Equality, Property and Marriage

Most American treated married women according to the concept of coverture, a concept inherited from English common law. Under the doctrine of coverture, a woman was legally considered the chattel of her husband, his possession. Any property she might hold before her marriage became her husband's on her wedding day, and she had no legal right to appear in court, to sign contracts or to do business. Although these formal provisions of the law were sometimes ignored—the wives of tradesmen, for example, might assist in runing the family business—married women technically had almost no legal identity.

The rapid market transformation of the Jacksonian era, however, demanded greater flexibility for women. Because men sometimes could be away from home for months or years at a time, a married woman's ability to maintain a household pivoted upon her freedom to execute contracts. Real estate speculation played a huge role in the pre Civil War economy, particularly in the old southwest. Real estate speculators demanded greater flexibility in assigning ownership. Beginning in 1840s, states began to overturn the traditions of coverture. Over the next two decades, women would begin to develop a legal status within marriage, gaining the right to make contracts, to retain personal property, to be parties to law suits and contracts, and to execute wills on their own behalf. Most property rights for women emerged in piecemeal fashion, and because judges frequently interpreted the statutes narrowly, women often had to agitate repeatedly for more expansive and detailed legislation. Here are two examples

Women's Rights Petition to New York State Legislature, 1854
The Legislature's Response, 1854

Measures like this deeply upset tradition: they suggested that women were equal to men ad did not naturally desire subordination. This cartoon, published in Harper's Weekly, June 11, 1859, mocks the sight of women insisting on their rights. If women are equal, it suggests, men are diminished and marginalized.

As late as 1869, the date of this Currier and Ives cartoon, women's equality appeared in terms that were both comic and threatening

In this exercise, you will search the "Making of America" database of antebellum journals at the University of Michigan, to discover how Americans thought about property, equality, and marriage.

Go to this page and click on "search. The choose "Proximity Search." This allows you to search for three words which appear near each other in the texts in the database. Enter the terms "wife," "husband," and "property" within 120 characters of each other, and specify a date range of 1830-1860. Your page should look like this:

You may find that you don't get enough information this way. You should feel free to enter other search terms yu think might work. After you have read the relevant documents that the search turns up, make an entry in your web journal that addresses the following questions.

What were the objections to women's legal equality in marriage?

What arguments were made for equality in marriage?

Did Americans in this period want women fully involved in the marketplace, or did they want to shield women from the market?