Vermont Women: Blackwell On Legal Inequality
03/20/12 7:55AM  Download MP3
(Blackwell) Back in the 1840s reformer Clarina Howard Nichols argued that married women were legally dead. She complained bitterly that she had no rights to her own clothing and chided Vermont lawmakers for having "legislated our skirts into their possession!"
Vermont's early laws were based on colonial beliefs about the different capacities and social roles of men and women. The marriage system followed the British common law doctrine of coverture, which obligated husbands to protect and support their families, and in turn they controlled personal and real property, household labor and wages, legal contracts, custody of children, and inheritance. Wives held no individual rights under the law until they became widows. Though single women could inherit and own property, they needed a male trustee to represent their legal interests.
By the early nineteenth century, it became obvious to lawmakers that this system had its drawbacks; it could leave a family in poverty and dependent upon the town if a man failed to provide, if he deserted his family, or if he died. One of the earliest acts providing wives with individual rights allowed prisoners' wives to make legal contracts so they could support themselves.
It took more than 40 years for married women to gain full access to their personal property, earnings, and custodial rights to their children, but long held beliefs about women's legal incapacities persisted into the 20th century. Women were not allowed to serve on juries, for example, until 1943. Legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, such as no-fault divorce, equitable division of marital property, and custody rules based upon the best interest of a minor child, further diminished gender-based inequities. Subtle forms of discrimination in employment, inequitable pay, and sexual harassment remain difficult to adjudicate, but Clarina Nichols would be pleased that women are no longer legally dead.