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May 8, 2023

Women & the Law in Revolutionary America

Despite a plea from Abigail Adams to her husband to “Remember the Ladies,” women, especially married women, didn’t have many legal rights in the Early Republic. Even so, women used existing legal structures to advocate for themselves and their children, leaning on their dependent status and the obligations of their husbands and the state to provide for them. 

I’m joined this week by Dr. ​​Jacqueline Beatty, Assistant Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania, and author of In Dependence: Women and the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary America.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode music is “Chester,” composed by William Billings in 1778, performed by the United States Marine Corps Band in 2014; the recording is in the public domain and is available via Wikimedia Commons. The episode image is: ”A New England kitchen. A hundred years ago,” by H. W. Peirce, ca. 1876, via the Library of Congress.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.

Today, we're discussing legal rights of women, and how women exercised those rights in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston during the Revolutionary era, the mid 18th century to the early 19th century. Before the revolution, the colonies followed English common law, which restricted the rights of women, especially married women. Single and widowed women could own property and sign contracts, but in the legal concept of coverture, literally, "a woman covered," a married woman had no independent legal status. She was solely a dependent of her husband, and the husband, who was head of the household, maintained all of the rights to own property, sign contracts, and of course, vote. On October 30, 1756, a widow named Lydia Chapin Taft cast a vote in a town meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts as a proxy for her minor son, 164 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. This vote is remarkable precisely because she is the only recorded woman to vote in the entire colonial era. There were some women who'd hoped that the creation of a new country would allow for the expansion of rights for women. Abigail Adams famously wrote on March 31, 1776, to her husband John, "I long to hear that you have declared an independancy. And by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants, if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation." Sadly, John was less enlightened than one might hope. "As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. Depend on it. We know better than to repeal our masculine systems." The state of New Jersey briefly allowed what the founding fathers would not. The New Jersey Constitution, adopted on July 2, 1776, gave the vote to all adults who owned at least 50 pounds worth of property, and it used the gender neutral pronoun "they" instead of "he." A law enacted in New Jersey in 1797, explicitly referred to voters as he or she. Because of coverture laws, the property clause would have limited votes to single or widowed women. There is documentary evidence that women in New Jersey did indeed exercise that right. But in 1807, in response to claims of voter fraud, New Jersey amended the Constitution and defined voters as free, white, male, taxpaying citizens, ending their experiment in women's suffrage. One right women did have in the colonies, and then states was to submit petitions to authorities, a right they regularly exercised. Depending on the time and place, women addressed these petitions to state legislatures, to courts, and to local communities, and they made many requests. For instance, women petitioned for divorce when their husbands failed to fulfill their responsibilities in coverture, that is to provide for their dependents. They petitioned to be allowed to leave to rejoin their loyalist husbands who had fled the colonies. They petitioned for the right to the property their husbands had abandoned or for funds to support themselves and their children. Our focus today is on petitions and other records of women's interactions with the law in three cities, Boston, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Charleston, South Carolina, three of the largest cities of the era. Boston, incorporated in 1630, and an early center of New England politics and commerce, suffered during the American Revolution as blockades wrecked the economy. In 1780, Boston's population had dipped to only around 10,000, but it rebounded quickly. In 1790, it was the third largest town in the United States, with 18,320 residents, and by 1800, it was home to 24,937 people. Prior to the enactment of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, slavery was legal in Massachusetts. That 1780 constitution was drafted by John Adams and is still in effect, making it the world's oldest functioning written constitution. After 1780, in a series of court cases, now known as the Quock Walker Case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that slavery was incompatible with the state constitution. Philadelphia, founded in 1682, was home to both the First and Second Continental Congresses, and was the national capital from 1790 to 1800. With 28,522 residents in 1790, Philadelphia was second in population only to New York City. By 1800, 41,220 people lived in Philadelphia, with another 20,000 in nearby towns that would later become neighborhoods of the city. The first written protest against slavery in the American colonies originated in Pennsylvania, at a meeting of the Germantown Society of Friends. In March, 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Gradual Abolition Act, the first such legislative act in the United States, although as the name implies, it did not immediately free many slaves. By the early 19th century, most of the Black population of Philadelphia was free, and the city became a center of the abolitionist movement. Charleston was founded in 1670 as Charles Town in honor of King Charles II. It didn't incorporate as a city until 1783. By 1790, it was the country's fourth largest city with 16,359 residents. Charleston didn't grow as quickly as its northern counterparts, dropping to fifth place by 1800, with 18,824 residents. The majority of that population, 10,104 was Black, both enslaved and free. Charleston was the only major American city throughout the antebellum period with a majority slave population. Slavery remained legal in South Carolina until the end of the Civil War. Joining me now to help us learn more about women's expression of legal rights in revolutionary America is Dr. Jacqueline Beatty, Assistant Professor of History at the York College of Pennsylvania, and author of, "In Dependence: Women and the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary America."

