Writing Women Back Into History #3

Writing Women Back into History --Special Program History Revisited - A Guide to Women's History DVD

March is National Women’s History Month. My posts this month support the 2010 theme of the National Women’s History Project. 



The founding fathers of the United States followed English common law, which dictated that property a woman brought to a marriage or gained during the marriage belonged to her husband. The average woman simply married and accepted that her husband controlled their mutual property. If he died, she was entitled to a widow’s dower of one-third of his property for her lifetime. However, during his lifetime, the husband could squander her property and leave her with nothing.                   
          A few women refused to accept such risk.  Sarah Terry Coleman was such a woman.
          Sarah’s first husband died, leaving her with two children and custody of a small Kentucky farm that would become her son’s property when he came of age. A few years later, Sarah was courted by a neighbor, Robert Cochran. After a decent courtship, he proposed marriage.  Sarah loved this man but he had a well-known history of bad debts. She risked losing Robert by laying a condition in the way of accepting his proposal. She said he must sign, and file with the county court, a document relinquishing all rights to her existing property and to her future inheritance from her father’s estate. Robert must have loved her, and understood his own weakness in financial management, because he signed this early day form of prenuptial agreement. They were married two days later on November 5, 1833.
          Over the twenty-three years of their marriage, Robert proved Sarah’s  wisdom. He managed to lose a considerable amount of property to debts he could not pay, including: 150 acres of land (with a house and barn on it), 40 hogs, 18 head of cattle, 12 sheep, 8 horses, and one wagon. 
           Sarah’s place in history has, to this point, remained a family matter. She and Robert were my great-great grandparents.conference logo
In 1848 New York State enacted the first Married Women’s Property Act, which became a model for similar laws in most other states. The Act gave a married woman the right to retain separate ownership of any real and personal property she owned at the time of marriage. This included rents and profits from her property. Her husband no longer had the right to dispose of her property or pledge it as security for debts without her consent. The law further allowed her to receive property from someone other than her husband and hold it for her sole and separate use. 


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