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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Multiple Orders in Multiple Venues: The Reform of Married Women's Property Rights, 1839-1920

  • Author(s): Chatfield, Sara Nell
  • Advisor(s): Schickler, Eric
  • et al.

Beginning in 1839 and continuing through the early twentieth century, the American states passed increasingly liberal laws expanding married women's property rights. These Married Women's Property Laws extended to married women a range of new economic rights, including rights to own property, take out mortgages, sign and enforce contracts, and appear in court under their own name. In almost every state, these significant legal changes took place before women had the right to vote, and they were largely driven by male constitutional convention delegates, legislators, and judges. These male actors, working in a range of political venues, pushed for reforms for reasons rooted in the political orders of liberalism and gender hierarchy. This episode of rights expansion helps us understand both the possible pathways for rights reform when the group in question does not have the vote, and the ways in which an indirect reform process can lead to incomplete liberalization of rights. I analyze the passage of MWPAs from a variety of perspectives, incorporating analyses of political change in multiple venues (state legislatures, state courts, and state constitutional conventions), four case studies from different regions, and quantitative analyses using data on all 48 states. I then examine the longer-term impact of these laws in a discussion of protective labor legislation during the Progressive Era.

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