Archive for the ‘Education & Resources News’ Category

Coverture — The Word You Probably Don’t Know But Should

July 14th, 2017

By:  Catherine Allgor, Ph.D.

My mother-in-law loves this story.  A few years ago, my husband, Andrew, and I went to apply for a mortgage.  As a candidate for a house mortgage–and this is the part my mother-in-law loves–I characterize myself as “greater” than my husband.  I am older, I have a longer work history, I am more senior in our common profession (we are both professors), I also make more money.  I’ve got a longer credit history than he and have owned more houses.  Finally (though this is a matter of dispute), I am even a teeny bit taller.

Abigail Adams

But the only qualification that mattered in this transaction was my status as “wife.”  When our broker filled out our application, she listed Andrew first, as the “borrower” and me second, as “co-borrower.” (Did I mention that my last name starts with “A” and his with “J”?).  When I pointed this out, our broker, a woman of a certain age with long experience in her profession, sympathized, but stated that if she had made me the primary borrower, the lawyers would “fuss” at her and just revert to the traditional categories.  “Honey,” she told me, a professor of women’s history, “it’s a man’s world.”

Point taken.  What I had just encountered was a vestige of the legal practice of coverture.  This is a term most Americans don’t know but it has been a goal of mine to ensure that all literate, well-educated Americans be as familiar with the idea of coverture as they are with other historical terms such as “liberty,” “democracy,” and “equal rights.”

Coverture is a long-standing legal practice that is part of our colonial heritage.  Though Spanish and French versions of coverture existed in the new world, United States coverture is based in English law.Coverture held that no female person had a legal identity. At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s.  The husband and wife became one–and that one was the husband.  As a symbol of this subsuming of identity, women took the last names of their husbands.  They were “feme coverts,” covered women.  Because they did not legally exist, married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses.  Married women owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs.  They had no rights to their children, so that if a wife divorced or left a husband, she would not see her children again.

Married women had no rights to their bodies.  That meant that not only would a husband have a claim to any wages generated by his wife’s labor or to the fruits of her body (her children), but he also had an absolute right to sexual access.  Within marriage, a wife’s consent was implied, so under the law, all sex-related activity, including rape, was legitimate.  His total mastery of this fellow human being stopped short, but just short, of death.  Of course, a man wasn’t allowed to beat his wife to death, but he could beat her.

Now, the law doesn’t always reflect real life, and in truth, practice ensured that coverture on the ground was not as restrictive as the black-letter law indicated.  Though a woman could own nothing, men who wanted to pass on their wealth through their daughters to grandchildren, devised ways to keep money and property out of the hands of sons-in-law.  The demands of commerce also played their own parts.  Though a woman could not make a contract, plenty of women did business and trade, either on their own, in a legal exception called “feme sole,” or for absent husbands.  Wives often ran businesses alongside their mates, with the local community acting as monitors and enforcers.  Finally, we must assume that though husbands had the right to marital relations at will, that there was a great deal of negotiation around sex.

Coverture was what Abigail Adams was talking about in her famous “Remember the Ladies” letter to John, written in the spring of 1776 as he and the Continental Congress were contemplating what an independent America would look like.  Contrary to popular assumptions, she was not asking John for the vote or for what we would understand to be

Dr. Catherine Allgor

“equal rights.”  Rather, when she advised:  “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could,” Abigail was talking about the absolute power husbands held in coverture.   Abigail even obliquely referred to the shame of physical abuse when she proposed: “Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity (?)”

John’s reply dismissed her plea as a joke–he called it “saucy”–but in later correspondence with other lawmakers, he worried about the issue.  If the American colonists

had a right to rebel against their “virtual representation” in Parliament, why should women be virtually represented by men?  But the issue was too thorny for the men of the time and so, even as they created a shiny new machine of government, with a Constitution and modern systems of law on both the federal and state levels, they allowed the creaky, premodern device of coverture to remain on the books.

So what happened to coverture? The short answer is that it has been eroded bit by bit.  But it has never been fully abolished.  The ghost of coverture has always haunted women’s lives and continues to do so.  Coverture is why women weren’t regularly allowed on juries until the 1960s, and marital rape wasn’t a crime until the 1980s.  Today’s women encounter coverture during real estate transactions, as I did, in tax matters, and in a myriad of other situations around employment and housing.  Encounters with coverture can be serious, but often they are just puzzling annoyances, one more hoop to jump.  Still, the remnants of coverture are holding us back in unsuspected ways.

Only a few historians and attorneys have understood the impact. What to do? Well, it took a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery and may well take such to free women from this vestige of the past.  Educating the public about the meaning and impact of coverture will be a foundational role for the National Women’s History Museum.  And that’s just for starters.

