Nineteenth-century marriage laws essentially stripped married women of their individual rights. This occasionally worked in the woman’s favor (a married woman could not be held legally responsible for a crime committed in her husband’s presence, for example, because the courts viewed the husband as the ultimately culpable party for a wife’s actions); but more often such laws made a married woman’s personal security and safety entirely dependent upon her husband’s good offices and goodwill. A woman married to a gambler, for example, would have had no legal recourse to prevent him from squandering any income she earned outside the home by her own labor: her property as well as her person were entirely subject to his control. Relatively few women were willing or able to extricate themselves from bad marriages: divorces were difficult to obtain and expensive, and if there were children, the default legal position was to grant custody to the father. Although remaining single carried with it a degree of social stigma, it also allowed a woman to retain control of her own destiny.
Social reformer Henry Blackwell (1825–1909) secured an introduction to Lucy Stone (1818–1893) after hearing her speak at an antislavery meeting. The two became friends, but Stone at first resisted Blackwell’s attempts to move their relationship toward romance, arguing that the existing laws and customs surrounding marriage would render her a virtual nonperson should she consent to his proposals. Not to be deterred, Blackwell instead preferred an extraordinary solution: he would publicly renounce the legal privileges of a husband. Stone took some persuading, but she eventually agreed to the marriage on terms of equality negotiated between the couple before their nuptials—including her symbolic retention of her maiden name. On the day of the ceremony, Blackwell read their joint “protest” out loud to the assembled witnesses; the presiding minister later sent it to the local paper, the Worcester Spy, and it was republished widely thereafter. Stone’s retention of her maiden name inspired a fad among reform-minded women, who were called “Lucy Stoners” in the press.
Source: Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, Marriage Protest, May 1, 1855; reprinted 1897, Blackwell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00).
While we acknowledge our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife, yet, in justice to ourselves and a great principle, we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to, such of the present laws of marriage as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal power which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess. We protest especially against the laws which give to the husband:
- The custody of the wife’s person.
- The exclusive control and guardianship of their children.
- The sole ownership of her personal and use of her real estate, unless previously settled upon her, or placed in the hands of trustees, as in the case of minors, lunatics, and idiots.
- The absolute right to the product of her industry.
- Also against laws which give to the widower so much larger and more permanent an interest in the property of his deceased wife than they give to the widow in that of the deceased husband.
- Finally, against the whole system by which “the legal existence of the wife is suspended during marriage,” so that, in most states, she neither has a legal part in the choice of her residence, nor can she make a will, nor sue or be sued in her own name, nor inherit property.
We believe that personal independence and equal human rights can never be forfeited, except for crime; that marriage should be an equal and permanent partnership, and so recognized by law; that until it is so recognized, married partners should provide against the radical injustice of present laws, by every means in their power.
We believe that, where domestic difficulties arise, no appeal should be made to legal tribunals under existing laws, but that all difficulties should be submitted to the equitable adjustment of arbitrators mutually chosen.
Thus, reverencing law, we enter our earnest protest against rules and customs which are unworthy of the name, since they violate justice, the essence of all law.
- 1. The quotation is from William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, a Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765–1769, vol. 1: Of the Rights of Persons (1765) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 430. This is a statement of the legal doctrine of coverture, meaning that a woman’s legal existence is subsumed under her husband’s. “Coverture” is from the French for “cover” or “covering.”
Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.
Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.