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Women's Property Rights

The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution granted women the right to vote, although being introduced to Congress in 1878, it was not until 42 years later in 1920 that it was finally ratified. March being “Women’s History Month,” it is only fitting that we acknowledge those women who fought for suffrage during the 20th century but also those who struggled for civil rights throughout the late 1800s.

Cartoon from The Indiana Gazette - December 9, 1920

While the push for suffrage that occurred in the early 1900s was the most “radical” and therefore the most memorable (think pickets at the White House, imprisonment, hunger strikes, forced feedings, and police brutality) the fight for equal rights for women had been going on since the middle of the 19th century. This fact is in direct contrast to the portrait of the meek, mild, and subservient Victorian housewife, an image that society had tried to uphold throughout the century and in many ways pervades current beliefs in how women behaved during the 1800s. While many 19th century women were happy to be a wife and mother, a deeper look into the fight for property rights during that era shows they were never content to be second-class citizens of the United States.

When the colonists first arrived, and well after the Revolution, many of the laws and regulations used in the United States carried over from English Common Law. Property laws were included in these regulations. For women, that meant that as a girl - until her marriage or her 21st birthday - was the property of her father or legal guardian. Once she married, she and anything she came to the marriage with, now belonged to her husband. The idea behind these property laws was that the man of the house, being the most capable and responsible, would make the best decisions on family income and expenses and thus care for those under his charge. At the time, it was common belief that women did not have the capacity for such advanced thought processes (never mind that they were denied an education). Therefore, having men make all of the financial decisions of a household was the only way to keep society functioning.

In reality, though many men did make very good business decisions for their family, many more of them did not. What a woman considered to be “her own” was not, in fact, so. A husband had the legal right to sell any property that his wife had brought to the marriage or inherited. He could pawn her jewelry to pay his gambling debts, he could spend the money she earned through sewing or selling produce, and she had no legal recourse if he sold their home and skipped town. He had the legal right to dispense with the clothes off her back and leave her destitute if he decided that would advance his own ambitions.

In Indiana County, there are a number of cases where a woman was left with a house full of children to care for because her husband had up and left. For example, Samuel Cresswell abandoned his wife Elizabeth in 1829 after eight years of marriage leaving her with five children. She had no way of locating him, and even if she did, she could not afford to force him to come back and do his duty to the household. The “kicker” in these situations was that if Elizabeth was able to earn money on her own to support her children, Samuel could show up at any time, take it from her, and be off again. According to the law, despite the fact that she had not heard from him in several months or even years, he had the right to take those funds because any money she earned belonged to him.

Stories like these make one wonder why women like Elizabeth did not just get a divorce. The laws regarding divorce in the early 19th century were equally stringent as those regarding property. It was possible to get a divorce if the injured party had the means to pay for it (lawyers and costs were expensive), but in addition, there were only four instances in which a divorce was allowed: desertion of a minimum of four years, known impotence before marriage, adultery, and cruel and barbarous treatment. If a woman had the means to and chose to file for divorce, she could only do so if a man stood for her in court and if she had witnesses as to what the husband had done wrong. Male witnesses were given more credibility than female witnesses, which then as a side note makes you wonder how they proved known impotence.

Not bothering to get married was another way around the property laws. However, even though a woman did own her property after the age of 21 if she was unmarried, she could not sign a contract or purchase land for herself. If she inherited a house but did not gain a monetary inheritance along with the property it was extremely difficult for her to earn the money for its upkeep. There were very few respectable options for a woman to earn money in the 19th century. More often than not, if a woman remained unmarried past the age of 21, she had to resort to living with a bachelor or a married relative, which usually included keeping house and taking care of the children.

Women had been fighting against these unfair restrictions since the founding of the country, however, a hard push for equal rights occurred in the late 1840s and began with the abolitionist movement. Several women fought against slavery using the best means available to them, speech and writing, and traveled the United States arguing for abolition. In 1843, an abolitionist convention was held in London, and several women traveled from the United States to attend only to be turned away at the door because of their gender. Being denied entry to a convention for a cause they had spent their lives fighting for forced them to confront the fact that women had to change their status in order to be heard. How does one earn the right to be heard or even vote? In the United States, it all came down to property and ownership. How could a woman fight for the rights of slaves if she did not even own her own clothing?

One woman instrumental in changing property rights in Pennsylvania was Jane Grey Swisshelm. Originally from Swissvale, she spent much of her adult life fighting against slavery, so much that her husband, James, filed for divorce on the basis of desertion. She was just never home and he needed someone around to do the housework. He was granted the divorce, and Jane did not seem too upset by this, but he received all the property that Jane’s mother had left her in the will. Despite the fact that Jane had inherited the property, which included her childhood home, it belonged to her husband and once the divorce was final it went to James. This did not sit well with Jane, and from 1848 to 1852 she took James to court to fight for her own home. She won her case and spent her retirement on that farm in Swissvale, but it was her case and time in court that was instrumental in changing women’s rights to property. Incidentally, once the laws were changed, Jane bought a house and property for her daughter in Diamondville, Indiana County, from an equally radical Dr. Evans.

It was inconceivable for a woman to fight for the right to vote if she could not own property, and the first step in equal rights had to begin with changing those laws. Once women were able to own property in their own right, the fight for suffrage was the logical next step. Many women did argue for voting rights during the second half of the century. Abolition, the Civil War, and reconstruction made this fight incredibly difficult. It was not until the end of the century that the strong, organized push for women’s suffrage truly began. But we need to remember the hard fight for property ownership that started it all. It was a long and truly difficult road for equality, one that we are still on today, yet keep in mind that it never would have been built if not for those untypical meek 19th century women. Or perhaps, the ideas that Victorian women were meek and subservient is the exception to the norm.


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