Library of Congress

Teachers

The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Lesson Plans > Women's Suffrage: Their Rights and Nothing Less

Back to Lesson Plans

Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912

[Detail] Youngest parader in New York City suffragist parade

Legal Status of Women (excerpt)

comp. by Jessie J. Cassidy

For Lesson Two

NOTE: This is an excerpt from The legal status of women, comp. by Jessie J. Cassidy (1897) found in Votes for Women, 1848-1921.

{Excerpt Begins}

{Page no. 12}

PROPERTY RIGHTS OF MARRIED WOMEN IN THE UNITED STATES.

Property Rights. -A realization of the abstract injustice of the laws governing the property of married women, as well as the moral awakening that accompanied the anti-slavery agitation, led to the first organized effort, in the history of the race, among women, to improve their legal status. This was part of the result of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Previously to this Judge Hertell, of New York, in 1836, made an effort in the state legislature to alter the law. It was twelve years afterward that the first changes were made in these laws in New York. But the agitation was begun in nearly every state. It was carried on mainly by women, but also by some men, who, as fathers, were dissatisfied to let the property designed for the daughter hazard the monopoly or dissipation of a son-in-law. The changes came gradually. Freedom from liability for her husband's debts, power to lease, mortgage and sell, to make contracts, to sue and be sued independently of her husband, and various other conditions were generally embodied in different acts, until now in nearly every state and territory a married woman has as independent control of her property as has her husband of his, except for his right of curtesy, which partially corresponds to the wife's right of dower. The right to make a will or personal property was often granted before any other property right; the right to control her own wages often last, and this has not been granted in every state yet. The changes thus secured in fifty years by organized effort, compare most advantageously with the gains secured by women during centuries of the slow growth. It is undeniable,however, that many men opposed vigorously all efforts to enlarge the property rights of married women. The official journals of legislative debates on these amendments are surprising reading to-day. Some women, also, indignantly protested against the proposed changes as indicating distrust of their husbands.

Support. -In the matter of the wife's right to support, some states have recently passed statutes making non-support a misdemeanor, and establishing means whereby if a man has property a portion can be secured for the support of his wife and children, or giving the court power to compel the husband to pay a reasonable amount regularly to his wife. In some states also, a wife, in case of non-support, can sue for alimony without divorce.

Top

Guardianship.-Equal guardianship with the father of the minor children is one of the rights of women that is not yet generally secured. Though the power vested in the father was not uniformly abused, many cases of cruelty to mothers as well as children have occurred, especially through forced apprenticeship and testamentary disposition.

Education.-Increased opportunities for educational has been a most important element in contributing to the position of social equality now being generally accorded women. This has been noticed by Mr. Bryce in his "American Commonwealth," vol. 2, p. 594, as more marked and general in the United States than even in England. In the United States, high schools were not open to girls until about the beginning of this century. In 1790 girls were permitted to go for two hours in the afternoons in summer, providing there was room by the absence of boys. The higher education for women began by the foundation of Oberlin College in 1833, which was opened for men and women, both white and colored. Mt. Holyoke Seminary was founded in 1837, and since then wider and wider opportunities for study and investigation have been steadily accorded to women. In Europe, the gymnasia, or high schools, of Germany are still closed to girls, excepting three recently opened for girls exclusively. Some universities in almost every country admit women, though they do not all yet grant women degrees. As in the case of the laws governing the property rights of married women, the gain has been most rapid since women themselves have claimed opportunities for education.

Age of Consent. -The laws referring to the age of protection for girls show marked progress in the last twelve years. The common law of England established that a girl of ten, or sometimes twelve, had sufficient maturity and experience to be able to fully protect herself, and this was originally the law of our states. In 1885 Mr. William T. Stead published an article in the Pall Mall Gasette, on the crimes committed against young girls in London. At that time Oregon was the only state where the age was over twelve. Gladstone and others in England secured the passage of a law raising the age there to sixteen. In this country the New York Committee for the Prevention of State Regulation of Vice, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the White Cross Society, different Suffrage Association, and many individual workers turned their attention to these laws, and by vigorous work secured amendments in many states, raising the age two or more years.

