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Assemblywoman Margaret B. Laird (R-Newark). (Photo: New Jersey State Library.)

Trailblazer: Margaret Laird

One of first two women to win a State Assembly seat; first woman to win re-election

By David Wildstein, February 09 2021 12:11 am

Margaret B. Laird (1871-1968) 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 Laird and Jennie C. Van Ness (R-East Orange) for two of the twelve Assembly seats that ran at-large in 1920, the first yearwomen had the right to vote following the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Laird and Van Ness 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.

A nurse, Laird was the Newark Chair of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association during the unsuccessful campaign to give women the right to vote in 1915.

In 1916. Newark Mayor Eugene Raymond – he has a Boulevard named after him – named Laird as the first woman to the Newark Board of Health, but the city council declined to confirm her nomination.

Lard was the New Jersey treasurer of the National Women’s Party and was secretary of the Essex County Suffrage Association.

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.

In a field of 24 candidates for a dozen Assembly seats, Laird finished 10th – two votes behind Van Ness and 1,703 ahead of Alexander.  The top vote-getter among the Democrats, William H. Smith, came in 28,108 votes behind her.

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.

Laird was re-elected to a second term in 1921, becoming the first woman to win re-election to the New Jersey Legislature.  In those days, the State Assembly had one-year terms.

Essex had unofficial term limits – party leaders regularly held legislators to two terms – and Laird left Trenton in January 1923.

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