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Past & Present: Women's Legal Rights Within Marriage

On May 10, 1840, Elizabeth Cady married abolitionist Henry Stanton. For the presiding pastor, the unconventional wedding day, a Friday, was not the most shocking part of their wedding ceremony. Rejecting Protestant tradition, Elizabeth Cady omitted the vow binding her “to obey” her husband. While she was not the first bride to make this omission, Stanton’s choice reflected a deeper understanding of the inequity women faced within their marriages and her desire to increase women’s legal rights within the institution.

English common law categorized married women as femme covert, covered or protected by their husbands from most legal prosecution and political responsibility, rendering her civilly dead. As codified statutes replaced common law in the United States, husbands retained almost full control over their wives. In 1840, married women still did not control their own bodies, including lacking the right to refuse their husband’s sexual advances; have custodial rights over their children; retain ownership of their wages; or have the right to own property in their own name, with the singular exception of Mississippi women who had obtained property rights in 1839.

When Stanton refused to declare obedience to her husband, she had no legal standing to do so, but her symbolic act declared to herself and to her husband that they were entering into an equal partnership. For the rest of her life, Stanton fought to make this symbolic gesture a legal right for herself and for all women.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.