Read CHAPTER I of Legal Status Of Women In Iowa, free online book, by Jennie Lansley Wilson, on


Until a comparatively recent period the laws of England in force at the time of the independence of the American colonies, relating to married women, the mutual duties of husband and wife, their property rights and the care and custody of children, were everywhere in force in this country except in those states which were originally settled by other nations than the English.

The agitation of the last fifty years, caused by the demand for equality in educational opportunities and in professional, business and trade relations, as well as for the legal and political recognition of women, has brought about great changes in these laws, until they are in many instances almost entirely superseded by statutory enactments more in accordance with the spirit of justice and in greater harmony with the requirements of a higher form of civilization. In many states they have reached a condition in which the legal status of husband and wife is nearly, if not wholly, one of equality.

It must always be borne in mind, however, that the common law is the foundation upon which almost the entire structure of our American system of jurisprudence is based, although it is claimed that it has only been recognized by our courts so far as it has been “applicable to the habits and conditions of our society and in harmony with the genius, spirit and objects of our institutions.” As it became apparent from time to time that it was not thus applicable, or where it failed to meet the requirements of the changed conditions of society the strictness of its rules was relaxed by giving to them a broader construction, or, when this could not be done, they were modified or entirely changed by statute.

Marriage was regarded by the common law as a civil contract and might be entered into legally by a boy of fourteen or a girl of twelve years of age, provided they were under no legal disability to contract marriage. This was called the age of consent, or discretion, and a marriage contracted prior to this time was inchoate only, and might be repudiated by either party upon arriving at the legal age. If one of the parties was above and the other under the required age, the marriage might still be disaffirmed by either. If after reaching the age of consent the parties continued to live together as husband and wife, this would be regarded as an affirmance of the marriage.

The mutual consent of the parties themselves, followed by cohabitation, was sufficient to constitute a legal marriage, without the observance of any formalities. The formal ceremonies provided by statute for the celebration of marriages, and the penalties imposed upon clergymen and others who married those who had not complied with these formalities, were solely for the purpose of providing a convenient and certain proof of marriage, should it be afterwards necessary to establish that fact by evidence, rather than to invalidate marriages which would otherwise be legal.

Having established the marriage relation, it could only be dissolved by death or divorce granted by act of parliament, or, in this country after the declaration of independence, by act of legislature. No absolute divorce could be granted for any cause arising after the marriage, but a separation might be decreed in case of adultery by either party.

By the rules of the common law, the person and property of women were under the absolute control of their husbands. The maxim, Uxor non est juris, sed sub potestate viri, “a wife is not her own mistress, but is under the power of her husband,” is but an expression of the actual legal status of a woman from the instant she entered the matrimonial state, until released therefrom by death or divorce.

Marriage was the act by which she ceased to have a legal existence, by which, we are told, her very being became incorporated or consolidated into that of her husband. From the time her identity became thus merged, she was presumed by the law to be under the protection and influence of her husband, to be so absolutely and entirely one person with him, that she had henceforth no life in law apart from his.

The legal fiction of the unity of the persons of husband and wife dates back to feudal times, and may, perhaps, have been a necessity of the age and of the peculiar social and political systems of that period. Like many another law having its inception in a sincere desire to secure the greatest good to the greatest number, and apparently necessary for that purpose at the period of social development which gave it birth, it existed for centuries after it had ceased to result in any benefit or afford any protection, and after the reason for its being had passed away and been forgotten.

We are told that at marriage the husband “adopted his wife and her circumstances together.” He might exercise his power over her person by restraining her of her liberty in case of gross misbehavior, or by giving her moderate chastisement in the same degree that he might administer correction to his children. An early decision of one of our state courts interpreted this to mean that a man might whip his wife with a switch as large as his finger, but not larger than his thumb, without being guilty of an assault.

Husband and wife being one person could not contract nor enter into a business partnership with each other; neither could one convey property to the other without the intervention of a third party. The wife was incapable of receiving a legacy unless it was willed to another person as trustee, for her use and benefit, and if a legacy were paid directly to her, the husband could compel the executor to pay it again to him.

