Sunday, November 16, 2014

researching women

and a tiny example of how life changes for women

With my work in progress, that will be set in 1900, I was particularly interested in women's rights since they were constantly changing.  These rights aren't just about what someone can do legally but an attitude that impacts character and expectations even more than fashion.

As an example, in 1769, the Colonies had adopted the English system of property ownership for women. Married men owned the property and even any income the wife might have earned. By 1900, all the states had passed legislation, like New York's 1848 'Married Women Property Act.' Married women could then keep their own wages and own and control (that latter is significant) property in their own name. 

It took until 1835 for married women to first be granted that right to own but not manage in some states. An example would be two laws passed in 1840. Texas passed a law enabling married women to own and control property; while Maine passed a law enabling married women to own property but not control it. 

Oregon was moving right along with it, in their typical rather bigoted way (blacks could not own property there until 1912). In 1857, married women could own property but not control it. The 1852 Homestead Act enabled married couples to each file on land... but it appears the wife could not control her section. It was 1880 before Oregon created a law where married women were entitled to earn their own wages and control them. Can't let the little woman have too much power, now can we!

Now if a woman was single, it goes way back to where she could own property, earn money, enter into contracts. This all lasted until she married, which most women did.  


It is not hard to see why some women of wealth might not want to marry. After marriage, they might maintain some power over what they brought into the marriage, the dower; but the husband basically ran their estates. 

Women had been fighting for the right to vote since the mid-1800s. Some states granted them that but only for their own elections, not to vote for President.  Wyoming was particularly notable for this as saying they would not come into the Union if their women could not vote. They were the first state, 1869, where women were granted the right to vote.

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony put to the test whether the 14th Amendment, which granted all the right to vote, meant women. It did not. She was arrested. 

In Minor v. Happersett, a Missouri law that limited the right to vote to men, the Supreme Court said while women are persons under the 14th Amendment, they were a special category of 'non-voting' citizens. States could grant or deny them the right to vote. Remember even if a state did, that did not mean for the United States President!

Every single, female character in my historicals did not have the right to vote. Sometimes I brought it up as an issue that the women resented it and expressed the unfairness; but none of my characters were Suffragettes, the women who marched and demonstrated to get the vote and other rights for women.

All of this is a clear example of the hard fight women had to find anything approaching equal rights with men. It is not an attack on men because there were men who fought for this right for women. Without that, we'd still not be voting as the courts were not on the side of women without the men changing the laws.

Where it comes to writing an historical novel, human rights become of great interest to a writer. In basing my next story in 1900, when a lot of things were changing, including a woman's right to a university education and many professions previously closed to them, it was especially important to do the research. 

A lot of what I learned makes me rethink a small section of what I wrote in an earlier epilogue of one of my historicals. I had not thought of a woman marrying and automatically her property becoming her husband's. Not a bad deal if the guy is honorable. A disaster if he was not! And since women didn't have the right to vote until much later, they weren't in a position to change it-- although some gave up freedom and suffered much to make it change.

Where it comes to history, so much of what we believe often comes not from historic fact but from movies or reading fiction. It pays to research and think about the details of daily life-- in this case where it came to government and its role in the lives of its citizens.

I spent a fair amount of time trying to decide if my epilogue, in the 1899 Arizona Dawn, was accurate. In the process, I read this article, Anna's Story, but am still unsure exactly how marriage impacted ownership, if not control of property. A quote from the article is worth paraphrasing: The judge said the presumption that a woman who has owned and managed property should, as soon as she married, lose the mentality needed to manage it, is nuts (Okay I added the last word.). It was however the very reason women had not been earlier given the vote. They were not trusted to be intelligent enough nor willing to do the research to vote wisely. Exactly how that meant all men were is debatable for anyone looking at this logically.




4 comments:

Tabor said...

You do such excellent research! I am liking the newer covers toward the lower part of your romance lists!!

Rain Trueax said...

Thanks for the thought, Tabor. I have thought of changing more of the covers because they aren't selling that well anyway and I might as well have the cover I prefer. Of course, I like both types of covers. Just different. :)

Celia said...

Lots of food for thought. When I first married here in Washington, I could not get a credit card easily in my own name, and husbands could sell off any and all of the communal goods without a bye your leave. And, I didn't even know that, not that it was problematic.

Rain Trueax said...

I think it is important though, Celia, what you said. Rights impact how we think about ourselves. I remember those years also. And I live in a state that still has equitable distribution of assets in a divorce, which means a judge can arbitrarily give a woman far less than half of the assets acquired during their marriage. Community property laws are more apt to be fair to women.

It's not really a battle that is yet won in terms of women being treated the same as men under the law. The very fact is there has still been a conflict over guaranteeing equal pay for equal work. It's better by far and looking around the world, in many countries it's disastrous for how women are treated and can even be murdered by a husband.