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Women's Rights

Domestic Relations In The Nineteenth Century

The legal inequality that Lucy Stone and other women's rights leaders argued against was evident in the relationship of HUSBAND AND WIFE. Under English COMMON LAW, which was adopted by the states after independence, the identity of the wife was merged into that of the husband; he was a legal person but she was not. Upon marriage, he received all her PERSONAL PROPERTY, and managed all property owned by her. In return, the husband was obliged to sup port his wife and children. A married woman, therefore, could not sign a contract without the signature of her husband.

In a society that had no government WELFARE system, a wife's property could be squandered by a profligate or drunken husband, leaving her without financial means if the husband died or abandoned her. By the 1850s, women's rights supporters convinced many state legislatures to pass Married Women's Separate Property Acts. These acts gave women the legal right to retain ownership and control of property they brought to the marriage.

Women also secured the right to have custody of their children after a DIVORCE. Traditionally, fathers retained custody of their children. This tradition weakened in the nineteenth century, as judges fashioned two doctrines governing CHILD CUSTODY. The "best-interest-of-the-child" doc trine balanced the new right of the mother to have custody of the child against the assessment of the needs of the child. The "tender years" doc trine arose after the Civil War, giving mothers a presumptive right to their young children.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Alyce Faye Wattleton to Zoning - Further ReadingsWomen's Rights - Nineteenth Century Women's Rights Movement, The Campaign To Defeat The Era, Domestic Relations In The Nineteenth Century