The first woman recorded as legally voting in America did so long before 1920, the year the 19th Amendment was passed. This amendment declared:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
No, this historic vote took place in 1756, in an official New England Open Town Meeting at Uxbridge, Massachusetts. The woman’s name was Lydia Taft.
She was born Lydia Chapin, one of the many children of Seth Chapin. Seth Chapin was a militia captain who owned a lot of property in what became Worcester County, Massachusetts.
In 1731 she married Josiah Taft, a member of the prominent Taft family of Massachusetts, which went on to produce more prominent Tafts (including William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States). Like her father, her husband owned a lot of land. He served as a local official and a Massachusetts legislator.
By 1756 Josiah Taft was the largest taxpayer in the town of Uxbridge. But that was the year he died, at the age of 47. It happened to be right before an important vote on the town’s support for the war effort in the French and Indian War (one of the colonial conflicts between France and Britain). According to one account:
The only individuals allowed to vote were freeholders (free male property holders), and Josiah’s estate was valued as one of the largest in the town. Out of respect for his large contribution to the town, the town fathers allowed Lydia to vote as Josiah’s proxy. She cast a vote to increase the town’s contribution, thereby giving herself the distinction of being the first woman to vote in this country.
Actually, it appears that the town fathers gave her that distinction, out of a sense of respect for a departed fellow town father, if this account is accurate.
At least one local writer questions the story of “America’s first woman voter.” He points out that the first account of Lydia Taft’s historic vote was published over a century later, and that there are no actual official records of the town meeting.
He also points out that in 1756 Josiah Taft had a 23-year-old son who would have inherited his father’s place as head of the family with voting rights. No mention is made of this son in published accounts of the vote.
He suggests that the men of Uxbridge might have allowed Lydia Taft to vote as her late husband’s administrator and as a proxy, perhaps, for her adult son.
Whichever way you look at it, Lydia Taft was perfectly primed to make history in the way she did – born to one successful man and married to another. The town fathers of Uxbridge made history by permitting the widow of one of their own to cast a legal ballot, acting as head of the family.