For more information, a great book that gives the history of coverture and American women’s citizenship is: Linda K. Kerber, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1999).

Dr. Allgor is a Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside and has the distinction of serving as UC Presidential Chair–2009-12

Historical Women Who Rocked: Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

December 4th, 2013

Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York. She completed her undergraduate education at Cornell University in 1927 and was an original staff member of Fortune and Life magazines. She became the first western photographer allowed to photograph inside the Soviet Union and covered the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German Army as well as the Italian Liberation. In 1945, she accompanied United States troops as they liberated Buchenwald Concentration Camp. She covered Gandhi’s campaign of non-violence in India and apartheid in South Africa. Since her death in 1971, her photographic works have been used by the United States Postal Service as postage stamps and her life as been portrayed on television and on the movie screen.

Happy Thanksgiving from NWHM!

November 26th, 2013

We hope you’ll take a moment to watch this special video that explores the origin of  Thanksgiving and the work of Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” in establishing it!

Gobble, Gobble!

Historical Women Who Rocked: Ruby Bridges

November 19th, 2013

At just 6-years old young Ruby Bridges became the face of school integration.

Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954. She was born to Lucille and Abon Bridges, who had four other children, giving Ruby three brothers and one sister. At age two, Ruby and her family moved from Tylertown, Mississippi, where her family had been sharecroppers, to New Orleans, Louisiana, because her parents sought better work opportunities.

In New Orleans, Ruby went to a segregated kindergarten. However, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954, the year that Ruby was born, that all schools must desegregate.   The decision was made in the case of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, when the parents of another grade-school girl, Linda Brown, sued the school system of Topeka, Kansas, because Linda had to attend an all-black school outside of the neighborhood where she lived.

The law was put into place in Louisiana at the beginning of Ruby’s first grade year. Ruby and five other African-American girls were given the opportunity to attend a school made up of only Caucasians, after they passed psychological and educational tests. Ruby’s parents were faced with a critical decision.

For this reason, Lucille wanted to send Ruby to the new school. Lucille wanted to give her daughter the opportunities she never had, but Abon, Ruby’s father, was not eager to send Ruby to the new school because he did not want to endanger his family. Over time, though, Lucille convinced Abon that sending Ruby to the new school would be the best thing to do. Read the rest of this entry »

#FoodieFriday: A 1950s Housewife’s Guide to Grocery Shopping

November 15th, 2013

This week’s #FoodieFriday takes us back to the 1950s and more specifically to an educational video that instructs women on how to shop for their families. This type of video would probably have been shown in a home economics class. Do you remember watching videos like these when you were growing up?

#ThrowbackThursday: Nellie Bly’s Investigative Journalism

November 14th, 2013

By: Emily McAfee, NWHM Intern

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, known as “Nellie Bly,” reached international celebrity status when she traveled around the world by ship, train and burro in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, ahead of the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s popular book “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Her journey began today in 1889.

Bly’s big break, though, came two years before her round-the-world trip, when she faked insanity to study an asylum from the perspective of a patient. After months of rejection from editors on the basis of her sex, Bly received the opportunity to investigate the insane asylum from the New York World. Jean Marie Lutes, a scholar of women journalists, argues that Bly’s success with this story was, in part, due to her “female-ness.” Lutes suggests that because Bly was a woman, and therefore already outside the traditional image of a “reporter” in 1887, she was able to go beyond the limits of traditional reporting for her story:

“Bly’s reportage exulted in the concrete specifics of one individual’s experience and scorned the relative abstraction of disinterested observation. By adopting the hysteric’s hyperfemale, hyperexpressive body, she created her own story and claimed the right to tell it in her own way. Moreover, impersonating insanity allowed her to flaunt the very characteristics that were being used to bar women from city newsrooms: her female-ness, her emotional expressiveness, her physical—even her explicitly sexual—vulnerability.” (1)

On the basis of her diversity—by virtue of being, as a woman, an outsider to the profession—Bly was able to generate huge success. Her success was not just a personal achievement. Bly changed the field of reporting entirely with her innovative investigative techniques, and paved the way for important works of investigative journalism in the early 20th Century: for example, Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). Nellie Bly’s career is a powerful example of how diversity in the workplace can strengthen a business (or, in this case, an entire profession) in unexpected ways.

Click here to read more about Nellie Bly.

(1) Lutes, Jean Marie. “Into the Madhouse with Nellie Bly: Girl Stunt Reporting in Late Nineteenth-Century America.” American Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2 (June 2002). Page 218. Emphasis added.

