Equality and Marriage


IN ASSEMBLY, MONDAY, March 27, 1854.

The Select Committee, to whom was referred the various petitions requesting "the Senate and Assembly of the State of New York to appoint a joint committee to revise the Statutes of New York, and to propose such amendments as will fully establish the legal equality of women with men," report: That they have examined the said petition, and have heard and considered the suggestions of persons who have appeared before them on behalf of the petitioners.

Your Committee are well aware that the matters submitted to them have been, and still are, the subject of ridicule and jest; but they are also aware that ridicule and jest never yet effectually put down either truth or error; and that the development of our times and the progression of our age is such, that many thoughts laughed at to-day as wild vagaries, are to-morrow recorded as developed principles or embodied as experimental facts.

A higher power than that from which emanates legislative enactments has given forth the mandate that man and woman shall not be equal; that there shall be inequalities by which each in their own appropriate sphere shall have precedence to the other; and each alike shall be superior or inferior as they well or ill act the part assigned them. Both alike are the subjects of Government, equally entitled to its protection; and civil power must, in its enactments, recognize this inequality. We can not obliterate it if we would, and legal inequalities must follow.

The education of woman has not been the result of statutes, but of civilization and Christianity; and her elevation, great as it has been, has only corresponded with that of man under the same influences. She owes no more to these causes than he does. The true elevation of the sexes will always correspond. But elevation, instead of destroying, shows more palpably those inherent inequalities, and makes more apparent the harmony and happiness which the Creator designed to accomplish by them.

Your Committee will not attempt to prescribe, or, rather, they will not attempt to define the province and peculiar sphere which a power that we can not overrule has prescribed for the different sexes. Every well-regulated home and household in the land affords an example illustrative of what is woman's proper sphere, as also that of man. Government has its miniature as well as its foundation in the homes of our country; and as in governments there must be some recognized head to control and direct, so must there also be a controlling and directing power in every smaller association; there must be some one to act and to be acted with as the embodiment of the persons associated. In the formation of governments, the manner in which the common interest shall be embodied and represented is a matter of conventional arrangement; but in the family an influence more potent than that of contracts and conventionalities, and which everywhere underlies humanity, has indicated that the husband shall fill the necessity which exists for a head. Dissension and distraction quickly arise when this necessity is not answered. The harmony of life, the real interest of both husband and wife, and of all dependent upon them, require it. In obedience to that requirement and necessity, the husband is the head -- the representative of the family.

It was strongly urged upon your Committee that women, inasmuch as their property was liable to taxation, should be entitled to representation. The member of this House who considers himself the representative only of those whose ballots were cast for him, or even of all the voters in his district, has, in the opinion of your Committee, quite too limited an idea of his position on this floor. In their opinion he is the representative of the inhabitants of his district, whether they be voters or not, whether they be men or women, old or young; and he who does not alike watch over the interests of all, fails in his duty and is false to his trust.

Your Committee can not regard marriage as a mere contract, but as something above and beyond; something more binding than records, more solemn than specialties; and the person who reasons as to the relations of husband and wife as upon an ordinary contract, in their opinion commits a fatal error at the outset; and your Committee can not recommend any action based on such a theory.

As society progresses new wants are felt, new facts and combinations are presented which constantly call for more or less of addition to the body of our laws, and often for innovations upon customs so old that "the memory of man runneth not to the contrary thereof." The marriage relation, in common with everything else, has felt the effects of this progress, and from time to time been the subject of legislative action. And while your Committee report adversely to the prayer of the petitions referred to them, they believe that the time has come when certain alterations and amendments are, by common consent, admitted as proper and necessary.

Your Committee recommend that the assent of the mother, if she be living, be made necessary to the validity of any disposition which the father may make of her child by the way of the appointment of guardian or of apprenticeship. The consent of the wife is now necessary to a deed of real estate in order to bar her contingent interest therein; and there are certainly far more powerful reasons why her consent should be necessary to the conveyance or transfer of her own offspring to the care, teaching, and control of another.

When the husband from any cause neglects to provide for the support and education of his family, the wife should have the right to collect and receive her own earnings and the earnings of her minor children, and apply them to the support and education of the family free from the control of the husband, or any person claiming the same through him.

There are many other rules of law applicable to the relation of husband and wife which, in occasional cases, bear hard upon the one or the other, but your Committee do not deem it wise that a new arrangement of our laws of domestic relations should be attempted to obviate such cases; they always have and always will arise out of every subject of legal regulation.

There is much of wisdom (which may well be applied to this and many other subjects) in the quaint remark of an English lawyer, philosopher, and statesman, that "it were well that men in their innovations would follow the example of time, which innovateth greatly but quietly, and by degrees scarcely to be perceived. It is good also in states not to try experiments, except the necessity be urgent and the utility evident; and well to beware that it be the reformation that draweth on the change, and not the desire of change that pretendeth the reformation."

In conclusion, your Committee recommend that the prayer of the petitioners be denied; and they ask leave to introduce a bill[*] corresponding with the suggestions hereinbefore contained.

[*]AN ACT RELATIVE TO THE RIGHTS OF MARRIED WOMEN: -- The People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:

  1. Any married woman whose husband, from drunkenness, profligacy, or any other cause, shall neglect and refuse to provide for her support and education, or the support and education of her children, and any married woman who may be deserted by her husband, shall have the right, by her own name, to receive and collect her own earnings, and apply the same for her own support, and the support and education of her children, free from the control and interference of her husband, or from any person claiming to be released from the same by and through her husband.

  2. Hereafter it shall be necessary to the validity of any indenture of apprenticeship executed by the father that the mother of such child, if she be living, shall, in writing, consent to such indentures; nor shall any appointment of a general guardian of the person of a child by the father be valid, unless the mother of such child, if she be living, shall, in writing, consent to such appointment.

Transcribed by Carolyn Sims and reverse-order proofed by Lloyd Benson, Department of History, Furman University, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et al., History of Woman Suffrage, (New York: Fowler and Wells, Publishers, 1881), I, 616-618.