Jennie Sullivan Van Ness (1879-1967)
By Lisa Hendrickson, Independent Historian
This biographical sketch was first published on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by permission. That database is accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN
President of the Orange Political Study Club, New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association citizenship schools director, New Jersey Assembly member
Jennie Carolyn Sullivan Van Ness was an active educator, civic organizer, and suffragist. The daughter of John and Caroline Sullivan, she was born in Chicago, Illinois, on August 27, 1879. Early on she attended public school and later became an educator. She married Franklin Waters Van Ness in 1902 in Chicago. Frank, as he was known, was a businessman born in 1877 who died in 1942 in Virginia. They lived in East Orange, New Jersey, where they raised three daughters—Dorothy Blanche, Jennie Caroline, and Ruth Ann. As part of her work in the education field, Mrs. Van Ness was instrumental in procuring playgrounds for schools in several states and also helped establish a circulating library in Georgia. While working as a substitute teacher at the East Orange High School, she fought for higher teacher salaries and public playgrounds. Her civic involvement included serving as vice president of the Community Club of East Orange and vice-chair of the Women’s Three Minute Speakers Club.
As a member of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (NJWSA), Van Ness was an active participant in the suffrage movement. She ran the NJWSA citizenship schools which were created to educate women in the science of government and politics. In addition, she was the president of the Orange Political Study Club. When the NJWSA was reorganized as the NJLWV in April of 1920, she was made a regional director of the NJLWV and also chaired a board which created a program of legislative issues to study. She continued to run the citizenship schools for the NJLWV whose mission was to teach women voters how to best use the ballot to improve the welfare of the home. These schools continued to operate until the presidential election of 1924.
In September of 1920, Jennie Van Ness of the reformist Republican League and Margaret Laird of the “regular” Republican faction were tapped by the Essex County Republican Party to run on the twelve-person slate for the New Jersey General Assembly. Both women had been active figures in the suffrage movement. As a campaigner, Van Ness attracted and held audiences by her ability as a rapid fire public speaker. Upon announcing her candidacy, she said, “My home is the center, but not the circumference of my life, just as it is the center, but not the circumference of the life of every right-living husband and father. The responsibility of home-management rests upon the woman, it is true, but why should that fact keep her out of politics any more than the fact that most men in public office or in party organizations are business and professional men first and politicians afterward? The men have their responsibilities in most instances apart from politics and the women can follow their example.” In a large female voter turnout, Van Ness and Laird became the first women elected to the New Jersey Legislature in 1920.
During her single term in the Assembly, she served on several committees, including Education and Unfinished Business, the Industrial School for Girls, the Feeble Minded Children, and the State Library. She oversaw the passage of four bills affecting women’s political and legal status, including one that granted women equal privileges in government employment, one that granted equal representation on party committees, one that granted women positions on the State Board of Education and in the Department of Health, and one that allowed women to serve on juries. She was most known for sponsoring a prohibition enforcement bill, which came to be known as the Van Ness Act. The bill, which proposed assessing severe penalties on those who sold and manufactured alcoholic beverages, passed and became law in 1921. Because of strong opposition to the Van Ness Act by anti-prohibition and pro-personal liberty critics, Van Ness failed to be reelected in late 1921.
She continued her political involvement working on issues important to women for the next decade. In 1923 she was a featured speaker at the annual convention of the New Jersey Women’s Republican Club (NJWRC). Additionally, she was the legislative chairman of the NJWRC in 1926.
After 1931, Mrs. Van Ness appears to have retired from public life. She passed away on September 15, 1967 in Wilmington, NC.
Gordon, Felice D., After Winning: The Legacy of the New Jersey Suffragists, 1920-1947, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986), pgs. 35, 36, 76, 84, 87 https://books.google.com/books?id=6lkqAAAAYAAJ
McCormick, Richard P., Katherine C. McCormick, Equality Deferred, (NJ, Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, 1994), pg. 12. https://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/ead/uarchives/mccormickf.html
Burstyn, Joan N., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, (New Brunswick: Scarecrow Press, 1990), pg. 203 https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0815604181
Suffragist, Volumes 8-9, (Washington D.C. National Women’s Party, 1920), pg. 307 https://books.google.com/books?id=nJszAQAAMAAJ
Newark Evening News, November 3, 1920
“Women Candidates,” The New York Times, November 11, 1920
“Dry Law Issue in Jersey’s Battle,” The New York Times, November 8, 1921
- Find a Grave
- US Census: 1900