In no nation of Europe did woman yet enjoy equal civil rights with man, either in respect of inheritance or succession, or the management and disposal of property; and still less in regard to the administration of justice or the participation in the legislative power. The rights of women have not only varied in all ages among the different nations, but even in the same nation at different periods; so that attention can only be directed, in this connection, to the most remarkable revolutions, singularities and contradictions in the rights of women.
German Law Touching Woman
It was a principal and fundamental law of the ancient Germanic nations, that women could not possess any family estate, and in the sequel any fief, in right of property, because they were unable to defend either the one or the other against the enemies of their country. The same weakness of the sex likewise incapacitated them for the princely dignity.
The females of the ancient Germans received no dowry on their marriage, from their fathers or brothers; and after the death of their father, the sons divided the paternal estate to the exclusion of their sisters. Husbands settled on their wives a portion and jointure [sic], both consisting of estates more or less valuable, of which, however, the wives or widows enjoyed only the use during their lives. After their death the property reverted to the families of the husbands.
Later Property Rights
This ancient law respecting women was abolished among all the Germanic nations, when they settled in the Roman provinces, and became acquainted with the Roman laws. They began with giving females a dowry, which at first consisted only of slaves, horses and other cattle. Not long afterwards they made their daughters co-heiresses, first in unequal and afterwards in equal parts with the sons. Bridegrooms and husbands soon imitated the liberality of fathers. In many countries a community of property between husband and wife was introduced, and with it the anti-Germanic practice, that the survivor should inherit the joint estate.
Females became heiresses and proprietors, not only of family possessions but likewise of fiefs. The beneficial effects of the adoption of the Roman law by the Germanic nations has been much discussed; but the one circumstance which argues most in its favor is, that all the German nations not only adopted it, but likewise retained it during the periods of their highest civilization.
According to the English laws, married women were not only regarded as the property of their husbands, but as children who have no will of their own, or as slaves whose will must be subservient to their masters. An Englishman who has tired of his wife might publicly sell her like any domestic animal, provided, however, he had her tacit consent to the bargain.
So far were the English laws from allowing that a married woman had any will of her own, that when husband and wife were jointly concerned in the commission of any crime, the husband alone was liable to punishment. He was likewise subject to arrests and prosecutions for the debts and misdemeanors of his wife. All these laws encouraged baneful licenses.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.