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Vermont Women: Blackwell On Legal Inequality

03/20/12 7:55AM By Marilyn Blackwell
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(Host) All this week, VPR celebrates Women's History Month with Vermont Women In History, a series of essays on Vermont Women and the Law. It coincides with the the Vermont Commission on Women's publication of the 6th edition of "The Legal Rights of Women in Vermont," a handbook that explains laws governing issues like employment, domestic relations, property, housing, government benefits, health, violence, and immigration. Today many of these laws apply to women and men equally, but writer, historian and commentator Marilyn Blackwell says that wasn't always the case.

(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.

Clarina Howard Nichols of Brattleboro
Poverty was the problem that drove Clarina Howard Nichols of Brattleboro to advocate for married women's property rights. Her first husband had spent her inheritance, frustrated her attempts to make a living, and threatened to take away her children; she had no way to support them and no legal recourse until she separated from him. Partly as a result of her newspaper columns about what she called "the wrongs of womanhood," legislators passed a bill in 1847 that gave wives certain rights over their inherited property and allowed them to write wills. According to Nichols, this was the first inkling of women's legal existence in Vermont.

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.


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