Mendon’s Lydia Taft: America’s First Female Voter – Or Was She?
A sign along Rt. 146A in Uxbridge pays tribute to Lydia Taft’s historic act
Taft is part of national suffragist history, even if the record is questionable
By Linda Chuss
One of Mendon’s most notable historic women, Lydia Chapin Taft, is part of an impressive lineage including President William Taft. The Chapin and Taft families settled in Mendon in the 1600s. Centuries later, current Mendon residents are among their descendants, like David Lowell, who is exploring his ancestry along with avid town history student Rich Schofield.
Born in 1712, Lydia Chapin lived near the Post’s Lane bridge and Mill River in Mendon.
In 1727, the western part of Mendon became the newly incorporated town of Uxbridge, and in 1731, Chapin married Josiah Taft and moved to Uxbridge. She was a homemaker while he became a wealthy landowner and the town moderator.
Taft is heralded as America’s first female voter. She cast her famous vote in Uxbridge on October 30, 1756, a time when only landowning men had voting privileges. History student Schofield related how she bypassed the requirement.
“In September, their son Caleb died while attending college. Josiah went to bury Caleb, and less than two weeks later, he also died. The town was facing an important vote to appropriate funds for the French and Indian War. The Taft household, among the largest taxpayers and therefore most affected by the outcome, had no eligible voters. Townsmen granted Lydia a proxy vote.”
According to the New England Historical Society website, Taft’s eldest surviving son, Bezaleel, was too young to vote. The site also says “records show Lydia Taft appeared at least twice more at town meeting conducting her affairs: once to address tax issues and once to change the school district she was assigned.”
A century later, in notes for his forthcoming book about early Uxbridge, Judge Henry Chapin recounted Taft as having delivered the deciding vote. Chapin died before completing the book, but in 1881, Rev. Rushton Dashwood Burr published it as, “Address Delivered at the Unitarian Church, in Uxbridge, Mass., in 1864 with further statements, not made a part of the address, but included in the notes by Henry Chapin, edited by Rushton Dashwood Burr.”
Prior to Taft’s vote, only one other woman – Margaret Brent of Maryland Colony in 1647 – had been known to try but had been thwarted. After Taft’s pioneering vote, there are no indications it prompted attempts by other women, or even any attention, until Chapin’s book.
Women were legally allowed to vote for the first time in 1776 in New Jersey, though the right was rescinded 27 years later. Starting in the mid-1800s, prolonged campaigning by suffragists led some towns and states to grant voting rights to women. By 1920, the efforts culminated in the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing women suffrage.
To recognize her as America’s First Woman Voter, in 2004 the Massachusetts legislature designated Route 146A as the Lydia Taft Highway.
There have been questions about the honor because no town records reflect Taft’s momentous vote.
“There was likely at least a kernel of truth,” Schofield surmised. “Maybe a conversation where she informally influenced the outcome, later to be described as a vote.”
Regardless of the facts from 1756, Chapin’s retelling had a powerful influence. Lydia Taft is now part of the continuum leading to women’s suffrage.
The full text of the Burr’s book can be found at https://bit.ly/3IzhkXS.