Today, the idea that a wife cannot legally draft a will to give property to her children or her siblings is laughable, but that has not always been the case. Under the common law doctrine of coverture, a married woman in the early United States could not own property, enter into contracts, or keep a salary. She had virtually no legal existence apart from her husband. Married women owned nothing—not even the clothes on their backs.
Not everyone at the Founding accepted this patriarchal legal practice. Abigail Adams asked her husband John to “remember the ladies” in her famous letter written during the Continental Congress. She threatened that American women would “not hold [themselves] bound by any laws in which [they] have no voice or representation.” While this letter is most often read as a call for women’s suffrage, it has broader appeals to female equality. Mrs. Adams urged the future president to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.”
State lawmakers slowly began to listen. In 1839, Mississippi passed the first law granting married women the right to own—but not control—property in their own names. Maine and Maryland followed in 1840. By the end of the Civil War, twenty‐nine states had passed some version of a married women’s property act. Eventually, most also granted women control over the property they owned. These statutes were not passed without opposition. In one historian’s account, the Tennessee legislature stated that “married women lack independent souls” and therefore should not be allowed to own property.
While property rights in themselves are important indicators of equality, the right of women to own and control property empowers women in other ways. Being able to earn and keep a salary meant that a woman could become more independent—she could achieve financial security without having to marry a man. When statutes were enacted allowing the grant of patent rights to women, female inventors could then profit from their creations—a good incentive to keep innovating. The right to enter into contracts allowed women the freedom to become entrepreneurs, generating a more robust and competitive marketplace and benefitting consumers.
Women’s History Month celebrates women who championed the radical idea that both women and men are equal under the law. A libertarian issue through and through, feminism simply asks for the freedom to be respected as an equal individual in society, in markets, and by the government. In the words of Sarah Grimke, as made famous by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”