One of the most divisive primaries in New Jersey history came in 1928, when a Kean and a Frelinghuysen faced off in a U.S. Senate contest where harsh personal attacks and rumors crippled the campaign of the first woman to ever run statewide.
Lillian Ford Feickert was a suffragette and prohibitionist who helped usher women through the newly opened door to politics in the 1920’s, but managed to get only 5% of the vote in a primary where five candidates fought for the chance to take on Edward I. Edwards, a one-term Democratic U.S. Senator and former Governor.
The irrefutable underdog, Feickert was the only candidate never to have held elected office. In addition to her relatively unpopular stance on Prohibition, she was also forced to contend with the war chests of deep-pocketed candidates like Hamilton Fish Kean and former U.S. Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen, as well former Governor Edward Stokes and former two-term Congressman Edward Gray.
With suffrage off the political agenda, prohibition became the decisive issue of the times. Running as a “bone-dry” candidate, Feickert faced rivals supporting more popular variations of “wet”.
The crippling blow however came in the final week before the May 15th primary when reports that Feickert had drunk wine while on a trip to Europe “came to the ears of Women’s Temperance Union Leaders” before reaching headlines.
Loose-leaf diary entries, written by a friend who accompanied Feickert to Europe earlier that year, recounted Feickert drinking wine on the trip, even describing an incident in which Feickert argued with a waiter who had brought her red instead of white wine.
By the end of “the liveliest political contest in the history of the state” the Feickert campaign looked near death. Its final days had been spent trying to dismantle the accusations, inundating the press with denials and suggestions the story was fabricated by the Frelinghuysen campaign.
Despite all her efforts, Kean, the grandfather of future Governor Thomas Kean, won the primary with 34% of the vote, going on to defeat Edwards in November. Stokes and Frelinghuysen received 29% and 28% respectively, while Gray and Feickert each won a mere 5%.
Still, Feickert’s early career assures her a place in New Jersey political history.
In 1910, armed with only her passion, Feickert broke into the suffrage movement atop soapboxes across New Jersey where she preached to passersby on city-streets. The strength of Feickert’s commitment was infectious, demonstrated by her keen ability to rally women to the cause. By 1912 she had become President of the New Jersey Woman’s Suffrage Association, an organization, which under Feickert quickly evolved into a political force, a virtual soapbox upon which 100,000 members could support their right to vote.
Women began to vote in 1920 — New Jersey was the 29th state to ratify the 19th amendment — a milestone that Feickert had long declared would be her political finale. But the activist in Feickert had proved itself too gifted to simply walk away. Feickert became the first Vice Chairwoman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee, charged with corralling the fresh supply of woman voters into the Republican Party.
But when it became apparent that women would become marginalized within the party, Feickert chose to steer the party to women instead.
Having already defied the greatest obstacle posed to 20th century women, Feickert descended on Trenton with the unwavering intention of furthering her fight. Opinionated and often confrontational, Feickert brandished a reputation as a rogue among political insiders. In a 1924 circular letter, Feickert chastised the entire legislature for what she assessed as “poor performance” then proceeded to compile a list of “legislative promise makers and promise breakers”. Critics branded the tirade as an “abuse of power” to which the legislature had been “indicted, tried, and convicted by Mrs. Feickert, sitting as prosecutor, judge and jury”.
Startled by her willingness to attack fellow Republicans, one State Senator questioned whether the state committee’s funds were actually being used to defeat Republican candidates. On one-instance years later, Feickert even threatened to back a Democrat for governor when she heard that the Republican gubernatorial candidate had given “shabby treatment” to female party workers.
Feickert’s commitment to advancing women in politics had begun to consume her entire life, admitting on one occasion to her husband, Edward, that she cared more for the political atmosphere than for her own home. In 1925, Edward Feickert filed for divorce citing his wife’s “political activities” as the cause for a broken home. If there was one, the void left by her husband was quickly filled by a deeper entrenchment into the political landscape.
The 1928 U.S. Senate race was Feickert’s only attempt for public office; afterwards she resumed her role as an advocate for women. As an organizer of the League of Women’s Voters and President of the newly created State Council of Republican Women, Feickert stood at the forefront of an effort geared towards mobilizing women into the ranks of New Jersey politics. These suffrage turned political groups churned out a class of “politically savvy women,” says Delight Dodyk, past-President of the Women’s Project of New Jersey, “trained in lobbying, organizing on the local level, and connecting with important people”.
To the contemporary masses, the name Lillian Ford Feickert may fall short of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Alice Paul. Even Dodyk, who attributes many lasting contributions to women in the state to Feickert being a “strong politician with a bitter fight,” is quick to admit that to the average person, “there isn’t really an identifiable legacy”. Felice Gordon, author of After Winning: The Legacy of the New Jersey Suffragists confesses to PoliticsNJ.com that Feickert’s legacy had indeed been “lost in history”, but to women at the time, “[Feickert] showed the impact women could have in politics and the power of the women’s vote”.