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The Legal Status of Women in the Colonial America

Women in the colonial America had limited legal rights compared to their male counterparts. The women had no legal right to vote, represent themselves in any legal matters, or hold a position in the public offices. They had very few opportunities outside their homes. Women were expected to respect their husbands and do as they were instructed. The men in their lives had the obligation of protecting them against any form of harm. However, the legal rights if women depended on their race, social standing, and the region they stayed.

Property ownership

Coverture was the law that was used in explaining why the husband had the right to own what the wife owns and dispose it without her consent. He was the head of the family and did as he pleased (Vickers, 194).

 The laws applied the theory of inferiority to ownership of property. Men had more legal right to own property than women. Unmarried women had the right to own property, live where they pleased own property where they pleased, enter into contracts, participate in real estate business and accrue property. A man owned his wife and children. If the woman remained to be single or is a widow then she had the right to sue, could be sued, participate in execution of real estates, and write wills to whomever they pleased. The law of jointure protected the property that women owned before getting married. Widows gained the legal rights to manage the family properties on behalf of her husband. However, this changed when the woman got married. Married women had to give up their rights to property they owned before getting married to their husbands. After marriage, a woman was considered as the property of the man she married. She had to surrender her name together with her belongings to her husband. The husband gained the legal right to control her property immediately after marriage. This was modified after some time. Married women were allowed to own property under their names only when their husband agreed to it. They could sue and act as lawyers with the permission of their husbands, (Salmon, 197).

The African American women in South America had fewer rights when compared to the white Americans. They were not allowed to own property because their place was in the farm and to perform household chores for their masters.


Divorcing was a rare occurrence in the colonial America. Women were rarely granted a divorce. In the few isolated cases, where a woman was allowed to divorce her husband, she was the one held responsible for the broken marriage. The husband had total access to the possessions of his wife, and he had control over the children. The husband had the right to decide on what to do with the children. Some could even decide to take the children into a poorhouse, and the wife had no legal right to challenge his decision. ‘Rule of the thumb’ was authorized. Violence was allowed as long as the man did not use anything larger than his thumb to beat his wife. However, the situation improved in 1839 when the equity law was passed and were liberated from the tradition use of laws. Equal rights were used to make legal decisions. Women could sue their husbands under this new law (Ely, & Finkelman, & Kermit, 567).

African American women had no legal right over the custody of their children or the right to apply for a divorce. The husband could, however, file for a divorce if the wife was found committing adultery. The law stated that the white women and the African American women should have the same, equal rights, but it was difficult to enforce it as the racial prejudice made it very difficult.

Working rights

Women did not have any right to work and earn wages. In the few cases where they were allowed to work, their fathers, if they were still single, or their husbands controlled the wages they got. Those who were lucky enough to be employed worked in very poor conditions with low wages. The employment opportunities that the women got were mostly in the farms, small trades, and employment by their neighbors’ to keep records for their husbands (Mays, 137).

Many African women were taken to the United States as servants. They had to work for many years without any payment in order to be freed. The slaves were separated from their families, which was against their will, brought in to the United States, and forced to work under unbearable conditions. They worked for long hours in crowded places with poor ventilations. Women were not allowed to lift weight that exceeded seven kilograms barring them from getting employment in many employment opportunities.


Women and their daughters were not given any inheritance by their husbands or fathers. The traditional laws favored the eldest son as the one to inherit everything owned by the father. The daughters had no legal claim to the family property. Everything was passed on from the father to the eldest son (Nybakken, & Hawes, 67).

Voting Right

Women did not have any right to vote or hold any public office. The husband’s vote was considered the families vote. Even when the wife had a different opinion on the vote to be taken, she had no power to amend the situation, as the husband was the only one allowed to vote. The only time that a married woman was allowed to vote was when the husband was not feeling well or was not in the precise condition of mind to be able to vote. The reason for denying married women the right to vote was that it would mean that the husband cast two votes. This is because after getting married the husband and wives were viewed as one and the decisions of the husband were assumed those of the wife (Speth, & Hirsch, 8).

However, this was not very true, as the unmarried women were forbidden to take part in an election. This indicates that the lawmakers did not want women to participate in electing their representatives. This means that the men did not want to share the power they had with the women and the only manner to attain this was through denying them their voting rights.


A man had the obligation to maintain his wife according to his social status. The wife had the right to go to court and sue her husband if he neglected her. During the time when the case was still in court, she could go to any stores and take anything she wanted and the husband was forced, by law, to pay for them. This was an advantage to the women who had brought in some properties into the marriage. They were assured that they would be well taken care of by their husbands. The problem with this law was that it did not protect the wife against losing her property in case the husband decided to gamble with her property (Socolow, 9).


This was a law that gave the married woman the right to one- third of the husband’s real property after his death. If the couple had children then the wife got half of what the husband owned. This did not mean that the wife could have the real property owned by the husband. Instead, it only provided her with what her husband used to give her before his death, (Lombard & Middleton 224).

For a long time, people have assumed that the women in the colonial America had no legal rights. However, this was not the case. They had legal rights although they were very limited. They were under the control of their husbands.

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