When women were oppressed
Compared to 1875, when women were “oppressed,” are things that bad for US men now?
Woman and the law; a comparison of the rights of men and the rights of women before the law.
By Russell H. Conwell.
Conwell, Russell Herman, 1843-1925.
Boston: H. L. Shapard & co., 1875.
Publication Information: Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library 2005
Wives and Husbands
Women are found to be endowed with extraordinary powers they ought not to possess, or are subjects of inconsistent enactments which ought to be repealed. But out of this conglomerate pile of good and bad legislation, woman sums up a most decided advantage. It may be, however, no more than most men think she ought to have, but it is much more than she sometimes thinks she has.
Let me pause here, for a moment, to mention a few of the almost numberless rights which our law, as amended by the Statutes of many States, confers upon married women, and which places husbands very much at the mercy of wives, if they are punctilious and exacting.
Marriage is a contract into which no woman need be drawn against her will, or without a full knowledge of the bargain she is making. She gives up none of her rights in property which she holds, but may do with it as she pleases free from his control.
He may agree, before his marriage, to give her a fortune in consideration of the marriage, and he can pay that debt after marriage, although he contracts reckless liabilities in doing so. He may
deed property to his wife through a third person, and she may hold it against any of his subsequent creditors. She may be worth a million, and he have nothing but his labor; yet he must support her in good style, and supply the needs of the family from his wages, without assistance from her. If both together commit a trespass, or assault, or any like misdemeanor, he is punished and she excused. Worse than that is the law whereby the husband is punished for any wrongful act of the wife in his presence, although it might have been beyond his power to prevent it. If she strikes a man, the recipient of the blows has no right to strike back unless to save his life, and her husband must pay for the damage by fine or imprisonment.
Whatever wrongs he does at her command do not make her liable to punishment. She is not compelled to support him if he starve, although she may have a competency; neither is she under legal obligation, before or after her husband’s death, to supply the wants of her children.
He may be compelled to pay her debts, contracted before he ever knew her, out of his own
capital. She cannot be put in prison for an act less than a felony, unless he is put in confinement, too. She has all her own, all its accumulation, all her wages, and, at his death, one-third of his real estate; and, usually, one-half of his personal property. She may insure his life at his expense, and the payment will go to her, free of any liability on account of his debts; but not so with his policy on her life.
She may commit adultery and live with another man, but he is compelled by law to pay her “pin money.” She is not bound by law either to love, or to honor, or to obey him. She may abuse him all she pleases; but he must not strike her, or return the compliment with any show of force. If he ill-treat her, she can place him under bonds to use her kindly. He has no such remedy. She may be a vicious virago, and drive him from the house; yet he must leave her in possession, if she is strongest, and go to work to provide her a decent living. So long as she does not leave him, he must provide for her.
If he makes an agreement with her to give her a settlement in lieu of her dower, he must pay her, even though her paramour brings the action
to compel him. She may act as his agent in some matters against his will. She may run him in debt to a considerable amount, but she is not forced to pay any bills of his contracting. If he is mean, or vicious, or cruel, he must pay for her separate maintenance; while she may be as hateful as a witch, and rich withal, and yet be free of any claim from him for separate maintenance. He is liable for her slanderous talk, even though he tries, on the spot, to prevent her speaking. She can refuse to do any kind of labor. She can waste his goods, and even burn his house before his eyes, and he is powerless. She can do business on her separate account and devote her whole time to it, as much as he does to his occupation, and more; and taking all the profits, leave the home and the children to his sole care and expense. She is responsible for nothing, not even for herself; he is for everything, even for acts and mishaps beyond his control. He cannot sell his real estate without her signature, while in many of the States, she can buy and sell real property, wholly unrestricted by his wishes or his autograph.
If she desires to get a divorce, he must pay
her costs and other expenses in advance. She is not constrained to furnish him with any money to carry on a legal quarrel with her, no matter how wealthy she may be. After a divorce, he must support her still, if he was at fault. She pays not one penny to him if she was the offending party.
A step-father is bound to supply the necessities of his wife’s children if he take them to his home. A step-mother incurs no such liability. If husband and wife separate, she has the same right to the custody of the children that he has, notwithstanding he must pay all their bills. She may sell his property to pay her expenses, but he has no such privilege with her possessions.
If a man entice away a married woman, he is imprisoned. She is nearly as often the guilty one, but suffers no penalty. There are scores of reasons which excuse a woman for deserting her husband, but not one pretext or plea which will clear him from his marital duties. As guardian, executrix, or trustee, she has the same rights that he has, and less of the liabilities.
