During most of American history, women’s lives in most states were circumscribed by common law brought to North America by English colonists. These marriage and property laws, or "coverture," stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children. Widows did have the right of "dower," a right to property they brought into the marriage as well as to life usage of one-third of their husbands’ estate. Though a married woman was not able to sue or sign contracts on her own, her husband often did have to obtain her consent before he sold any property his wife had inherited.
Apart from such generally applicable laws, many women were in a position of legal dependence as a result of their particular situation, be it youth, poverty, or enslavement. Since coverture, and with it the right to dower, started to erode in the first half of the nineteenth century, wealthy fathers and husbands often left their daughters’ estates in a trust. The assumption was that women would be better off with the fruits of the estate than with power over money or property that could be taken from them through marriage before their sons were old enough to take charge of the estate.
Outside of the legitimizing context of property ownership or family identity, women might effectively be rendered non-persons. Since they had limited means of economic survival outside marriage, some indigent women ended up real or virtual wards of the state or town in which they lived. In British-Colonial America, where institutionalization of the poor was not the norm, a woman’s appearance on town poverty roles probably meant not much more than that the town took financial responsibility, however minimal, for one who could not do so herself. By the nineteenth century, however, poverty came to be seen as a personal flaw, though poor women were less stigmatized than poor men until the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, women were subject to labor impressment and loss of independence of decision once they crossed the threshold of the poorhouse.
Like marriage, slavery denied women a separate legal existence. Female slaves became part of the legal identity of the men who were in theory responsible for their maintenance and answered for their behavior. This is why eighteenth-century newspapers carried advertisements where a man publicly renounced his responsibility for his estranged wife’s debts and renounced debts for runaway slaves. But whereas married women might have recourse to certain rights and traditions, slave women had none whatsoever. They were owned, traded, and sometimes forced to have children, entirely dependent on the good or bad intentions of their owners.
Implementation of and conflict about these various legal, and perhaps extra-legal but customary, strictures produced a rich source of records for women’s history and for the history of women’s role in economic practice.
Legal papers, estate records, lawyers’ notes, and correspondence document the sometimes contested practices surrounding married women’s legal existence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century collections contain guardian accounts, trust accounts, and other documentation relating to trusts that benefit women, as well as information regarding the guardianship of minors.
Collections that contain records related to town poor relief in Massachusetts and Vermont, spanning the eighteenth and half of the nineteenth century, and document the interrelations between the lives of ill or impoverished women and the women and men of their communities.
Records documenting the personal existence of those who existed only as chattels under the law, in bills of sale, advertisements, and ownership records from the late eighteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth.
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