Something Old…A Brief Look at the Evolution of Women’s Property Rights

In the early nineteenth century, a single woman enjoyed the same rights as a man to enter contracts and manage property and to sue and be sued. However, when a woman married, those rights merged with the husband’s rights under the doctrine of coverture. Legally speaking, the man and woman became one—and he was the one who had all power over property and contractual rights in the marriage.
Until the mid to late nineteenth century, women of the marriage had absolutely no property rights. Women were considered the property or “chattel” of their husbands. Moreover, under the “doctrine of chastisement,” the law permitted a husband, as “master of the household,” to command his wife’s obedience and subject her to corporal punishment if she defied his authority. Since a wife was considered property, a husband could treat his own possession generally as he wished. If another man raped another man wife, it would be considered a property crime against another man.
In the second half the second of the nineteenth century, after decades of protest by temperance and women’s right advocates, coupled with shifting attitudes regarding corporal punishment, the doctrines of coverture and chastisement were formally repudiated and state lawmakers passed the Married Women’s Property Acts. This granted married women the same the same contract and property rights as unmarried women.

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