Under the common law of England, an unmarried woman could own property, make a contract, or sue and be sued. But a married woman, defined as being one with her husband, gave up her name, and virtually all her property came under her husband’s control.
During the early history of the United States, a man virtually owned his wife and children as he did his material possessions. Some communities, however, modified the common law to allow women to act as lawyers in the courts, to sue for property, and to own property in their own names if their husbands agreed.
Equity law, which developed in England, emphasized the principle of equal rights rather than tradition. Equity law had a liberalizing effect upon the legal rights of women in the United States. For instance, a woman could sue her husband. Mississippi in 1839, followed by New York in 1848 and Massachusetts in 1854, passed laws allowing married women to own property separate from their husbands. In divorce law, however, generally the divorced husband kept legal control of both children and property.
During the 1960s several federal laws improving the economic status of women were passed. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 required equal wages for men and women doing equal work. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination against women by any company with 25 or more employees. A Presidential Executive Order in 1967 prohibited bias against women in hiring by federal government contractors.
Many retail stores would not issue independent credit cards to married women. Divorced or single women often found it difficult to obtain credit to purchase a house or a car.
Crime and punishment were unequal. A woman who shot and killed her husband would be accused of homicide, but the shooting of a wife by her husband could be termed a “passion shooting.”Only in 1968… did the Pennsylvania courts void a state law which required that any woman convicted of a felony be sentenced to the maximum punishment prescribed by law. Often women prostitutes were prosecuted although their male customers were allowed to go free.
Before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was leader of the Women’s Rights Project. She argued several important women’s rights issues in front of the Supreme Court. These included the landmark case Reed v. Reed (1971), which extended the protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to women for the first time.
And in the entertainment world…. click the picture to read about TV’s groundbreaking women.