A Short History of Women's Property Rights in the United States

Ernestine Rose photograph
Fotosearch / Getty Images

Today, it's easy to take for granted that women can take out a line of credit, apply for a home loan, or enjoy property rights. However, for centuries in the United States and Europe, this was not the case. A woman's husband or another male relative controlled any property allotted to her.

The gender divide concerning property rights was so widespread that it inspired Jane Austen novels such as "Pride and Prejudice" and, more recently, period dramas such as "Downton Abbey." The plot lines of both works involve families made up solely of daughters. Because these young women can't inherit their father's property, their future depends on finding a mate.

Women's right to own property was a process that took place over time, starting in the 1700s. By the 20th century, women in the U.S. could be property owners, just as men were.

Women's Property Rights During Colonial Times

American colonies generally followed the same laws of their mother countries, usually England, France, or Spain. According to British law, husbands controlled women's property. Some colonies or states, however, gradually gave women limited property rights.

In 1771, New York passed the Act to Confirm Certain Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded, legislation gave a woman some say in what her husband did with their assets. This law required a married man to have his wife's signature on any deed to her property before he sold or transferred it. Moreover, it required that a judge meet privately with the wife to confirm her approval.

Three years later, Maryland passed a similar law. It 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. So, while a woman may not have technically been allowed to own property, she was allowed to prevent her husband from using hers in a way she found objectionable. This law was put to the test in the 1782 case Flannagan's Lessee v. Young. It was used to invalidate a property transfer because no one had verified if the woman involved actually wanted the deal to go through.

Massachusetts also took women into consideration regarding its property rights laws. In 1787, it passed a law allowing married women, in limited circumstances, to act as femme sole traders. This term refers to women who were allowed to conduct business on their own, especially when their husbands were out to sea or away from home for another reason. If such a man was a merchant, for example, his wife could make transactions during his absence to keep the coffers full.

Progress During the 19th Century

It's important to note that this review of women's property rights mostly means "white women." Slavery was still practiced in the U.S. at this time, and enslaved Africans certainly did not have property rights; they were deemed property themselves. The government also trampled on the property rights of the indigenous men and women in the U.S. with broken treaties, forced relocations, and colonization generally.

As the 1800s began, people of color did not have property rights in any meaningful sense of the word, though matters were improving for white women. In 1809, Connecticut passed a law permitting married women to execute wills, and various courts enforced provisions of prenuptial and marriage agreements. This allowed a man other than a woman's husband to manage the assets she brought to the marriage in a trust. Although such arrangements still deprived women of agency, they likely prevented a man from exercising total control of his wife's property.

In 1839, a Mississippi law passed giving white women very limited property rights, largely involving slavery. For the first time, they were allowed to own enslaved Africans, just as white men were.

New York gave women the most extensive property rights, passing the Married Women's Property Act in 1848 and the Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife in 1860. Both of these laws expanded the property rights of married women and became a model for other states throughout the century. Under this set of laws, women could conduct business on their own, have sole ownership of gifts they received, and file lawsuits. The Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife also acknowledged "mothers as joint guardians of their children" along with fathers. This allowed married women to finally have legal authority over their own sons and daughters.

By 1900, every state had given married women substantial control over their property. But women still faced gender bias when it came to financial matters. It would take until the 1970s before women were able to get credit cards. Before then, a woman still needed her husband's signature. The struggle for women to be financially independent of their husbands extended well into the 20th century.