Blanket statements about women's oppression

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On Monday's radio show (30 June) Thom cited from this book all the things a woman could not do between the founding & about 1919. It was quite a shocking list. Amongst the things mentioned were: a woman could not make a will or own property of any kind, including slaves or land. Women had to have male guardians, relatives or court appointed. I confess that I have not read the book, but intend to. However, I take exception with these these specific issues. Women's rights were far more complex and nuanced than these blanket statements lead one to believe. I'm a genealogist & often have dealt with legal documents involving women all the way from the 1500s in Britain, where women could be members & masters in crafts guilds (not an insignificant thing) to 1600s America to 1800s USA. The US has always had localized law.... state, county, municipal.... & women's rights varied with their locations.

For example, Mary Jennings of Spencer Co., KY made her will 5 April 1870: "Item 1st. I desire all my Just debts and funeral expenses paid. Item 2nd. I will and bequesth unto my three children Susan Jennings, Anne Jennings and Caleb Jennings all the remainder of My Estate real and personal to be possessed and enjoyed by them equally so long as they may live and to be the property of the Survivors and Survivor until the last one of the three children aforesaid Shall have departed this life - then I desire the land to be sold, and one half of the proceeds to go to the children of my daughter Sally Brisco and the other half to the children of my son George W. Jennings...." Note that she was dictating the disposition of land & goods, but not giving full ownership to the property, which would ultimately be sold for the benefit of her grandchildren. This was a fairly complex legal instrument.

Another example is the will of Mrs. Mary Hickman, widow of Arthur Hickman of Montgomery Co., MD. Mrs. Hickman made the will on 23 October 1783. She left the entire estate to her sons Samuel Doughlass & Levy Doughlass. Her estate included land, slaves, cash, & personal property. The will was proven in the October Court of 1785 & her son Samuel witnessed the inventory & appraisal the following year. She had no co-signer & there was no indication that anyone else had the right to supervise her decisions. To continue with this family.... on 21 October 1805... Susannah Douglass (formerly Mrs Susannah Swann) the widow & 2nd wife of Samuel Douglass, offered a young slave boy, Noble, as security in a business deal. She had inherited Noble from her husband. She signed the note herself & there was no mention of guardianship or any male oversight. Ultimately, some of Mrs. Susannah Douglass' slaves & livestock passed to her unmarried daughter, Cassandra Swann, so that she might benefit from their sale.

In another instance, in Dutchess Co, NY, guardianship was obtained for a widow, Mrs. Mary Wilde. However, that guardianship was granted only because Mrs. Wilde had been "bereft of her speech by palsy" & was unable to manage her own or her deceased husband's affairs. This was in 1850.

Blanket statements about women & about various ethnic groups in America's past perpetuate myth, simplistic ideology, & devisiveness. It was all far more complex than people today understand. Only when people dig into their own family histories, do they begin to understand how diverse, complicated, & nuanced US history on the individual scale really is.

Scholastica 8's picture
Scholastica 8
Jul. 1, 2014 11:24 am

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