A woman's gender and marital status were the primary determinants of her legal standing in Indiana and much of America from 1800 to 1850. By custom and law she did not enjoy all of the rights of citizenship. In the legal realm women were decidedly dependent, subservient, and unequal. National and state constitutions included little mention of women. Even though Hoosier women were enumerated in the census which paved the way for statehood and had to share the burden of taxation, they were not allowed to vote or hold office. Rights for which a revolution was fomented were denied women-- as they were to slaves, "lunatics," and "idiots."
Further exacerbating the situation, rights normally enjoyed by women were often withdrawn when she married. Indeed, a woman gave up so many civil and property rights upon crossing the threshold that she was said to be entering a state of "civil death." This unhappy circumstance arose partially because American (and Indiana) law was based upon English common law. Predicated on "precedent and fixed principles," common law had dictated a subordinate position for women. Married women generally were not allowed to make contracts, devise wills, take part in other legal transactions, or control any wages they might earn. One of the few legal advantages of marriage for a woman was that her husband was obligated to support her and be responsible for her debts. It is highly doubtful that these latter provisions outweighed the lack of other rights, particularly in the area women faced the most severe restriction, property rights.
These Things Not My Own
Indiana drew upon the common law tradition that "considered women almost as perpetual juveniles" in designing its statutes. Under them, a single woman had few special strictures placed upon her property rights. Her married sisters, however, found themselves subordinate to and bound by the decisions of their husbands. Under the common law doctrine of coverture, a woman's property usually went to...