Women and Gender Seminar: Kathryn V. Burns-Howard, Northwestern University, and Kimberley Reilly, University of Baltimore

Friday, November 18, 2011

3:00 pm to 5:00 pm


Center for American History and Culture Programs
Women and Gender Seminar

Wives on Trial in the Late Nineteenth Century

“Who’s Afraid of the Feme Covert?: Gender, Civil Status & Lunacy Law in the 19th-Century U.S.
Kathryn V. Burns-Howard, Northwestern University
Despite the Common Law tradition of married women’s coverture, nineteenth-century lower court insanity cases reveal a surprisingly fragile power dynamic within American marriages. Wives were not merely the victims of husbandly authority and lax commitment laws; rather, a few women deployed the law of lunacy to their benefit—gaining power within their marriages, and regaining a direct relationship with the state. Husbands found legally incompetent became civilly dead, and in allowing wives to assume authority over family and estate, judges were privileging the stability of family as the basis of civil society over the protection of a declining patriarchal order.

“No Ordinary Servant:  Revisioning Wives’ Household Labor in Law and Culture, 1870-1920
Kimberley Reilly, University Of Baltimore
Turn-of-the-century courts considered a wife’s household work to be the property of her husband, despite the passage of legislation that supposedly entitled wives to their labor and earnings.  Despite these rulings, the nature of wives’ household labor remained the object of debate in this era.  At issue was wives’ subordinated status and economic dependency.  Some jurists and critics argued that wives without employment were parasites who provided their husbands with little return on their marriage vows.  Yet they also sought to distinguish wives from servants.  Ultimately, they reconceptualized the “work” of modern wifehood as the production of marital intimacy and companionship.

Commentator: Kimberly Neilsen, University Of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically.  For a copy of the paper, e-mail the Scholl Center at scholl@newberry.org.  Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.