As the national debate over the extension of chattel slavery into the territories heated up in February and March of 1860, women’s rights advocates were storming the capitol in Albany demanding an end to what they felt was another form of slavery—wage slavery for married women.
Under the law in effect until March 20, 1860 in New York State, married women did not have legal control over any money they earned working for themselves or others. All of it belonged to their husbands! As Lucy Stone explained it to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1853, “unless by cunning she can keep her earnings away from him, he can and does take them to pay the drunkard’s bill, and to squander upon abandoned women.” According to women’s rights supporters, there were tens of thousands of these kinds of ne’er-do-well husbands, most of whom were cigar-smoking drunkards and/or womanizers, who paid their bills with money they took from their wives’ bank accounts without their permission.
On the law reform campaign trail, Lucy Stone often told the story of an “energetic woman” she knew who ran “a successful millinery establishment.” Her husband seduced their neighbor’s daughter. The girl’s father sued the husband for personal injury damages and won a substantial award. The husband “went to the bank and drew the money that she [his wife], by her long toil had earned, and paid it for his lust!”
The law governing the earnings of married women in New York State originated in English common law. According to the 1765 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, a treatise on the common law of England, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.” Women’s rights activists explained this legal state of affairs in simpler terms, “The husband and wife are one person in law and that person is the husband.”
The common law gave husbands the right to control their wives’ earnings and property and wives were prohibited from holding property in their own names, filing a law suit, making a contract or a will.
In response to demands by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine L. Rose and Paulina Wright Davis, the 1848 New York legislature modified common law by enacting legislation that enabled married women to receive and hold to their “sole and separate use” real and personal property. However, the legislature refused to grant women control over their earnings. As The New York Times said, wives had no protection from “worthless husbands.”
For the next twelve years, women lobbied the legislature to grant wives the right to their wages. During the summer and fall of 1859, they redoubled their efforts. They organized petition drives in every county. Leading women’s rights activists including Frances D. Gage, Hannah Tracy Cutler, J. Elizabeth Jones, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Lucy N. Colman and Susan B. Anthony, gave speeches throughout the state. Conventions were held in 40 of the state’s 60 counties and one or more lectures were delivered in 150 towns and villages.
All this hard work paid off during the 1860 session of the legislature. Andrew J. Colvin, a Democratic state senator representing Albany County, proposed a bill that enabled a married woman “to carry on any trade or business, and perform any labor or services on her sole and separate account” and declared that “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property, and may be used or invested by her in her own name.”
The bill proposed by Colvin was based on a similar measure that had been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature and had been given to Colvin by Susan B. Anthony. The state senate adopted it on February 28, 1860. Assemblyman Anson Bingham, a Republican and Colvin’s law partner in Albany, shepherded the bill through the assembly, which passed it on March 20, 1860. Governor Edwin D. Morgan promptly signed it into law.
Women’s rights supporters hailed the new law but the New York State Woman’s Rights Committee, which consisted of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, Martha C. Wright and Susan B. Anthony, was not satisfied. In November, 1860, they demanded additional changes to the law that would give women “the ballot, trial by jury of our peers, and an equal right to the joint earnings of the marriage copartnership.”
However, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 curtailed their efforts and brought the momentum of the woman’s rights movement to a screeching halt.