The wife had no power to contract a legal debt nor to bind herself by any kind of an agreement, neither could she make her husband liable for any debt or contract, except for necessaries. These, the husband was under obligation to provide, and in contracting for them, the law assumed that the wife was acting as his agent.

She might release her right of dower in lands of her husband, but only when examined separately she acknowledged that the conveyance or release was not secured by his influence or coercion.

Her earnings though acquired by her individual labor and in a business separate and apart from her husband belonged to him, and he could collect them by action. This was the law though husband and wife were living apart. They could be subjected to the payment of his debts, by his creditors, and if he died without a will they descended to his heirs as other personal property. They were not considered the property of the wife, even in equity, without a clear, express, irrevocable gift, or some distinct affirmative act of the husband, divesting himself of them and setting them apart for her separate use.

A wife had no power to convey her real property, nor could she devise her personal property by will, without the consent of her husband.

The husband had the legal right to establish his home or domicile in any part of the world where “his interests, his tastes, his convenience, or possibly, his caprice might suggest,” and it was the wife’s duty to follow him. If she refused to accompany him, no matter upon what ground she based her refusal, she was guilty of desertion. A promise by the husband before marriage as to the establishment of the place of residence of the family, created a moral obligation only and was a mere nullity in law. Whenever there was a difference of opinion between husband and wife in regard to the location of the common home, the will of the wife had to yield to that of the husband. This law of domicile was based upon the grounds of the “identity of the husband and wife, the subjection of the wife to the husband, and the duty of the wife to make her home with her husband.”

Neither husband nor wife was competent as a witness to testify either for or against the other in civil or criminal cases.

The husband was entitled to the society and services of his wife and he might bring an action for damages against anyone who harbored her, or persuaded or enticed her to leave him or live separate from him. If injuries were wrongfully inflicted upon her, two actions might be brought against the party responsible for the wrong, one by husband and wife for the personal injury to the wife, and one by the husband for loss of the wife’s services. In either case, the amount recovered belonged to the husband.

The wife could neither sue or be sued unless her husband was joined with her in the suit. A judgment recovered against her alone was void, because she was unknown to the law apart from her husband. One entered in her favor became the property of her husband.

The consent of the husband was necessary to enable a married woman to act as executor, administrator, guardian or trustee.

The husband became responsible for the maintenance of the wife according to her rank and station, and if he failed to make suitable provision for her, tradesmen might furnish her with necessaries at her request and could collect payment from the husband. He was liable for all of her debts contracted before marriage, and this was the case, though he may have received no property with her. He was responsible for certain wrongs committed by her after marriage, such as libel and slander, and judgment could be recovered against him. If a wrong were committed jointly by both, action might be brought against the husband alone. When a judgment was recovered upon contract, or because of the wrongful act of the wife, if the husband failed to pay it, he might be imprisoned.

After the death of the husband the law gave the widow a right to remain forty days in his house, during which time her dower might be assigned. This right was known as the “widow’s quarantine.”

The father was legally entitled to the custody of his children, the right of the mother was never recognized, it being expressly stated by Blackstone that “a mother, as such, is entitled to no power, but only to reverence and respect.” He might by will appoint a guardian for them after his death, though yet unborn, and might apprentice them or give them into the custody of others without the consent of the mother.

All personal property belonging to the wife vested absolutely in the husband at marriage. He could will it to whom he pleased or, if he died without a will, it descended to his heirs. Even her wearing apparel and ornaments known by the term “paraphernalia,” belonged to the husband. During his life he had the power to sell or give them away, but he could not devise them by will. If they remained in the possession of the wife while the husband lived, she was entitled to them over and above her dower, but even then creditors of the husband might claim them, if there chanced to be a deficiency of other assets with which to pay the debts of the estate.

The wife’s choses in action, or evidences of money or property due to her, such as notes, bonds, contracts or the like, belonged to the husband if he reduced them to possession during her life, and they could be taken for his debts. He might bequeath them by will, but if he died without a will they descended to his heirs. If he failed to reduce them to possession while the wife lived, after his death they would revert to her heirs. If she outlived her husband they belonged to her. After the husband’s death the wife took one-third of his personal estate if there were children, and one-half if there were no children.