Hi, Jackie, thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  11:03  
Thanks for having me, Kelly. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:04  
Yes. So I want to start by asking you why you decided to write this book. I think it comes out of your dissertation work. So how did you get interested in this topic?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  11:14  
Yeah, I actually, I think it was in graduate school, I was working on a research paper when I was in my doctoral program that looked at what are called elopement notices, which are basically advertisements in at that point, colonial newspapers where husbands and wives, although more were submitted by husbands, would basically say that their spouse had left them, deserted them. And in the case of husbands, that they wouldn't honor any credit that their wife had kind of jacked up at local stores on their account. And wives, when they submitted these notices, often would say, you know, "He left me for no good reason," or "He's saying these slanderous things about me in the press." So they were really interesting to me both because you get to kind of look at the dirty private lives of some of these colonial Americans and what's going on in their marriages, but also that we get a sense of the private lives of people who might not have left letters. So I was kind of approaching research from that angle, looking at these sources. And when I had my first research trip down to South Carolina, I came across these legislative petitions. And I think it was just fortuitous that South Carolina, was my first trip because the state archives there had a really well organized system, an online index, where I could really search and identify what I was looking for. And I just found these petitions similarly compelling, that you get a lot of details of what's going on in people's private lives, when often the people that are submitting these petitions may not be literate, and therefore may not be leaving records in the traditional sources that we usually see in history books.

Kelly Therese Pollock  13:01  
So then you decided to focus on Charleston, Philadelphia, and Boston. How did you decide that that was going to be your focus?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  13:09  
Yeah, I remember getting not terrible pushback, but a bit of pushback from my committee that, you know, cities were not really representative of the population as a whole. Most people, the vast majority of people lived in more rural, less densely populated areas. But I wanted to get a kind of more diverse base of subjects that I was looking at. So to include impoverished women, most of the almshouses and work houses were located in urban areas. And I also was hoping, hoping to find more sources on free Black women in cities. So that ended up being an addition to the book that wasn't in the dissertation when I had more time to work on it. But it's also easier when you're on a short timeline to kind of focus on these cities, but they're also kind of centers of communication and trade. And what I found and what I kind of detail in one of the chapters is that when women were in close physical proximity to each other, especially in neighborhoods, if they were next door neighbors, they are really coming to each other's defense a lot in a way that if I was looking at more rural more spread out areas, I wouldn't have found evidence of the same.

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:22  
What were the kinds of similarities and differences you saw across these cities? And I'm assuming here and seems like it's borne out in your book that Philadelphia and Boston are more similar to each other than either is to Charleston.