#Throwback Thursday: “Peace is a Woman’s Job” and Republican Motherhood

November 7th, 2013

By: Emily McAfee, NWHM Intern

On this day in 1916, Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming the first U.S. congresswoman. She represented Montana twice: from 1917-1919 and from 1941-1943. In Congress, Rankin was known for her pacifism. She was one of just 50 members of Congress to vote against entry into WWI in 1917, and the only Congressperson to oppose declaring war on Japan in 1941. This gave her the distinction of being the only person in Congress to vote against both world wars.

Rankin was a proponent of female participation in the government and the public sphere. This post will examine how Rankin advocated for this progressive cause by drawing on more conservative rhetoric: in particular, the argument of “Republican Motherhood.”

The phrase “Republican Motherhood” was developed in the late 20th century by historians to name a particular opinion about women’s roles that was influential from the colonial era through the early 20th century. It described the notion that motherhood was a civic duty, and that women’s primary responsibility was to impart ideals of republicanism onto the next generation. It imbued women’s work in the private sphere—childrearing, in particular—with meaning and significance to the nation, thereby rendering women’s political activism and work beyond the home superfluous. Read the rest of this entry »

A History of Halloween

October 31st, 2013

By: Katherine Dvorack, NWHM Volunteer

Long before it was the mass marketed, slightly kitschy but always fun holiday we know and love today, Halloween was an ancient Celtic festival to the dead known as Samhain. The most important holiday on the Celtic calendar, Samhain marked the day when the veil between the living and the dead was at its weakest and the souls of those who passed during the year would journey to the underworld. Celebrated with bonfires and crop sacrifices, the festival marked the end of summer and the beginning of a long winter.

As with many pagan holidays, in an effort to convert Celts to Christianity, Samhain was appropriated by the Catholic Church in the early first century A.C.E. and renamed All Saints Day. But despite the Church’s best efforts, many of Samhain’s traditions and rituals remain. While the Church transformed the Celts’ pagan deities into malevolent spirits, people still left offerings for the dead and dressed up to appease the spirits. It was this mixing of beliefs that lead All Saints Day to become All Hallows Eve before finally becoming Halloween. Read the rest of this entry »

#Throwback Thursday: The Lizzie Borden Trial of 1892

October 31st, 2013

By: Emily McAfee, NWHM Intern

Happy Halloween from NWHM!

Yearning for a spooky tale from the annals of American women’s history? Look no further than the gruesome (and yet-unsolved!) double homicide that took place at the Borden household in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. You may have heard of the case through a famous old nursery rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

The rhyme embellishes a bit, but you get the gist. On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden and his wife Abby were found dead in their home, both crushed by the blows of a hatchet, 11 and 19 times respectively.

Andrew Borden’s 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie, was present in the house at the time of the murders. She was arrested a week later. Although Lizzie was acquitted (in fact, Massachusetts eventually elected to not charge anyone with the murders), her name remains inextricably linked to the case, and she lived out the remainder of her life as a shunned member of the Fall River community. Read the rest of this entry »

#Throwback Thursday: Ma Rainey and the blues

October 24th, 2013

By: Emily McAfee, NWHM Intern

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, 1917

In the early 20th Century, the American working and middle classes began searching for modes of self-identification beyond their occupations, and a burgeoning mass entertainment industry set an example for how to fill this identity void. Performers—of different genders and various races—publicly enacted the identities they wanted, as opposed to the identities they had been given. This new entertainment culture was platform upon which all kinds of Americans reinvented the parameters of their self-expression and reclaimed (if only briefly) ownership of their public identities. A brilliant example of this phenomenon can be found in female blues singers. During its heyday in the 1920s, the blues were a forum in which black women could seize control of their public identity and redefine it on their own terms.

A powerful figure in this movement was Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, one of the earliest professional female blues singers—and one of the first to record. She was known for her deep, raspy voice, and the incredible impression she would make before she even began to sing. Blues women like Ma Rainey seized ownership over the freedom of the black female body: to travel, to be public, to love and lust. These themes—of freedom, mobility, and sexuality, are prominent in Ma Rainey’s blues.

Mobility
During the early 20th Century, the movement of African-Americans to urban spaces in the North was a massive demographic shift that redefined part of the African-American experience. This change was reflected in the blues genre, as women like Ma Rainey sang representations of black displacement and the liberating aspects of a newfound mobility. Female blues singers stressed the different experiences of black men and women, not only in migration, but also in domestic spaces, and in life more generally.
Notable songs: “Traveling Blues,” “Runaway Blues,” and “Lost Wandering Blues”