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


The rules of the common law have never prevailed in all their harshness in Iowa. At the time when the young state was born, public sentiment already demanded a code more just, and, as before noted, the first law for the protection or extension of the property rights of married women, was passed in 1846. Modifications and changes have followed each other through the entire history of our state legislation, until our present law approaches a condition so nearly one of equal and exact justice between the sexes, that it might serve as a model for other states less progressive than our own. Except in the way of political disabilities our law makes no discrimination against or in favor of women. They have all the rights and privileges enjoyed by men, and are subject to the same duties and responsibilities. Before the law they are equal, but, as a matter of fact, where the law does not interfere, how is it in regard to the property rights of the wife? The unmarried woman has control of her property, if she has any, to the same extent that an unmarried man has control of his. If she accumulates money or property by an expenditure of her time and labor, it belongs to her alone. She can keep it, give it away, will it, spend it, enjoy it, with the same unquestioned right and freedom enjoyed by her brother. But a married woman possesses no such independence, notwithstanding the laws in her favor. The circumstances of her life may be such, that the law will be powerless to protect her in the enjoyment of property which by right belongs to her. The relations and respective duties of husband and wife are such that the husband usually and necessarily controls the business and the family income. The amount of that income over and above the expenditures for family expenses, he invests as he chooses. If it is his will to invest it in real estate, the law says she may have a share of it after his death. If he deposits it in a bank or purchases stocks, bonds, mortgages, or other personal property, the law again says part of it shall be hers, if she survives him, and he has not disposed of it while living, as he has a legal right to do. In either case, she cannot control a single dollar during the life of her husband, if he chooses to deprive her of that privilege. The property accumulated during the marriage may be acquired by the wise judgment, strict economy and self-denial of the wife in connection with the time and labor of the husband. It may even be obtained wholly by her efforts, even though not arising from the profits of any “separate business” recognized by the law. Her contribution to the family income may, and generally does, come into the possession of the husband and he invests it in property to which he naturally and as a matter of course takes the title. During his life he controls it. After his death one-third will belong to the wife, if there are children. If there are no children one-half will go to his heirs no matter how distant the relationship may be.

In cases where the joint accumulations of husband and wife are only sufficient to support the wife in comfort after the death of her husband, the law of descent as it now stands, may result in positive hardship and suffering. No matter how small the amount of property belonging to a deceased husband may be, one-half of it will descend to his heirs, if he has no children, and the wife be left with no means of support. Of course the result would be the same in the case of the husband upon the death of the wife, if she held the title to all of the common property. That this law of descent has not operated to the disadvantage of the husband, but invariably to the disadvantage of the wife, is not due to any defect in either the letter or spirit of the existing law, but is the natural and inevitable result of the custom which gives the husband the title to and the control of the joint earnings of himself and wife.

It is difficult to suggest a remedy or to conceive of any law which would adjust and equalize the relations of husband and wife in the ownership and control of common property during the lifetime of both, but if some just and wise legislator can devise some change or modification of the present law, which will not interfere with the husband’s proper and necessary position as breadwinner and manager of the business of the family partnership, and which will give to the wife control of a portion of the family income while the husband lives, and when the total amount of property held by either, is only sufficient to afford a comfortable support to the other, will after the death of the owner of the property, secure it all to husband or wife, as the case may be, he will add to the laws of the state the one requisite necessary to secure to women equal property rights with men, and a more just distribution of intestate property.