Friday, March 3, 2017

Progress and Evolution: Celebrating Women’s History Month

by Heather Kushnerick, Special Collections Librarian & College Archivist

“…to grant women “equal rights” would work only gross injustice and lead to possible marital disaster.”
- Edmund E. Shepherd, The Legal Rights of Women, 18 Law. & Banker & S. Bench & B. Rev. 175, 180 (1925).

The fight for women’s rights seems like it’s been going on forever; when really it’s only been going on for the last century and a half. Which, granted, seems like a long time. A look at history, however, brings the realization that what women have been fighting for, and have attained, is only a  little better than what we were entitled to a thousand years ago. That’s right – women in England in the 10th century had more legal rights than women in the 19th century. The rights of women started to decline following the Norman Conquest in 1066. But it wasn’t until the rise of Feudalism that the rights of women, particularly married women, completely deteriorated under the Common Law. The women’s rights movement as we know it today is fighting against 500 years of ingrained legal and social customs that put an entire gender on the same level as children and the insane.
In Anglo-Saxon England, women could and did hold and dispose of land, regardless of marital status. The names of many women are in the Domesday Book as tenants-in-chief. Divorce was available to both men and women, and a woman who divorced her husband retained half the marriage gifts and, usually, her children. Women did not have rights equal to men, but their legal personhood was intact[i].
The feudal system however, excluded women from holding land in their own right, and this became uniform under the Common Law in the middle of the 16th century. By 1540, husbands were entitled to lease and retain the profits of any land held by their wife. Married women also lost the right to enter into contracts, including wills. By the end of the 16th century, a woman was a dependent to be transferred from her father to her husband. After marriage, women had no rights to their children, could not make wills, and had no legal rights within their marriage.  Legally, a married woman did not exist separate from her husband.
This continued for centuries, leading the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson to remark in the 19th century that a wife, in relation to her husband, stood “better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.”[ii] It wasn’t until the abolitionist movement which was, incidentally, a female dominated movement, that women once again found their voice.
On display now in the library lobby is A Story of Progress and Evolution: the Legal Rights of Women. The title is taken from one of the items on display, Harry Hibschman’s Law Every Woman Should Know, published in 1929. This book contains sixteen short chapters discussing everything from a woman’s rights to her children, her liability for her husband’s debts, and property rights. Also on display is a facsimile of the Will of Aethelgifu, a complex document showing how this Anglo Saxon woman’s real property and possessions were to be distributed upon her death. This exhibit will be on display until June 2, 2017.

[i] Sandra S. Berns, Women in English Legal History, 12 U. Tas. L. Rev. 26, 29 (1993).
[ii] Sandra Day O’Connor, The History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 49 Vand. L. Rev. 657, 658 (1996)