Women and Property Rights

My puzzlement about serial marriages of a woman ancestor who lived in Arkansas during the 1800s eventually led me to look into women and property rights. She married three times, her second marriage being to my direct ancestor. The second and third marriages immediately followed the deaths of her first, then second husband. Each marriage produced children. What puzzled me was why she seemed to jump into marriage right after the death of a husband, without time for grieving.
With some research, I discovered that my notions of marriage as being connected to love and/or desire led me to impose interpretations that probably were not accurate. When I looked into the legal status of a white woman in Arkansas, I got a more accurate perspective about women and property rights. Using the university library, I located an article by M. R. Dougan, published in 1987, entitled “The Arkansas Married Women’s Property Law” (in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly). There, I learned that, prior to 1839, how much legal claim a white widow had to the estate of her husband was murky. Some fell into desperate poverty when their husbands died, especially if they died owing money. At the same time, due to a shortage of single white women in Arkansas, widows usually received marriage proposals right away. In 1835 the state legislature passed a law specifying that women could keep property they had received before or during marriage, and in 1939, extended that law to protect her property from being used to pay debts of her husband. But to benefit from this law, women had to record property that was to be protected in the courthouse. So, my ancestor probably had no property on the death of her husbands, and to keep herself and the children clothed and fed, had to remarry quickly.
If you are trying to situate women ancestors within a context of legal property rights, where do you look? This gets to be a little complicated. For one thing, women’s rights have been defined at the state level much more than at the federal level, so you’ll need to look into laws governing the state where a given ancestor lived. For another, race trumped gender, meaning that the property (and other) rights of women of color were defined mainly by laws governing race. An additional general consideration is that women’s rights were very often tied to their marriage status, and the legal rights husbands had to a wife’s property.
So here are some useful places to start.
The Law Library of Congress includes a large collection on American women, including property law. It offers a helpful overview of women and property law in the U.S., married women’s property law, and property law related to slavery (where Black women generally occupied the legal status of property). There is also a link to state suffrage laws, which gives a helpful overview of how states differed from each other.
To find out about specific states, you need to search for that state, either using a general search engine like Google, or the academic library. Generally search terms like: women, property rights, history, and the name of the state will get you where you want to go.
A very interesting source about Black women is the blog radio interview, Property Rights and African Americans, in which Judy G. Russell discusses African Americans treated as property, then Freedmen having their property stolen through the courts.
A discussion of Mexican American women’s property rights and status is provided by the Texas State Historical Association. This helpful overview might offer leads to follow up on.
Finally, the National Women’s History Museum provides a timeline of the struggle for women’s suffrage between 1840 and 1920, including some milestones related to women’s property rights. This website is a very helpful resource for teachers, by the way.

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