Women's Property Rights Discussion/ Feb 1998


Query From Andrea Lynn a-lynn@uiuc.edu 16 Feb 1998

I am comparing women's property rights in france and the United States, and I am wondering which country first began to legally ensure women's control over their own property? Which country first gave women substantial control over their property? Thank you in advance for any/all leads.

Responses:

From Natasha Kirsten Kraus <nkkraus@uclink.berkeley.edu> 17 Feb 1998

Good luck in your search. France definitely gave married women rights in property first.In the U.S.it was only the French territories, i.e. Louisiana, that had constitutions under which women had rights to personal, real and economic property when married. Mississippi was the first English colony state to pass a Married Women's Property Act (MWPA) in 1839, 3/5 of which dealt with transfer of real property in slaves from father to daughter (so plantations would not be divided amongst son-in-laws). The Woman's Right's Movement during the antebellum era had economic rights as one of its primary foci (I am just finishing writing my Ph.D. dissertation on this) with NY being one of the first states to grant any rights in personal and real property in 1848. Women did not have the right to sue, contract, keep their earnings, or keep the financial property accruing from any real property (whether rent, profits, or sale price) until 1860 in NY state, after a decade of tireless organizing around the issue. (including annual Natl. Conventions, held mostly in NY, and constant talk circuits throughout the state along with petition drives held yearly and presented to the NY legislature. Additionally, Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the legislature on the subject in 1854, among other notable occurrences on the issue during this decade.) More general organizing occurred throughout the New England area from 1848-1860. Many other New England states followed New York's lead, but this continued into the 1890s. The Southern states were among the last to incorporate women's property rights into their laws. Western states generally incorporated them as they gained statehood (at various levels of property rights, of course).

I hope this helps some. Feel free to contact me off-list for other info or places to look (documents and archives). Good luck.

From James Seymour JSeymour@tamuk.edu 17 Feb 1998

For the United States, you might want to consider how each state handled the issue of women's property rights. They varied considerably, depending on the state and the period. Texas in the 19th century, for instance, allowed married women to have more control over their property than many New England states, because of its Spanish and Mexican heritage.

From Kent, Dr. Jacquelyn jkent@fgcu.edu 17 Feb 1998

The question of women's property rights in the US is interesting for it appears that it varied from state to state. In Florida, for example, until the 1970s, a woman who wanted to control her own property had to petition the state for legal recognition that she could so do - in essence, petition the state that she was capable of managing her own affairs and owning and manipulating accounts and property in her own name. I know this because before going back to school, I worked as a paralegal and we were quite relieved when we no longer had to have widows declared "competent" to handle inheritances.

My understanding of other states is less accurate, but I did read somewhere that one of the midwestern states - Kansas or Nebraska, I think - still has laws on the books that a woman's property belongs to her husband even today. Someone else would have to verify this for you.

From Emily Daniell Magruder magruder@HUMnet.UCLA.EDU 17 Feb 1998

I know nothing about women's property rights in France, but I do know quite a bit about the situation in the United States. The key phrase in the query, of course, is "substantial control."

A Mississippi law passed in 1839 is usually cited as the first married women's property law (Richard Chused has identified one earlier law, I believe in Arkansas). Then legislation proceeded state by state, over the course of the nineteenth century. Richard Chused, a legal historian, has a series of 3 articles that do a very good job of both describing and analyzing the laws. From what I have read, legal historians have long been and are still debating exactly why the laws were passed -- many agree that the first wave of laws had more to do with debt relief than with giving women rights in property and any other changes in status that might accompany such rights. In theory, by the 1880s, most states had laws that gave women control over property that they brought into the marriage as well as some degree of interest in property acquired during the marriage. The question, though, is the relationship of the existence of laws to actual social practices.

I can supply a rather extensive bibliography if you reply to me off list.

From Randolph Hollingsworth dolph@pop.uky.edu 18 Feb 1998

This is a wonderful thread for me and I hope more folks continue to talk about it. I agree with Emily Danielle Magruder of UCLA in her response when she said that the question is more "the relationship of the existence of laws to actual social practices." Gathering a complete listing of state laws would be of great value to all of us...however, we need many more qualitative analyses of what the local practices were: what were judges' opinions and how did lawyers argue cases where property rights were contested--and when. I'm doing this with the women of a large extended family in Kentucky: the WickliffePreston family of the 19th century. I'm looking at famous court cases where the women's rights were contested by male kin. Two important articles which have helped me in this regard are:

Basch, Norma "Invisible Women: The Legal Fiction of Marital Unity in Nineteenth-Century America:, _Feminist Studies_5, (Summer, 1979):346-66.

Shammas, Carole "Re-Assessing the Married Women's Property Acts," _Journal of Women's History_6, (Spring, 1994):9-30.

and, of course, Marylynn Salmon's _Women and the Law of Property in Early America_(Chapel Hill & London:U of North Carolina Press, 1986).

From Nancy Marie Robertson nmrobertson@erols.com 19 Feb 1998

For those of you who enjoy mysteries, there is one by ? Monfredo, called something like _The Seneca Falls Inheritance_ which hinges on the New York State act granting women property rights. Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away since the legislation is mentioned in the opening pages. Her books are pretty good historical mysteries.


[Ed. Note: Nancy Robertson, an H-Women daily editor, also suggested that several postings on this thread hinted about good bibliographies--and wondered if H-Women subscribers would be so kind as to send their bibliographies on women's property rights to the list so that they could be posted on the list, and on the H-Women web page.--S.A. Cordery, H-Women Editor, stacy@monm.edu

From Vivien Rose Vivien_Rose@nps.gov 20 Feb 1998

Miriam Grace Monfredo has a series of books set in midnineteenth century central NY, including _Seneca Falls Inheritance_, _North Star Conspiracy_, and others.