Friday, March 20, 2015
Early America - Legal Rights for Women
People settling in the British American colonies during the 17C were searching for political or legal refuge; adventure and profit; or religious freedom.
Despite professed beliefs in enlightenment and reason, independence for most women in the British American colonies and the new republic was nearly impossible. Individualism and freedom were reserved for men almost exclusively in colonial society throughout the 17C & 18C.
Women living in the British American colonies usually did not have the right to vote or hold office. Some colonies and states did allow women to vote briefly, but by 1787, women in all states except New Jersey had lost the right to vote.
If they were married, the great majority of women could not own land in their names. Men usually willed real estate to surviving sons and only personal property to surviving daughters, ensuring that land would pass from man to man.
If a woman had somehow acquired land or economic security before she married through inheritance or her own hard work, all her property automatically was awarded to her new spouse when she married in most colonies. In England and its colonies, the common law of coverture placed married women under the direction of their husbands.
Married women could not make contracts, even for their own labor. A wife had no legal identity separate from her husband's. The interests of a wife and her children were to be determined and represented solely by her husband.
Property was power in the colonies, and married women would have neither.
Divorces were rare, and usually men were allowed to beat their wives, just as they beat their slaves and servants and dogs and horses. When a wife chose to run away from an unbearable marriage, her husband could advertise for her capture and return in local newspapers; just as he could advertise for the return of his runaway slaves and servants.
Many widows chose not to remarry because of these laws; however, most widows with younger children remarried quickly for financial and physical assistance in raising her growing family.