Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Friday, December 2, 2016

"What Do You Women Want?": The 19 Century Women's Demand for Reform of Marital Property

This is part of a continuing series blogging about my new book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton & the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYU Press 2016). Today, is chapter 1.

ThomasStantonBookJacket

“What do you women want?” That was the question Elizabeth Cady Stanton was asked by the New York legislature in 1854. She responded with a long-list of demands for marital property, child custody, domestic violence protections, women on juries, tax exemptions for widows, and wholescale elimination of coverture.

These many goals were laid out by Stanton in her Declaration of Sentiments delivered at the Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848. (Now the site of the Women's Rights National Historical Park). The Declaration was Stanton’s road map for reform, in that she articulated 17 demands for reform of state, law, church, and the family in order to accomplish women’s full equality of opportunity.

Stanton began her fifty-years of legal and political advocacy for women’s rights on the issue of marital property. This was her starting point, and so it is the starting point for the book. In 1848, the NY legislature was considering reforms to the property laws that prevented married women from owning property, either separate, earned, inherited, or marital. It was supported by some expressed feminist concerns, but more by business concerns with recession, transferability of property, and family debt protection.  But the issue was at the front and center, with Married Women’s Property Acts beginning to be passed across the nation, and grassroots advocacy happening in Stanton’s close circle.

Stanton also started with the issue of marital property as it was the one that involved her personally. Her father, Daniel Cady, was a respected property and equity lawyer, legislator, and jurist. He was in the inner group of those considering legal reform, reformers who interacted with Stanton. Stanton also learned the law from her father, in what I call a “de facto apprenticeship,” observing his clients and trials, reading law with his apprentices, and serving one year as his clerk. This legal training and ability to “think like a lawyer” would serve her well. But her own attempts to own and earn separate property, to make up for her under-employed husband, ran smack into the limitations of coverture.

After introducing Stanton’s personal training and experience with the law of marital property, this chapter traces her philosophies, speeches, and proposals for legal reform. These included marital property laws that envisioned joint ownership of martial property – an idea that was not on the table in the Married Women’s Property Acts that merely allowed a woman to retain separate ownership of premarital or separately inherited (and later earned) property. She also advanced ideas of “taxation without representation,” challenging the taxation of widows’ property without the corresponding right of a property owner to vote.

The chapter also explores Stanton’s attempt to capitalize on the newly-enacted Privileges & Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which Stanton though was self-evidently empowering for sex equality. The Supreme Court, however, quickly squashed the expected interpretation of the clause to apply to voting or a generalized sex equality. Had Stanton’s view prevailed, much on women’s legal equality would have been different.

Here is an excerpt:  Download ExcerptStantonChap1

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/gender_law/2016/12/what-do-you-women-want-the-19-century-demand-for-reform-of-marital-property.html

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