How “Downton Abbey” Got Me Thinking About Property Rights for Women

By: Beth Hicks, NWHM Volunteer

Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley) Photo Courtesy: jdeeringdavis

If you are like me, you are having a ball following Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey. What life must have been like, especially for the women! In fact, watching the series got me thinking more about the history of property rights for women – in England and in America.

In the show, Mary Crawley is a young English woman who finds herself in 1912 with no chance of inheriting the beautiful abbey that has been in her family for many generations. She is the eldest daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham, and as a woman, she can’t inherit property on her own, though her father has no sons.

She therefore has to make life decisions – namely, who to marry – based on the likelihood of inheriting the estate through a husband. Luckily, after some soul searching, she does fall in love with the heir presumptive – a 3rd cousin once removed – and her future, and that of Downton Abbey, seems secure (I won’t spoil the plot by going any further with the story!)

I’ve been thinking about how restrictive it must have been to necessarily base your life on a husband’s estate. Luckily, in America at the same time, women were starting to have property rights on a state-to-state basis. In many states a single American women could inherit and purchase property, but if she married, that property automatically came under her husband’s control. (Massachusetts seems to have been an exception: some early deeds provided that the property was to be held exclusively by the woman.) It wasn’t until 1904, though, that women in Massachusetts could inherit their husband’s property, rather than the children.

If you are interested in learning more, you might want to read a book entitled “Women and the Law of Property in Early America,” by Marylynn Salmon. In it she documents the legal rights of women prior to the Revolution and traces a gradual but steady extension of the ability of wives to own and control property during the decades following the Revolution. She shows the regional variations of the law that affected women’s autonomous control over property. (Western states, for example, were the earliest to pass married women’s property acts, as they were anxious to attract female settlers.)

In essence, the legal barriers to women acquiring their own separate legal status fell slowly at various times. By the 19th century, many states began enacting laws that allowed a married woman to own property in her own right and to write a will. Imagine how that changed women’s lives!! And in fact their entire life experience!

We are indeed lucky today, in this country, that women have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (that means property)! Let’s wish Mary Crawley the best and see how things unfold for her!

2 Responses to “How “Downton Abbey” Got Me Thinking About Property Rights for Women”

  1. Tisha says:

    Women’s property rights is a very interesting topic. Thanks for the book recommendation. I will check it out & add it to my growing women’s history library!

  2. NWHM says:

    Tisha,

    We are so glad you enjoyed one of our recent blog posts. Let us know how you liked the book!

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