of what historians often refer to as the “limits” or the “paradox” of the American Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the United States of America as a new nation-state. In the above example of Smolenski’s lecture, the case of these female electors serves to round out a three-dimensional introduction to such limits. The example of the Trail of Tears introduces the limits in relation to Native American peoples; the example of the American Colonization Society introduces them in relation to African-Americans; and, last, the case of the “petticoat electors” introduces them in relation to propertied women. On the one hand, the story of these women has become a standard line in history textbooks, because perhaps no other incident in early American history can so clearly demonstrate the blatant failure of revolutionary ideals—like calls for “liberty” and freedom from British “tyranny, oppression, and slavery”—to translate into increased freedoms for women. On the other hand, the example of the “petticoat electors” is also an introduction to a much larger argument about the history of gender and the founding of the United States. This argument is called the “backlash thesis.”
What is the “backlash thesis?” Well, if you searched the phrase in an online journal database like JSTOR, America: History and Life, or Academic Search Complete, you would probably come away thinking that it was about Southern, white racial conservatism in reaction to the desegregation decision in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Indeed, the phrase “backlash thesis” is most commonly used in academia to refer to the postwar period of the twentieth century, especially to how the modern conservative movement arose as a direct response to gains that were made in areas such as racial equality, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. Much of this work derives from a foundational article by the Civil Rights and legal historian Michael J. Klarman. However, the phrase “backlash thesis” is also employed in the field of early American history. Here it refers to a national conservatism in reaction to gains in women’s and gender rights that accompanied the American revolution and the founding of the country. Perhaps its most vocal advocate—its Michael J. Klarman—is the historian Rosemarie Zagarri, in her 2007 monograph Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. Continue reading “A Truly Revolutionary Removal: An Introduction to the “Backlash Thesis” of Politics, Gender, and the American Revolution”