The husband was entitled to the control, use and enjoyment, together with the rents and profits of his wife’s real estate during the marriage, and if a living child were born, he had, after the wife’s death, a life estate in such property and might retain possession of it while he lived. This was known as the husband’s title by curtsy. The wife took a dower, or life estate in one-third of the husband’s lands after his death, whether there were children or not. This estate of dower was forfeited should the husband be found guilty of treason, but his interest in her lands was not disturbed by the treason of the wife. His life interest in her real estate attached to trust estates, but she could claim no interest in trust estates of her husband. If the wife owned leases of land they could be sold or assigned by the husband during marriage. If he survived his wife they belonged to him, if she survived him, they belonged to her, provided he had not disposed of them while living.

Personal property descended to males and females in equal shares, but the oldest son was entitled to the whole of his father’s real property.

The unity of husband and wife was not so strongly affirmed by the common law when it dealt with their relation to criminal matters. When a wife committed an offense against the state she possessed a separate and distinct life and personalty, for the purposes of punishment. It is true that she was still inferior and this distinction was recognized and emphasized by the difference in the penalties imposed for the commission of the same crimes, these penalties being in inverse ratio to the importance of the criminal.

If a wife committed theft, burglary or other offenses in the company or presence of her husband, the law presumed that she acted under compulsion and held her not guilty, but this presumption did not extend to cases of murder or treason, and it might always be overcome by proof that she acted independently. The exception in cases of murder or treason, we are informed, was not alone because of the magnitude of the crimes, but rather on account of “the husband having broken through the most sacred tie of social community by rebellion against the state, had no right to that obedience from a wife which he himself, as a subject, had forgotten to pay.”

If a man murdered his wife it was as if he had murdered a stranger, and he might avail himself of the benefit of clergy, and secure immunity from punishment, provided he could read, but women were denied all benefit of clergy because of their sex, and because they “were not called upon to read.” If a wife killed her husband it was a much more serious offense, he being her lord, and she was guilty of treason and subject to the same punishment as if she had killed the king.

In cases of petit treason the penalty depended upon the sex of the criminal, men being sentenced to be drawn and hanged, while women were drawn and burnt alive.

In larceny, bigamy, manslaughter and other crimes, men might claim the benefit of clergy and by taking holy orders, escape all punishment, except branding in the hand and a few months imprisonment, while women might receive sentence of death and be executed for the first offense. Later the law was changed so that in cases of simple larceny under the value of ten shillings, they might be burned in the hand and whipped, stocked or imprisoned for any time not exceeding one year. The disability of sex and of ignorance were both finally removed and all men and women admitted to benefit of clergy.

By the common law, adultery and seduction were not classed with crimes, but were only civil injuries for which compensation might be recovered by husband, father or guardian, but the woman, who might be wronged, had no right of action for the injury to herself, and the State did not recognize any wrong to society by an injury to the person of one who was civilly dead. The crime of rape was punishable by death, and consent, though proved, was no defense, if the offense was committed upon a child under ten years of age.

Magna Charta, granted by King John, while redressing many hardships and grievances incident to feudal times, and confirming and securing to the people many rights and liberties, among which was the right of the wife to dower in her husband’s property, denied to women the right of appeal except in case of the death of their husbands. The right of appeal was the privilege of private prosecution for crime. (Analogus to our present method of commencing prosecutions by information.)

According to Blackstone, even the disabilities of the wife were for the most part intended for her protection and benefit, and he adds: “So great a favorite is the female sex of the laws of England!”

The discrimination made by the common law between men and women, was based alone upon the assumption that women were, and must be always dependent by reason of their sex. In the light of a broader humanity, the distinctions seem cruel and barbarous, but that they were the result of any spirit of injustice or intentional tyranny, or of any desire on the part of men to oppress women or impose upon them any hardship or burden because of their physical weakness, is not at all probable. They were merely the outgrowth of the conditions incident to ruder stages of social development, and were, perhaps, as favorable to women at that period, as the laws of our own times will be considered when judged in the light of the civilization of the future, after successive centuries of intellectual and moral growth have been added to the enlightenment of to-day.

Law of Iowa.