Let me add to this abbreviated rehearsal the words of one of the latest and best authorities on American Common Law.
* ” A woman, when she is married, has contracted with a man to furnish her for life – and the children who may be born of her, during their minority -with suitable and proper sustenance; while on the other hand, she is not under obligation to work or do anything.” “There is no obligation upon her; she has no burden of life to carry; her husband is bound to support her, and she has her whole separate income with which to blow up and keep up the alluring and bursting bubble of her follies.” This shows what woman may do lawfully, not what she does as a rule.
Thank God, the number is few of either men or women, who demand all their legal rights. There is too much love, kindness, generosity and forbearance in the world, to test the width of these legal loop-holes very often. Not one married woman in a thousand, and not one man in a hundred, ever care whether women have legal “rights” or not, save as a matter of curiosity; for true matrimony knows no law but kindness, no restraint but such as Christian love imposes. If this were not so, men would be fearfully op-
* Bishop’s Law of Married Women.
pressed under the present codes and rules of law. The men know, however, that they can trust their wives with all they ask for, and much more. Hence this strange indulgence by those who have held the reins of power.
But before leaving this part of my subject, I shall venture to give you one more quotation from legal authority, to show you, beyond a doubt, the accuracy of my statements on points of law.
“Of late, statutes have been enacted in the greater part of our States, giving, substantially, the privileges of a separate estate to all married women, where no ante-nuptial contract has been made, yet casting upon them no corresponding burden.
What they bring to the marriage remains theirs, in some of the States; what they earn becomes theirs; they can hoard all and its increase, and thus add wealth upon wealth, out of which nothing can be taken for the maintenance of themselves or their children; while their husbands, if the law is carried out, must, in most instances, be kept poor, and finally driven to cheating, in order to support the rich wife and her family.
If some of those symptoms of women’s “oppression” bother you more than a little, then you better read all of Woman and the Law.
As indicated in a few instances in his book, Russell H. Conwell firmly believed that the goodness of women and the love they had to offer to men would prevent all but fewer than one in a thousand women from such legal exploitations of men. Given the legal iniquities he described, American men in the 19th century had every reason to fear women and their legal powers to such an extent that any man who went even near a women, let alone marry her, should have had his head examined. Still, despite its discriminatory laws in favour of women and extremely oppressive of men, the USA thrived and prospered, and so did its families, at least until the 1960s, when radical feminism began its war against the family in earnest and ultimately achieved international power and control of civilization, primarily in all developed nations.
Russell H. Conwell summed up his concerns in that respect in the final paragraphs of his book.
….Ah, how little any one of us can do!
I cannot hope to eradicate all this evil, and certain I am that woman’s suffrage will not do it; although there are other means which might and should be applied. The ballot in woman’s hands might do something for the men, in equalizing the now unevenly balanced scale, and in putting order into caucuses and elections; but after a survey of the whole field, I see nothing in it of practical gain to woman. The sum of the whole matter is stated in the proposition that, as our laws now stand in those States which are not behind the age, woman has no reason to demand anything more of man, and man has no good
reason for withholding whatever additional boon or privilege she may desire.
Woman will continue to exercise less than her “rights,” and will be willing, as heretofore, to sacrifice herself for those male companions whom she loves; and man can afford to give her all she now has, and far more. Nature, and all our Christian cultivation teaches us to be generous; and a curse black as night, and as fatal as the Simoon [*], will rest on that era, when the men and the women demand and expect nothing more from each other than exact justice.
“ Heaven forming each on other to depend,
A master, or a servant, or a friend,
Bids each on other for assistance call,
Till one man’s weakness grows the strength of all.”
Alas, the love and sacrifices of women that Russell H. Conwell praised so much could not even then be taken for granted, or he would not have mentioned them. Furthermore, his prediction, that “a curse black as night, and as fatal as the Simoon [*], will rest on that era, when the men and the women demand and expect nothing more from each other than exact justice,” came to pass with ever-increasing vengeance.
One of the best explanations I ever saw for why that dire prediction came to pass is offered by Marc H. Rudov, in his article, Thou Shalt Not Disappoint Her, Aug. 3, 2008.
Marc Rudov provides example after example of atrocious instances that illustrate how all of the fears that Russell H. Conwell expressed are now the rule, that love is never mentioned in divorce proceedings, and that greed by women is now given the full reign and force that the law grants. He blames it all on PMS (the princess mentality syndrome) and on spineless men without balls who put women on pedestals.