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Assemblywoman Jennie Van Ness (R-East Orange). (Photo: New Jersey State Library.)

Trailblazer: Jennie Van Ness

Won State Assembly seat in 1920, the first year women could vote

By David Wildstein, February 09 2021 12:10 am

Jennie C. Van Ness (1879-1967)  became one of the first two women to be elected to the New Jersey Legislature when she was elected to a State Assembly seat representing Essex County in 1920.

Republicans nominated Van Ness and Margaret Laird (R-Newark) for two of the twelve Assembly seats that ran at-large in 1920, the first year women had the right to vote following the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Van Ness and Laird could not stand each other and refused to speak during the one year they served together in the Assembly, even though they sat next side-by-side.

The East Orange resident ran a surgical dressing unit to aid wounded soldiers who returned home from World War I and was a speaker in the Liberty Loan drives during the war.  Van Ness was a regional director of the League of Women Voters.

Van Ness was a fervent backer of Prohibition and ran for the Assembly with the backing of the New Jersey Anti-Saloon League.

On the same GOP ticket with Van Ness and Lard was Walter Gilbert Alexander (R-Orange), the first Black to win a seat in the State Assembly.

Van Ness finished 9th in a field of 24 candidates for 12 seats.  She received two more votes than Laird and 1,705 votes in front of Alexander. Democrat William H. Smith, who finished first among the Democratic candidates, ran 28,106 votes behind Van Ness.

Democrats ran all white men on their 1920 Assembly ticket.  None of the Essex County Democrats who voted against ratification sought re-election in 1920.

In 1921 – Assembly members served one-year terms until 1949 – Van Ness was defeated for re-election by Democrat Howard W. Lambert (D-Newark), a 28-year-old World War I veteran and the son of a prominent former judge.

Lambert defeated Van Ness by 888 votes, the only Democrat to win in an election that gave Republicans eleven State Assembly seats and wins for all four countywide elections.

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