1860: Married Women As Wage Slaves

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cotton-mill-workers1As the national debate over the extension of chattel slavery into the territories heated up in February and March of 1860, women’s rights advocates were storming the capitol in Albany demanding an end to what they felt was another form of slavery—wage slavery for married women.

Under the law in effect until March 20, 1860 in New York State, married women did not have legal control over any money they earned working for themselves or others. All of it belonged to their husbands! As Lucy Stone explained it to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1853, “unless by cunning she can keep her earnings away from him, he can and does take them to pay the drunkard’s bill, and to squander upon abandoned women.”

According to women’s rights supporters, there were tens of thousands of these kinds of ne’er-do-well husbands, most of whom were cigar-smoking drunkards and/or womanizers, who paid their bills with money they took from their wives’ bank accounts without their permission.

On the law reform campaign trail, Lucy Stone often told the story of an “energetic woman” she knew who ran “a successful millinery establishment.” Her husband seduced their neighbor’s daughter. The girl’s father sued the husband for personal injury damages and won a substantial award. The husband “went to the bank and drew the money that she [his wife], by her long toil had earned, and paid it for his lust!”

typesettersThe law governing the earnings of married women in New York State originated in English common law. According to the 1765 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, a treatise on the common law of England, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.” Women’s rights activists explained this legal state of affairs in simpler terms, “The husband and wife are one person in law and that person is the husband.”

The common law gave husbands the right to control their wives’ earnings and property and wives were prohibited from holding property in their own names, filing a law suit, making a contract or a will.

In response to demands by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine L. Rose and Paulina Wright Davis, the 1848 New York legislature modified common law by enacting legislation that enabled married women to receive and hold to their “sole and separate use” real and personal property. However, the legislature refused to grant women control over their earnings. As The New York Times said, wives had no protection from “worthless husbands.”

For the next twelve years, women lobbied the legislature to grant wives the right to their wages. During the summer and fall of 1859, they redoubled their efforts. They organized petition drives in every county. Leading women’s rights activists including Frances D. Gage, Hannah Tracy Cutler, J. Elizabeth Jones, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Lucy N. Colman and Susan B. Anthony, gave speeches throughout the state. Conventions were held in 40 of the state’s 60 counties and one or more lectures were delivered in 150 towns and villages.

votes_for_womenAll this hard work paid off during the 1860 session of the legislature. Andrew J. Colvin, a Democratic state senator representing Albany County, proposed a bill that enabled a married woman “to carry on any trade or business, and perform any labor or services on her sole and separate account” and declared that “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property, and may be used or invested by her in her own name.”

The bill proposed by Colvin was based on a similar measure that had been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature and had been given to Colvin by Susan B. Anthony. The state senate adopted it on February 28, 1860. Assemblyman Anson Bingham, a Republican and Colvin’s law partner in Albany, shepherded the bill through the assembly, which passed it on March 20, 1860. Governor Edwin D. Morgan promptly signed it into law.

Women’s rights supporters hailed the new law but the New York State Woman’s Rights Committee, which consisted of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, Martha C. Wright and Susan B. Anthony, was not satisfied. In November, 1860, they demanded additional changes to the law that would give women “the ballot, trial by jury of our peers, and an equal right to the joint earnings of the marriage copartnership.”

However, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 curtailed their efforts and brought the momentum of the woman’s rights movement to a screeching halt.

This essay is part of The New York History Blog’s project to highlight the history of women in New York State for Women’s History Month. Have a story to contribute? Find out how.

2 thoughts on “1860: Married Women As Wage Slaves

  1. Glenn PearsallGlenn L. Pearsall

    Great article. For some additional perspective, it is my understanding that under Dutch law married woman inherited all of their husband’s property and on the wife’s death it went equally to their children. When the English took NY from the Dutch in the 1600s, English wills directed that all the property go to the eldest son under laws of progenitor. It was thought that this was necessary to protect a family’s wealth which would otherwise be diluted through multiple heirs. Unfortunately, it was the women that often came out the losers and impacted social discourse and gender relations for hundreds of years.
    Glenn L. Pearsall, author “When Men and Mountains Meet”

    1. Sandra WeberSandra Weber

      Glenn, I did not know that about the Dutch. It sure explains why Inez Milholland and Edna St. Vincent Millay married Eugen Boissevain, who came from a Dutch household with active suffragist sisters. Thank you for another example of how property rights and laws can be used to improve or to hinder woman’s standing in the home and in the public arena. And, as you say, the result of all of this has “impacted social discourse and gender relations for hundreds of years.” Thank you for sharing your amazing insight.


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