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Almost Men

Almost Men
Historically, women had few legal rights. Cultures the world over considered women merely extensions of the men to whom they were bound and subject to the protection or exploitation of those men without much in the way of legal recourse. In short, women had no separate legal existence from their male guardians whether those guardians be their fathers, husbands, adult brothers, or adult sons. Unless they were widowed.

In an effort to secure their daughters’ independence, fathers settled dowries upon them. Those dowries consisted of property and monies they brought into the marriage and which were to be held in reserve for her use, although all legal rights to property and funds she possessed transferred to her husband upon saying, “I do.” Thus, their legal dependence did not end with marriage. Fathers who feared their daughters’ husbands would squander those dowries had the option to leave their daughters’ estates in a trust. Those daughters then had an income on which to live, even if they had no authority over those properties and monies. Widows retaining their one-third share of their husbands’ wealth as well as their dowered properties and funds found themselves highly desirable as marriage prospects.

Beginning in 1839, the United States enacted a series of legislation collectively called the Married Women’s Property Acts. These laws enabled women throughout the nation limited rights to control real and personal property, participate in contracts and lawsuits, inherit independently of their husbands, work for a salary, and write wills. The legal right to control property gained support in the South and West more quickly than in the northern states. England’s parliament enacted The Married Women’s Property Act in 1882. Similar to the U.S. series of legislation, this law altered the common law doctrine of coverture such that a wife could own, buy, and sell property separately from her husband.
Woman as perpetual child met shaky ground when it came to woman as widow. Upon being widowed, guardianship of her children often transferred to the closest adult male in the father’s family or other assigned trustee charged with overseeing the wellbeing of the widow and orphaned children. A widow without children often returned to the care of her oldest living male relative, for a woman without adult male guardianship was alone and vulnerable to all manner of corruption and exploitation.

Smart women understood the precarious status of their security and often engaged in correspondence with judges, trustees, and guardians to the effect that they ran their own affairs with competence and savvy--but only with permission. Lemuel H. Foster undertook the task of breaking down the legal rights of women into straightforward English in his book The Legal Rights of Women (1913). For executors of estates involving widows, Robert H. McClellan offered a handy guide, The Executor’s Guide. Though having few legal rights, society was not entirely heartless in its treatment of widows. Per The Executor’s Guide:

By section 13 of chapter 782, of Laws of 1867, it is provided that all articles and property set part, in accordance with law for the benefit of a widow and a minor or minors, shall be and remain the sole personal property of such widow, after such minor or minors shall have arrived at age. … Besides the allowances out of the personal property, the widow is entitled to tarry in the chief house of her husband for forty days after his death, and in the meantime is entitled to her reasonable sustenance out of his estate. This is called the widow’s quarantine. (pp. 62-64)

By Karen M. Smith

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