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YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS | Is it true a married woman was not legally a person under U.S. law?

When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he was not kidding. He meant white male property owners. Period.
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Attorney David Betras

A funny thing happened on the Founding Fathers’ way to independence: They left more than half the population, namely women and Black Americans, standing on the side of the road. 

Lest we forget, when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he was not kidding. He meant white male property owners. Period.

Abigail Adams, who would become America’s second First Lady as the wife of President John Adams, was not amused. She implored her husband not to allow the Continental Congress to put unlimited power in the hands of men and warned that women would rebel against laws that denied them a voice or representation. 

Her husband, along with Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the other boys who drafted the Constitution turned a deaf ear to her entreaties. Under the laws of the new nation, women had no property rights, could not vote and were barred from making or entering into a contract. To add insult to injury, under a legal principle known as coverture, a married woman was not a person under the law.

The husband and wife were treated as a single entity, totally controlled by the man.

Like those who declared slavery a cancer on the body politic that had to be cut out, women chafed under the yoke of inequality that had been enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. 

But unlike the debate over abolition which eventually ignited the Civil War, the struggle for women’s rights garnered little attention during the first 60 years of the 19th century. In fact, the mere thought that ending slavery and extending equal protection under law to Blacks would inevitably lead to women’s suffrage was one of the most effective arguments used by those who opposed the passage of the 13th amendment. 

Ex-slaves voting would be bad, they said, but millions of women casting ballots would threaten the very existence of the republic.

The general disdain for women’s rights is confirmed by the language of both the 14th and 15th amendments. Section Two of the 14th guaranteed males the right to vote while the 15th declared that right could not be “…denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 

Neither amendment specifically mentioned women or females, an exclusion the Supreme Court used for decades to deny women equal justice under law.

Undeterred by Congress’ refusal to grant them equal rights and the numerous court decisions that effectively made them second-class citizens, the leaders of the women’s movement fought on. In 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association and began the first coordinated, nationwide campaign to win the right to vote. 

It took more than 50 years, but in 1920 their effort bore fruit when the 19th amendment which reads “… the right of citizens … to vote shall not be denied or abridged … on account of sex” was ratified.

But as was the case with civil rights, passage of the 19th was but the first, small step in the march to equality that continues to this day. 

Next week I’ll discuss a number of landmark cases involving women’s rights and lay out the arguments for and against the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. 

Until then, Happy Women’s History Month to all.

—  Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at Betras, Kopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you'd like answered here? Send it to news@mahoningmatters.com.