Fascinating history of women’s property rights

I have been researching the 1850s for new stories. I wanted a character who was an unmarried woman, interested in the early women’s right movement, living in Boston and independently wealthy. In our current time period, such a character is very plausible and could gain wealth in different ways. She could inherit, of course, make a killing on the stock market, have a mercurial rise in business or be a best selling author. But what was plausible in the 1850s?

The 1850s swirled with many social reforms including the abolition of slavery and woman’s suffrage. A woman sympathetic to woman’s rights made sense. The First National Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850. This followed the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which resolved to address many woman’s rights issues, including the right to vote and equality before the law.

But could a woman be independently wealthy during this period? This led me to dig for data on property rights. Prior to the 1800s, the laws of most states held that when a woman married, any property she owned passed to her husband. He controlled it. Often, even if they divorced, the husband retained the property. Wills and trusts were also uncommon.

So could a woman who had never married inherit from her father and manage her own affairs? The good news for my character plans is states began to change laws before the 1850s. Mississippi granted married women the right to own property in 1839. However, she could not control it. Ironically, the Mississippi law rose from the case of a Chickasaw woman who prevented her former husband’s creditors from acquiring her slaves. In 1842, New Hampshire passed a law allowing wives to own and manage property during the illness of a husband. Maine passed a law that allowed a woman to have a trade license in 1844.

What about Massachusetts? The state passed laws in 1855 that allowed married women to own and sell real estate, to control their own earnings, to sue and to make wills. Hmm, I wanted to set my story before 1855. I concluded that my character was possible provided her father did a few things not commonly done. First, he needed to leave wealth through a trust. Second, he needed to name a male trustee to manage the estate for his daughter. The laws allowed a married woman who had a antenuptial trust to retain the right to property she brought into the marriage and pass the property through her own will. So I reasoned that my character’s father could set something similar in place for her and she never married.

One challenge of writing historical fiction is understanding the social and legal structure of society in the time period. I found my brief research into the history of women’s property rights fascinating. I hope you did too.


Chused, Richard H. “Married Women’s Property and Inheritance by Widows in Massachusetts: A Study of Wills Probated between 1800 and 1850.” 2 Berkeley Women’s L.J. 42 (1986): 42-88.

Mass Moments. “First National Woman’s Rights Convention Ends in Worcester.”

“The first convention ever called to discuss the civil and political rights of women, Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19, 20, 1848.” Woman’s Rights Convention (1848 : Seneca Falls, N.Y.) National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection (Library of Congress) Section VII, No. 1, No.16

Wikipedia. “Married Women’s Property Acts in the United States.” Last updated September 22, 2023

4 thoughts on “Fascinating history of women’s property rights

  1. Good job Dad with the History! 😀

    I did a 2 second search and found Clarina Nichols – moved from Vermont to KS in 1854. She was married (twice) but would maybe have some things you could use for inspiration for your character. The types of organizations and things a woman of the era might have said or done. Maybe there is more records for her. Again – 2 sec search.

    Hopefully you already know about her!

    1. Thanks, Rachel! I may use Nichols in my project. I found a single woman who came to KS territory in 1855 and taught school. She’s the inspiration for my main character. Based on time and setting, she could easily have met Nichols.

  2. Interesting research. Definitely information that be developed into an intriguing story.
    Hope to read more in the future.

    1. Thanks, Mary! It provides part of the background for a story I’m currently writing.

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