Introduced in the Mississippi Senate in 1839 by Sen. T. B. J. Hadley at the urging of his wife, Piety Smith Hadley, the Married Women’s Property Act was repeatedly voted down before finally passing on 15 February. Gov. Alexander G. McNutt signed it the following day, making it the first law of its kind enacted by any state in the United States. It granted married women the right to own property in their own names rather than requiring them to list all property in the names of their husbands.
While some historians credit the act’s passage to the Hadleys, others assert that the bill originated from the experience of Elizabeth Love, a Mississippi Chickasaw Indian. In the late 1780s Betsy Love was born into a slave-owning Chickasaw family in what was then Mississippi Territory, and in the late 1790s she married a white man, James Allen, in a Chickasaw ceremony. Allen subsequently defaulted on a debt and was sued, and the sheriff confiscated one of Love’s slaves along with other property to pay the debts. American law recognized coverture, which transferred all of a woman’s property to her husband when they married. Under Chickasaw law, however, the wife kept the property she owned before her marriage as separate from that of her husband. Therefore, the husband had no rightful claim to Love’s slave, and the sheriff had no right to confiscate the slave to cover the husband’s debts.
In Fisher v. Allen (1837) the Mississippi courts ruled in favor of Love and Allen, setting a precedent for the Mississippi’s Married Women’s Property Act of 1839. In the case of debt-threatened husbands such as Sen. Hadley, the law served a much more practical purpose: it provided a safeguard against property seizure. Men could place property such as slaves or private businesses such as Piety Hadley’s boardinghouse under their wives’ ownership and thereby prevent that property from being confiscated to settle debts.
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, The Book of Women’s Firsts (1992)
- Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (25th anniv. ed. 2007)