History of the courts
Articles on Wisconsin legal history
"Will her thoughts be wrapped up in happiness?"
Wisconsin women's struggle for property rights
Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612
When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, women were idealized but also condescended to. They were praised as nurturers of the family and preservers of the noble side of human nature, yet for those very reasons they were regarded as unfit to compete with men in the world of commerce and politics. Because of these views, Wisconsin women had to struggle long and hard to gain economic rights close to those which men enjoyed.
In 1848, the law of most states gave husbands absolute control over their wives' property. The law viewed women as mere appendages of their husbands. Wisconsin was a little ahead of its time, but not much. In 1850 the Legislature passed a law giving married women control over their own property. However, it did so not to protect women, but rather to protect their husbands by insuring that a husband's creditors could not take the wife's property to pay his debts.
Opponents of the law fretted that the law would destroy the family. One opponent asked: If a wife is allowed to control her property, "will her welfare, and feelings and thoughts, and interests be all wrapped up in her husband's happiness, as they now are?" Supporters defended the law in equally conservative terms:
Sir, I hope that every member upon this floor will reflect for one moment upon the character and true worth of that class of poor, helpless females that will be benefitted by the law. Who believes that the law will make a fiend of a worthy wife? No one believes it; it is all humbug. For true merit the female sex stand much higher than the male. They know but little of the low, truckling and vacillating demagogism that pervades the male portion of creation, and in that particular their ignorance is a jewel.
After the property rights law went into effect in 1850, the courts interpreted it very narrowly and women had to fight hard to preserve their gains. Women could not make wills disposing of their property until 1859, and they did not gain full control over their own wages until 1872.
As late as 1892, the Wisconsin Supreme Court continued to send a message that it would fight to preserve the traditional view of women as fragile creatures who needed economic protection, not economic rights. It decided that any woman who invested her property in a family business with her husband surrendered all control over her investment to the husband. The court believed that destroying the husband's authority would destroy the family.
In 1890, the court also approved the double standard of sexual conduct for women and men when it held a husband could sue a wife's paramour for interfering with the marriage but the wife could not sue the husband's lover. Justice Silas Pinney explained:
With the husband the case is different. He is exposed to the temptations of the world, which easily withdraw him from her society, or cause him to desert or abandon her. The wife had reason to expect all these things when she entered the marriage relation. For these reasons, actions by the wife for the loss of his society would be numberless.
The Legislature, taking a more advanced view, soon passed a law overturning this decision. But it would be another 30 years until Wisconsin women obtained laws truly giving them the same legal rights as men.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.