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  14:35  
Yeah, I make the joke that, you know, you get kind of Boston on one side of one end of the spectrum, Charleston on the other and Philadelphia is kind of like the Goldilocks ideal in the middle where it's kind of similar to both in some ways. But yeah, I think the real differences are in the legal structures of each colony and later state, what what each law dictated in terms of property rights for women. or the right to divorce, for example. And I think, I don't know that I would necessarily say, I think Boston and Philadelphia are more similar, because they're not slave societies that in the way that Charleston or South Carolina would be. But they're all kind of distinct in the kind of legal systems where there's some overlap and and some distinctions as well. Yeah, I think, you know, Boston is the example where Massachusetts did allow for divorce for the entire window that I of chronology that I talked about. In Pennsylvania, that happens during the revolution, or in the immediate wake of it. And in Charleston, in the case of South Carolina, divorce wasn't legal until the Reconstruction period. So that's kind of where you can see that spectrum of difference. What was similar across all of these sources, regardless of what kind of source they were aware I was talking about, was the kind of language that women used, kind of parroting or repeating this language of feminine helplessness or weakness, or this kind of performative femininity that they would have been very familiar with, in the kind of vernacular of the time.

Kelly Therese Pollock  16:13  
So let's dig into that a little bit, because you're talking in this book about how they're really sort of leaning into their dependence, the fact that they do occupy this position in society, or are expected to occupy this position in society, and using that to their benefit, as they're arguing for certain things, the right to divorce, certain money, go meet their husbands, wherever they are in a place that is, you know, not America anymore. So how are they doing that? What what sorts of things are you seeing in these petitions?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  16:48  
Yeah, I mean, it's, it's interesting. I think the first time I read them, as I was reading and kind of seeing the same rote, repetitive language, and I often get this pushback well, like, "Isn't that just formulaic? Don't they have to be saying these things, right?" Like, "Oh, my husband had to leave. He was expelled from the colony because he was deemed to be a loyalist. But you know, we can't go on without him. So can he please come back?" Right. So these kinds of, you know, woe is me stories that are meant to elicit sympathy from the legislators. Now, I often get the question, you know, do you have any evidence of women being like, "Haha, I really snowed those guys, right? I didn't actually mean it." Unfortunately, no, I don't. That would be really great if I did. But I think what is notable is that women, for the most part, use this strategy, but it's not everyone. Some women do use the opportunity to kind of push back against that and argue basically, that the male systems of power that they are trapped in is what's causing their hardship. Of course, for most women, those petitions are not successful, because they're not performing this kind of expectation of, of white femininity of what the state expects them to be. So it can get a little redundant reading some of these over and over. But it's, it's still a choice, which I think is important to point out, right. Whether they believe it or not, they do engage with it for very specific purposes. And there is there is evidence in the record to indicate that these are explicit choices that they're making when they use this language.

Kelly Therese Pollock  18:22  
And so of course, when they're making these choices, they're helping their individual case, but they are not helping writ large the the rights of women, as we would describe the rights of women. Can you talk a little bit about that interplay?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  18:34  
Yeah, I think I kind of muse about this in the book's conclusion, because as I'm kind of writing through the dissertation, and then editing through the book, it was difficult for me to kind of say that women's dependence was empowering, women's dependence on men, dependence on the state was somehow empowering. I think I had to unmoor myself from our 21st understandings of what women's empowerment was from the start. But yeah, I think, in thinking about women's history, particularly women's rights, as these women, you know, do start to use the language of rights to describe what they're doing during an after the revolution. I didn't want to say, you know, oh, this is obviously part of the women's rights movement, this kind of larger, hundreds, hundreds of years old movement, but it kind of was, I think. What was important, as you say is, is that women were doing this on an individual basis, right? They were doing so in order to improve their most immediate concerns and crises and to get themselves out of that. And they saw this rhetoric at the very least as a means to an end to do that. But it isn't really fair of us to expect them to come to some collective consciousness, "Oh, this means we have to, you know, smash the patriarchy," or whatever it is, right. But nevertheless, it's still an important step in this very long drawn out process of women's history that they really began to understand themselves as citizens who were endowed with rights and that they were able to claim those rights through this process. I don't know if listeners of your podcast will be familiar with some of the early women's suffrage movements in the antebellum period and after. But a lot of these women are engaging in petitioning efforts, but they are doing it collectively at that point, right. So kind of the the generation or two prior to them, they are doing this individually on this case by case basis, but later, they will use it as a form of collective action. And I think the women in the period that I study, you know, that's an important stepping stone to get to the next stage of the women's rights movement.

