History's Women: Misc. Articles: Property Rights of Women - During the Civil War TimesDuring the preparation for the great Sanitary Fair in Chicago, 1863, Mrs. Livermore and Mrs. Hoge made some interesting discoveries as to the property rights of women. They were arranging for the erection of a temporary wooden structure to be known as Manufacturers’ Hall. The plans were drawn, the contract made, and the papers signed. The builders then inquired, “Who underwrites for you?” “What?” the women exclaimed. “Who indorses [sic] for you,” he explained. “We wish no indorsers, [sic] we have the money in the bank, and will pay you in advance if you will draw the contract accordingly We have more faith in you than you manifest in us,” they replied.

“It isn’t a matter of faith at all,” was his answer. “You are married women; and by the laws of Illinois your names are good for nothing, unless your husbands write their names after yours on the contract.”

“Then let us pay you in advance,” they said. “We have the money of our own earning and are able to pay you on the spot. Instead of a contract, give us a promissory note like this, ‘In consideration of ______ dollars, I promise to build, for Mrs. Hoge and Mrs. Livermore, a hall of wood, etc.’ Can’t you do that?”

“The money you are earning belongs to hour husbands by law. The wife’s earnings are the property of her husband in this state. Until your husbands give their written consent, I cannot give you the promise you ask. The law must be respected.”

This was to them an astonishing revelation. They had enlisted the whole Northwest in a gigantic money-making enterprise which netted nearly one hundred thousand dollars. They had money in the bank which they had personally earned and which they had supposed was their own. It was an occasion of not a little chagrin when they discovered that their names on paper were as absolutely worthless as that of a minor child.

They also learned that they had no legal control of their children, that they were before the law as minors with these children, while all authority was vested in the husband.

Mrs. Livermore says she then registered a vow, that when the war was over, she would take up a new work, that of making law and justice synonymous for her sex, and she declares that she kept the vow religiously.

It she be said that Illinois was at this time considerably behind some other states, but the incident gives us a glimpse of what had been the property rights or wrongs of women in all the states.

Beginning of the Reform

Rhode Island took the lead in this reform as early as 1841 by giving to the wife, separated from her husband, and coming into the state as a resident, the sole ownership and control of her property. A few years later another law was passed, securing her earnings, so that it could not be taken by the husband for his debts. Massachusetts passed a similar law in 1845, and New York in 1848.

The reform continued to spread until now in every state in the Union except Tennessee, the wife’s property is secured to her.

Rights and responsibilities should go together. It should be noticed that as an offset to the restricted property rights of married women which prevailed in former days, the husband was counted as the legal guardian of the children and was liable for the support of the family. Probably most women were willing to have granted them the right to hold property in their own name, than to be held jointly liable with the husband for the support of the family. In some of the newer western states, the property acquired by either husband or wife during married is the joint property of both, and they are jointly liable for the support of the family. Their legal standing is a sort of partnership.

The mother’s right to the guardianship of her children is recognized as equal to that of her husband in not more than six or eight of the states. Oregon, Washington, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and New York, are of that number.

As to the interest of the widow in the property of her husband. the laws are far more uniform, though a change has been made for the better in most states. The old law of a dower was that the widow should have a life interest in one third of her husband’s real estate. This has generally been changed so as to grant her an equal share of the estate, with power to dispose of it by will.

What we have said about property rights of women refers to married women only. Unmarried women have, during this time, had the same rights of property as those enjoyed by men.

In Europe

We glance at other lands. The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in England in 1882. She can now hold and transfer her property, sue and be sued the same as though she were an unmarried woman or a man.

In Italy and Russia the wife’s property is separately and solely her own. In Russia the wife has a completely separate legal existence. She has one advantage over her husband. He is obligate to support the family — she is not. In Italy she needs simply a power of attorney to enable her to carry on trade without her husband’s consent.

Generally on the content of Europe, there is recognized a common ownership of property, but the control is in the hands of the husband. There is, however, this compensation. If the dowry of the wife is endangered or the husband’s affairs are in serious conditions, the wife may have her property set apart for her out of the common purse.

A widow’s rights in Europe are quite limited outside England and Italy. In France and Belgium, for example, while she may have her own share, the husband’s property cannot come to her until her heirs to the twelfth degree have failed.

Epitome of rights

We begin by citing the experience of Mrs. Livermore and Mrs. Hoge in Illinois. We give an epitome of the present laws as to the property rights of married women in that state.

They may own in their own right real and personal property, sue and be sued, contract and incur liabilities the same as if unmarried, but they may not enter into or contract and incur liabilities the same as if unmarried, but they may not enter into or carry on any partnership business without the consent of the husband, unless abandoned by him or he is incapable of giving assent. Beyond the necessaries, the husband is not liable for the debts of the wife, except in case where he would be jointly liable for the debts of the wife, except in case where he would be jointly liable if the marriage did not exist. The estate of both is liable for the family expenses, but the wife’s separate holdings are her own. A surviving wife or husband takes one third of all of the realty of the decreased, unless relinquished in due form. The husband and wife are put upon the same footing as to the dower, and the estate of courtesy is abolished.

Oklahoma has taken advanced and it may seem radical ground. Neither husband nor wife has any interest in the property of the other. Either may enter into an engagement or transaction of the other. Either may enter into an engagement with the other or any other person. Woman retains the same legal existence after marriage as before.


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.