Votes, Parties, and Patronage: Women in Politics in the Federal Period

Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Phoebe Morris, dated 29 July 1812, Dolley Madison Collection, Dumbarton House.

Article written by: James Stewart, docent at Dumbarton House

The year 2020 brings with it a plethora of exhibits, lectures, and events that commemorate the ratification of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States. These commemorative events raise the question: How were women politically active in the Federal Period, 1780 to 1820? This article will provide an overview of the voting rights and political participation of women in America during the early republic.

Contrary to what you might find in your average history book, some women were able to vote in the Federal Period-depending on their economic circumstances and geographic location. After the American Revolution, it was the states that determined who had suffrage. State constitutions outlined who was eligible to vote and most constitutions stated only men had suffrage. However, New Jersey’s 1776 constitution stated that any individual worth fifty pounds could vote—including single women. Married women could not vote because under the law of coverture their husband owned all the wealth in the family. Because a woman had no political voice of her own, if she chose to vote it would be  assumed that her husband had voted twice. In 1807, however, New Jersey reinterpreted their constitution and added a clause that said only taxpaying men could vote. The reasons behind the disenfranchisement of women goes back to the idea that women were not capable of making decisions that could affect the government because they were viewed as the weaker gender. Most founding fathers did not want women to vote because it was viewed as too democratic, and if they allowed minorities or men without property to have suffrage they might have “mob-rule” which occurred during the violent French Revolution.

Many women did not have the right to vote in the early republic, but they could still be involved in politics. As the new capital city of Washington took shape, women of the elite ruling class were central to the political environment of the city. The city was created for the government and there was little separation between the society of Washington D.C. and the political affairs of the nation. While Dinah, the enslaved cook in the Nourse’s household, would have had little to no political influence, there is a possibility that Maria Nourse took part in the society of Washington, D.C. that shaped U.S. politics in the early nineteenth-century. The main way that women were involved in politics was through entertaining. They would host political officials in their drawing rooms and at larger parties where they discussed the operations of the government or laws being voted on in Congress. First Lady Dolley Madison was famous for her Wednesday night parties that brought both Federalists and Republicans and members of both the executive and legislative branches together to discuss legislation. The Nourses were invited to these parties at the President’s House where Maria might have discussed politics with other government officials. Women were well informed about the issues discussed in Congress and often went to the galleries of the House of Representatives and Senate to watch what was going on in government. The ladies of Washington D.C. were also involved in the concept of patronage where they would gain positions in the government for male members of the family and friends. For example, Dolley Madison tried to gain a position for Anthony Morris and she wrote to his daughter, Phoebe, explaining her trouble: 

There is nothing to be done in such times as these! Mr. Madison is anxious to employ your Papa in some good place, entirely within his own gift, when we should not be subject to the political or personal objections of capricious Senate (almost treason, my dear) but it is really true that M. has but a small voice, at present, in appointments that go into the House.

With the help of James Madison, Dolley did eventually get Anthony a position as minister to Spain. The activities in the parlors and use of patronage to gain government positions demonstrates that there was a network of elite women who were involved in politics.

Overall, the political rights of women in the Federal Period were not as prevalent as they are today. Although a handful of women could vote and white elite women in D.C. were involved in the running of the capital city, most women had no political voice. These rights would be fought for in Seneca Falls in 1848 and into the twentieth century.

To learn more see:

Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Earman, Cynthia D. “Remembering the Ladies: Women, Etiquette, and Diversions in Washington City, 1800-1814.” Washington History 12, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 2000): 102-117. 

Kerber, Linda. No Constitutional Rights to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Good, Cassandra. “The Power of Friendship” in Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis, “‘The Petticoat Electors’: Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807.” Journal of the Early Republic 12, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 159-193.