Saturday, April 7, 2012

LEGAL WORLD : Taking a Look Back


Women experience much more freedom now than they could over a century ago. We can vote. We can travel. We can receive an education. Most importantly, we are now seen as individuals and not as our husband’s property when we decide to marry.

Women were once subject to “coverture” laws. They did not have a legal standing apart from that of their husband’s. Usually seen as dependents and in need of protection, women were often treated as if they were children. They could not own property, they could not vote. They couldn’t even be legal guardians to their children once their husbands died! Some women were enslaved. Men had the power to trade them to other owners in return for property value, another slave woman, or just simply because they felt like it. If we, in the 21st century, sometimes are frustrated by the 
unequal pay that exists in the work industry, imagine how these women felt… useless, exploited, and second-best. Talk about “equal justice under [the] law.”

If women were abused, women stayed abused. Legally, they had no right to sue their husbands (for any reason) and they couldn’t testify against them. If the husband was from an elite background, no one would believe the wife’s accusations. Even if they did, nothing would be done. Women were without legal protection and without social protection. If they went against their husbands, society ostracized them. A wife was a direct reflection of her husband. So, if she defied him, society viewed him as a man unable to maintain his wife and keep order in his household. What the man said, the woman did. If the husband allowed his wife to work, she was forced by law to give her earnings to him. If he let her go to school, she could only be taught skills required for stereotypical occupations such as a secretary positions, teacher, or nurse.

Around the late 19th century, things began to change. In the U.S., states began passing Married Women’s Property Acts in an effort to limit the impact coverture laws had on women. For example, a privy examination began to take place in the courtrooms. A judge would speak with the woman in question without her husband and ask her if she was being forced to sell her property. It was a great starting point toward a more women-oriented legal system, but of course it had its flaws. If the woman said she was being forced, some judges would fine the husband, other judges would inform the husband what his wife said in closed quarters, and of course in the end the woman would be the one hurt. 

Husbands often times retaliated. They would divorce them, leaving them on the streets. Or worse…they would beat them.

Ironically, these coverture laws were established long ago in order to “protect” women; but its legal application told another story. It restricted the freedom of these women. In the U.S. today, coverture laws don’t exist anymore. Thank goodness! Women have a greater flexibility when it comes to marriage, work, and school. We don’t have to be scared of losing our identity once we marry. Hell, we can keep our maiden names if we want to and no one can tell us otherwise!

The Woman Behind the Legal World Section:
 Christina Ontiveros is an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. She is double majoring in Legal Studies and Anthropology, and is an excellent and dedicated student. She is passionate and loyal; we can all count ourselves lucky that one day she might just be our lawyer!    

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