Property Rights of Women

A Short History

Ernestine Rose photograph
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Property rights include the legal rights to acquire, own, sell and transfer property, collect and keep rents, keep one's wages, make contracts and bring lawsuits.

In history, a woman's property has often, but not always, been under the control of her father or, if she was married, her husband.

Women's Property Rights in the United States

In colonial times, law generally followed that of the mother country, England (or in some parts of what later became the United States, France or Spain). In the early years of the United States, following British law, women's property was under control of their husbands, with states gradually giving women limited property rights. By 1900 every state had given married women substantial control over their property.

See also: dower, coverture, dowry, curtesy

Some changes in laws affecting American women's property rights:

New York, 1771: Act to Confirm Certain Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded: required a married man to have his wife's signature on any deed to her property before he sold or transferred it, and required that a judge meet privately with the wife to confirm her approval.

Maryland, 1774: required a private interview between a judge and a married woman to confirm her approval of any trade or sale by her husband of her property. (1782: Flannagan's Lessee v. Young used this change to invalidate a property transfer)

Massachusetts, 1787: a law was passed which allowed married women in limited circumstances to act as femme sole traders.

Connecticut, 1809: law passed permitting married women to execute wills

Various courts in colonial and early America: enforced provisions of prenuptial and marriage agreements placing her "separate estate" in a trust managed by a man other than her husband.

Mississippi, 1839: law passed giving a woman very limited property rights, largely in connection with slaves.

New York, 1848: Married Women's Property Act, a more extensive expansion of property rights of married women, used as a model for many other states 1848-1895.

New York, 1860: Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife: expanded married women's property rights.