This exhibition was developed in concert with the 2020 New Jersey History Conference. Organized by the New Jersey Historical Commission, this annual conference provides an important venue for local, national, and international scholars to come together and think critically about the lessons to be learned from the Garden State's past. The theme for 2020 was "Battles for the Ballot: New Jersey Voting Rights, Then and Now."
The 2020 conference took place during the year when Americans recognized the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that the right to vote may not be "denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." As historians are quick to point out, the intention of the 15th Amendment would not be realized, and only incompletely at that, until many years later. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 eliminated poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and other instruments used to disenfranchise Black voters, and brought the United States closer to the ideal of guaranteeing all citizens' right to vote. The 2020 election, marked as it was by attempts at voter suppression specifically targeting minority voters, was a powerful demonstration of how far the United States still must travel.
This past year we have also been commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which states that the "right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." As this exhibition demonstrates, women put their bodies on the line to win the vote. Nonetheless, even after 1920 Black women's suffrage rights would be denied by the same Jim Crow discriminations that Black men faced. In New Jersey, the ratification of the 19th Amendment represented the restoration of suffrage to women in the state, who had enjoyed this right from 1776 to 1807, when the state legislature struck them from the rolls of voters. The history of the right to vote is replete with both examples of what we might call progress, but also of setbacks.
As this exhibition shows, "Battles for the Ballot" can be found in almost any period of the United States' past and continue in the present. With this in mind, we invite visitors to this exhibition to ask questions about the importance of the materials they are encountering and what these objects, images, and documents tell us about what has been and continues to be at stake when people aim to take part in their own self-governance.