Married Women's Property Acts Law & Legal Definition


Married women's property acts were statutes enacted to remove a married woman's disabilities. The purpose of these Acts was to place married women on an equal footing with their husbands with respect to contracts, earnings, the ownership of property and the right to sue or be sued. For example, these acts abolished the spousal-unity doctrine which is a common law doctrine which held that the husband had all rights to the possession, management, control, and alienation of property and the wife had no interests in property.

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, the property rights of American married women followed the dictates of common law, under which everything a woman owned became her husband's property upon her marriage. However, between 1839 and 1895, this tradition was gradually reversed by a series of Married Women's Property Acts, passed in varying forms by every state. The first U.S. Married Women's Property Act was passed in Mississippi in 1839. This law guaranteed married women the right to receive income from their property and protected them from being seized for their husbands' debts, but the law left husbands in sole charge of buying, selling, or managing the property. By the mid-1870s, almost all the states in the North had passed Married Women's Property Acts, and by the end of the century, the southern states had as well. Although the scope of these laws varied widely from state to state, taken together it represents a historic improvement in the status of American married women.