Earlier this month we celebrated the 19th amendment allowing women to vote.
That post resulted in a request for a post on property rights for women.
So, Lynn, just because you asked, here goes.
It’s not something we think about in 21st Century America. Married women can own property in their own right, it’s been that way for centuries, right?
Looking back, there are references in literature regarding the issue. In the novel, Gone With The Wind, when Scarlett has her second child, her husband rummages through the house, finds all the cash she’d hidden and deposited it in his bank account.
In the 1949 American film The Heiress, which was inspired by Henry James’ novel, Washington Square, Catherine Sloper, played by Olivia de Havilland, is threatened with disinheritance if she marries the gold digger she’s in love with. Her father, who’s dying, owns every thing, can leave it to whom ever he wants since he has no son, and is afraid that Catherine’s paramour only loves his plain daughter for her cash.
It’s a great movie, but I digress.
Women could own property in America from its earliest inception if they had no sons or bought it with their own money. Oh, and were single.
Married women whose spouses were still living, generally owned nothing in their own right.
In May of 1750, eighteen year old Martha Dandrige married Daniel Custis, one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia. He was 20 years older, life expectancy was shorter, and after fathering four children, he died.
Martha was the richest woman in Virginia at that time and was courted by George Washington and Charles Carter of Shirley Plantation who’s family only inherited the place because his mother was lucky enough to out live all her brothers!
Martha was 26, she had an income for life, but she owned nothing. She did, however, have independent control over properties, slaves, and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children. She ran five plantations covering 27 square miles. According to historical records from the plantations and Mount Vernon, Martha ran the five plantations well.
As a dowager, she was entitled to the dower’s share of her late husband’s estate. For life, 1/3 of the property and its revenues were hers to spend as she wished. She couldn’t sell it, she couldn’t give it away, and she couldn’t leave it to her daughters.
The other two thirds went into a trust for her sons.
Once she married Washington, the dower estate literally became his. But, Martha was a strong, smart business woman, and she continued to manage her dower share and her son’s estate after her marriage to Washington.
She also loaned money to Washington who used the cash to increase his own land holdings three fold.
When she died, the dower portion went back into the trust for her male heirs.
In 1769, the American Colonies adopted the English system of property ownership for married women. The English system, as all you Downton Abbey fans will know, did not allow married women to own property in their own name nor could they keep their own earnings.
They could bring home the bacon, but they had to give it to the hubby! After they cooked it of course.
In 1848, New York State’s Married Women’s Property Act allowed married women to own land in their own right and to keep any wages they earned.
Single women were not mentioned.
It wasn’t until 1900 that every state in the Union had laws similar to the New York statute.
In researching for this I found that the Western World was in some cases behind many societies.
In Mosaic Law, men and women had nearly equal property rights, and women were entitled to own property and did not have to give it UP when they got married.
The Egyptians were even more hip. An Egyptian woman was entitled to her own private property, which could include land, livestock, slaves and servants. She was also able to inherit from any one and decide to whom she’d leave it when she died.
And, if the marriage didn’t work out, just like Barbie, she took all her stuff with her!
Yes, divorce was legal in ancient Egypt.
I know this is getting long, and the boss is probably wondering what you’re so interested in, but there’s more.
I’ll try to wrap it UP.
It seems that as the world became more religious, property rights for women waned.
Original Islamic law provided that the wife kept the bride price or dowry and administered it according to her wishes. Now, most Islamic nations prohibit or severely limit women’s rights.
The Pagan societies of Scandinavia and Northern Europe allowed women equal property rights. Once the Swedes, Norse, and Teutons converted to Christian religions, women lost control of property. All the single ladies got a bad deal too. They were under some lame-assed law called perpetual tutelage, which allowed a man, always appointed and generally a family member, to control their wealth and holdings until marriage. If they married without the consent of the tutor, he could, if he so desired, control her property and income for LIFE!
This system forced many women into marriages of convenience, generally loveless, but at least comfortable in a temporal and financial sense.
Well, unless the hubs was a nit-wit and lost it all.
The British Isles, which influenced most of our laws, always restricted the property rights of women. With primogenitor as the reigning statute, there was no such thing as an English heiress with a brother. If you were unlucky enough to be born a girl, it was best that you either marry well or be an only child!
So, Lynn, there you have it. Now, go check your deeds!