Sunday marked the centennial of New Jersey ratifying the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote when adopted by the nation Aug. 18, 1920.

One hundred years later, N.J. women in politics feel optimistic about their election chances, but hurdles remain.

None of South Jersey’s congressional districts has ever sent a woman to the House of Representatives, and the state has never had a female U.S. Senator, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

In Atlantic County’s 23 municipalities, 25 women serve at the municipal level and four on the Board of Chosen Freeholders at the county level, said Republican Freeholder Amy Gatto at last week’s freeholder meeting. She introduced an amendment, which passed unanimously, to mark the ratification anniversary.

“I thought it was necessary to take a moment to step back and celebrate the long journey we are on,” Gatto said.

“After ratification, Margaret Laird and Jennie Van Ness (both of Essex County) were the first two women elected to the New Jersey Assembly in 1921,” Gatto said. “And in 1925, Rebecca Estelle Bourgeois Winston of Estell Manor was New Jersey’s first woman mayor.”

Few women, however, have been elected as state legislators from South Jersey. Currently none serve in Trenton from the 1st that covers Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties; or the 2nd, covering much of Atlantic County.

There are some bright spots. Two women — Brigid Callahan Harrison of Longport and Amy Kennedy of Brigantine — are front-runners in the Democratic race to try to unseat Congressman Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, whose district spans much of South Jersey. Of the six who have thrown their hats in the ring on the Democratic side, three are women.

“It’s important we call attention to it,” Kennedy said of the anniversary, “and that on this anniversary we are just as passionate about exercising the right to vote in this election, when we’ve seen women really targeted in so many ways by (the Trump) administration.”

Van Drew has said he soon will make a House speech marking the state’s ratification anniversary.

Kennedy, one of the candidates running to challenge Van Drew, is a former teacher and a mental health advocate who has three daughters.

“I feel like my campaign is as much for them as for myself because I’m able to show them that we can stand up for what we believe in and that we have an obligation to do so — regardless of the challenges.”

Harrison is a professor of politics and law at Montclair State University in Essex County and had been chosen as a public scholar to travel the state giving talks about the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, she said.

But when she became a congressional candidate, she gave up that role.

“I think there are still impediments, particularly to women gaining the highest offices in the land,” Harrison said. “Part is about our culture, part is about incumbency in Congress,” which favors keeping people in office a long time.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th, for example, has served in that position since 1981. The 4th is another district that has never sent a woman to Washington.

Vineland native Will Cunningham, who is also running in the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary and works for the House Oversight Committee, said Friday he is calling on Congress to extend the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment and get it passed.

“One-hundred years after New Jersey suffragists were victorious in earning the right to vote, women still don’t have equal rights under our Constitution,” Cunningham said.

Virginia recently became the 38th state to ratify the ERA, but Cunningham said the Trump administration is refusing to recognize the vote, citing a 1982 statutory deadline. New Jersey has had a state ERA since 1942 and ratified the federal ERA almost 50 years ago, Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s campaign laid wreaths on the graves of suffragettes at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Siloam Cemetery in Vineland. They were the graves of Portia Gage, who organized and led the 1868 women’s suffrage protest at Union Hall, and Mary Tillotson, a Dress Reformer who led the first anti-fashion protest in Vineland.

“Jeannette Rankin Hall housed my environmental studies program at the University of Montana. Whenever I think of women’s sufferage, I think of the heroism of women like Jeannette Rankin, who, in 1916, was the first woman, a Republican, elected to Congress,” said 2nd district Democratic candidate John Francis, a West Cape May commissioner. “To honor their legacy, we need to continue standing against discriminatory voting practices and support equal rights and equal pay for all Americans.”

“Suffrage marches occurred in many communities, and Alice Paul, a native of Mount Laurel, was a key suffragist leader and co-author of the Equal Rights Amendment,” New Jersey Historical Commission Executive Director Sara Cureton said in a statement.

“In the post-2016 era, women were reminded they have to be participants in the democracy,” Harrison said of the period after President Donald Trump’s election. “They are energized and contributing, and backing up their opinions with their money.”

New Jersey led the nation in women’s suffrage long before the 19th Amendment, according to the National Park Service.

“Some New Jersey women voted as early as 1776,” the NPS says on its website. “The framers of New Jersey’s first Constitution in 1776 gave the vote to ‘all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds ... and have resided within the county ... for twelve months.’”

Married women did not have property in their own names, so couldn’t vote, but widows and single women with property could.

In 1807, the state’s legislature restricted suffrage to white male citizens who paid taxes.

“In this way, New Jersey’s 30-year experiment with female suffrage ended — not mainly because of opposition to the idea of women voting, but for reasons of party politics,” according to the NPS.

The Democratic-Republican Party wanted to keep women from voting because they tended to support the Federalist Party.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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