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Women’s Suffrage in the Late Nineteenth Century

In the 1870s and 1880s, the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association was relatively quiet. In 1873, as a consequence of the advent of compulsory public education in New Jersey, women gained the right to serve as school trustees. New Jersey women also lobbied successfully for bills granting them greater rights in child custody disputes and more control over property and earnings. Except for the Vineland chapter, NJWSA gradually suspended its activities. On the national level, in 1878, the women’s suffrage amendment was introduced by California Senator A. A. Sargent, a friend, and supporter of Susan B. Anthony. The amendment stated: “the rights of citizens in the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This bill, which became known as the “Anthony Amendment,” was introduced in Congress regularly from 1878 through 1918.

During this period, Middlesex County, like urban areas throughout the country, was changing, becoming increasingly industrialized and urbanized. Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe flocked to the county’s cities, particularly New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. Beginning in the 1890s, African Americans escaping segregation in the South also moved to New Jersey’s urban areas seeking jobs. The population of African-Americans in Middlesex County grew from 1,625 in 1880 to 2,815 in 1920. Industrialization and urbanization had social costs, leading middle-class women to become active in movements to improve housing, sanitation, and factory conditions, and to fight against social ills like prostitution and alcoholism. This period saw the birth of the woman’s club movement: middle-class women gathered in each other’s homes to study and discuss the issues of the day. African-American women also participated in the club movement, most often through local church mission societies and temperance organizations. By far the largest women’s organization in New Jersey was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of New Jersey (WCTUNJ) was organized in 1874 in Newark. As early as 1883, African American women organized into separate temperance unions that were affiliated with the WCTUNJ. By 1883, the WCTUNJ had 56 affiliated unions in all counties except Bergen, including three unions of African-American women. Local unions in Middlesex County included New Brunswick, Dunellen, Woodbridge, and Perth Amboy. In November 1887, the annual convention formally endorsed women’s suffrage. Women suffragists who participated in temperance societies were often the same women who belonged to women’s clubs, creating a women’s network that would bear fruit in the coming decades.

In 1890, putting aside their earlier differences, the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and the American Woman’s Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In the same year, perhaps inspired by events at the national level, the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association was revitalized and became a permanent organization. A new generation of women leaders emerged who had ties to the WCTUNJ and the women’s club movement. Middlesex County was represented by Hester Poole of Metuchen.

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New Brunswick, 1880

New Brunswick, the Middlesex County seat, was a major transportation hub and industrial center. This bird’s eye view shows the railroad and canal as well as factories along the river.

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Florence Mission, New Brunswick

Founded in 1889 in New Brunswick, the Florence Mission, also known as the Florence Crittenton Mission, promoted temperance, evangelism, the rehabilitation of "human derelicts," nightly gospel meetings, and a Sabbath school. This annual report includes the activities of the white and colored sewing schools. Florence Mission merged with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1898.

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School Suffrage

In the late nineteenth century, women voted on school issues at times in Middlesex County. For instance, in 1894, 16 women, including the mayor’s wife, voted on whether to locate the Washington School on French or Somerset streets in New Brunswick. Restricted though it was, school suffrage was successfully challenged in the courts in New Jersey. In 1897, an amendment allowing limited school suffrage was put to the voters and was roundly defeated, particularly in urban counties and in cities like New Brunswick. The opposition may have equated the amendment with the temperance movement.

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Profile: Hester Poole

Hester Martha Poole (1833-1932) was a poet, artist, world-traveler and feminist. Born in Vermont, she lived in New York City and moved to Metuchen in 1865 with her husband, attorney Cyrus O. Poole. Metuchen was an early railroad suburb, where many of the inhabitants worked in New York City. Poole became active in the women’s club movement: she was a member of the New York Woman’s Press Club and was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. Poole worked as a journalist, publishing on temperance, women’s employment, and home economics, writing a newspaper column entitled “Woman and the Household.” In 1891, she published Fruits and How to Use Them, which focused on alcohol-free cooking. Poole was a committed suffragist who worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the National Woman Suffrage Association. As a leader in NWSA, Poole became a founder of the National Council of Women in 1888.

In 1895, Poole, founded the Quiet Hour Club “to bring together the women in Metuchen, N.J. for mental culture, social intercourse, and a sympathetic understanding of whatever women are doing along the best line of progress.” Although the club was non-partisan, women’s suffrage was discussed at several meetings. Upon the re-founding of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, Poole put together reports for the group on suffrage around the world, and served on its Membership Committee. In 1925, Poole was one of ten women honored by the Susan B. Anthony Foundation for her efforts.

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Main Street, Metuchen

In the late nineteenth century, Metuchen was a growing commercial and cultural center. The proximity of the railroad allowed easy commuting into New York City. During this time, it acquired the name, the “brainy borough,” because of the number of artists and intellectuals living there. Metuchen women were active in women’s clubs and the suffrage movement.

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Hester Poole House

Hester Poole’s gracious home stood for many years on Rolfe Place in Metuchen. Despite efforts to preserve it, it was demolished in 2020.