Political Equality. -The idea of the political equality of men and women was reached and expressed unequivocally many times before the Convention at Seneca Falls, in 1848. .... The year 1848 marks the beginning of this organized movement. How much has been secured through organization in the short period of fifty years is shown in the two tables of America and Foreign Suffrage, and contrasts pointedly with the unnumbered centuries of legal subjection, as a physical and intellectual inferior, submitted to by women. Virtual descendants of the women who fifty years ago protested against controlling their own property, though willing to exercise that right since it is secured to them, now protest against the extension of the suffrage to women.

{Text Omitted}

Top

(Characteristics of all states are listed, only Colorado's are given below)

INTESTATE ESTATES:
COLORADO.-Neither curtesy nor dower obtains. Subject to the payment of debts, the surviving husband or wife, if there are no children or descendants of children living, receives one-half of the entire estate, real and personal; if there is no child or descendants of any child living, the entire estate goes to the survivor. A homestead not exceeding two thousand dollars in value may be retained by the surviving husband or wife, or the minor children.

RIGHT TO SUPPORT:
COLORADO.-It shall be unlawful for any man residing in this state to wilfully neglect, fail or refuse to provide reasonable support and maintenance for his wife or minor children, and any person guilty of such neglect, failure or refusal, upon complaint of the wife, the Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners or the Agent of the Humane Society, and upon conviction thereof, shall be adjudged guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be committed to the County Jail for not more than a period of sixty days, unless it shall appear that, owing to physical incapacity or other good cause, he is unable to furnish such support. (Session laws of 1893, p. 126.)

DIVORCE LAW:
COLORADO.-Causes for divorce are adultery, bigamy, impotency, wilful desertion for one year without reasonable cause, wilful desertion and departure from the state without intention of returning, habitual drunkenness for one year, conviction of felony or other infamous crime, extreme cruelty, failure of husband for one year, being in good bodily health, to make a reasonable provision for the support of his family. The plaintiff must have resided one year in the state except when the grounds are adultery or extreme cruelty when committed within the estate, providing the suit shall be brought within the county in which such plaintiff or defendant resided or where such defendant last resided. The court may re-open the case in one year upon good reason shown by the defeated party. Neither can re-marry before the expiration of one year.

LAWS IN STATES WHERE PARENTS ARE EQUAL GUARDIANS:
COLORADO.-Parents are joint guardians with equal powers. (Law of 1895.)

PENALTIES FOR RAPE:
COLORADO.-"Confinement in the penitentiary not less than one year nor more than twenty years."

{Text Omitted}

Top

WOMAN SUFFRAGE.
The first organized demand by women for political recognition was made in the United States in 1848, at the memorable Seneca Falls Convention. That suffrage should be included had not beforehand entered the minds of those who issued the call for the convention, but it was suggested during the preparation of the Declaration of Independence and incorporated in the list of grievances submitted by the committee. It came like a bombshell upon the unprepared convention, and after long discussion was passed by only a bare majority. Lucretia Mott was one of those who at that time could not see her way to support it. The organization of different state suffrage associations followed, continuing the agitation. In 1869 Wyoming granted full political equality to women.

Different degrees of school suffrage are now granted in twenty-two states and territories, partial suffrage for public improvements in three, municipal suffrage in one, and in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho women vote for all officers, local, state and national, exactly as do men.

It was not still 1869 that public agitation for suffrage was begun in England. In that year John Stuart Mill presented the subject in Parliament. Considerable local franchise has been secured, and the cause of the admission of women to full parliamentary suffrage steadily gains. Just as our western states are less conservative than those in the east, so the English colonies have been more ready to recognize woman's demands that has Great Britain. Full suffrage is established in New Zealand and South Australia and in the Isle of Man.

The movement is also growing on the Continent. School and local suffrage has been granted in a number of countries and provinces. Quite generally a property qualification is required, but this is so in the case of men also. In a few cases women can vote only by proxy.

Though all asked for by women has not been secured to them either abroad or in this country, considering the strength and obstinacy of prejudices rooted in customs of unnumbered centuries, the concessions secured in a short fifty years are phenomenal. Wider general education and the practical experience of the successful operation of woman suffrage are destined eventually to consummate the political emancipation of women

{Excerpt Ends}

Top