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:43  
So do you have a sense that, I realize this wouldn't be in the petitions themselves, but how these women knew to do this, knew about the petitioning process, knew the form that they were supposed to be fulfilling? What what does that actually look like?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  20:58  
Yeah, it's hard to tell from the sources themselves, but I mean, petitioning had been long a tradition in in English practice that then, of course, crossed the Atlantic with British colonizers, but you know, in some ways, women who were, you know, more connected to the traditional people in power, right, if they had, if they themselves were members of an elite family, if they knew lawyers or legislators, right, that was helpful that they understood the process and how that worked. But what I think is also interesting is that women kind of worked together on their individual petitions, if that makes sense. There was a different kind of collective action not in petitioning, but in their communities. So women were sharing information about how to make these petitions work for for each other. There's a couple really interesting examples. The one that always sticks out to me are these two women in Boston, who are suing for divorce. And this is terrible. I forget their names. I spent 10 years with them. But one woman submits her petition for divorce, kind of describes the situation, why she thinks she has, you know, merited this legal separation. But the Suffolk County Court denies her petition, denies her claim. This other woman who's a friend of the first woman also applies for divorce, and she is granted a divorce. In the next term of the court, you actually see the first woman coming back and saying, "Oh, hi, remember me? I already submitted my petition for divorce that you did not grant. But I know that my friend was able to get her divorce, and her situation isn't as bad as mine. So I think you should reconsider." And then she's successful, right. So they're also very much talking to each other and sharing strategies that worked. There are a number of women who are widows of veterans, both of the Seven Years War, but also of the American Revolution, who submit petitions for their husbands', their late husbands' pensions. And some of them, they're all kind of submitted individually. Some of them share the same exact language, some of them share the same exact kind of punctuation and capitalization. So you know, that they're sharing knowledge of what works and have kind of strength in numbers in that way as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  23:16  
So it's like an early social media. 

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  23:18  
Exactly, yes. Women's networks are really impressive considering the limitations of the 18th century.

Kelly Therese Pollock  23:24  
So you mentioned that part of the reason you wanted to look at cities was so you could get women who were impoverished as well. Can you talk about what what sorts of sources we have about those women, what you were able to learn about them and the the kind of political power that that they are trying to exercise?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  23:41  
Yeah, so in some regards, some of these women are petitioning the state governments in the same way. Sometimes this is for clemency for for crimes they may be accused of committing or found guilty of committing. But most of the sources that we have are from almshouse records, or workhouse records, these kind of big volumes that include the records of people who are coming to the almshouse for aid, or maybe working there or staying there. And depending on the place, they can be very revelatory, because the people in power will make pre judgments about the people that they're supposed to be assisting and helping out of poverty. That's really difficult because what poor women are dealing with are the kind of double burdens of their gender and their poverty, where, you know, white women of a certain class, particularly upper and elite women are, are this kind of dependent, class dependent subordinate to men, but also the expectation is that men will take care of them, right? Women in poverty can't expect that same level of protection or financial support from their husbands just as a practical measure. So they often are compelled to work so they are not kind of meeting those same expectations of femininity and by working, right, are thus kind of undermining that traditional aspect. So it feels like these poor women are literally fighting a double burden in that way. And they are obviously not as empowered as their upper or elite counterparts because of that. And you know, for these women, the almshouse was definitely a place of last resort. They didn't want to really go in the first place, and they certainly didn't want to stay. This was solely a matter of survival for themselves, and often their children as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  25:34  
Yeah. You also mentioned that you were able in the book to add a piece about Black women, free Black women, women who are trying to leave slavery. Could you talk some about that, and the interesting things you were able to find in legal records about those women and the rights that they were trying to have and to express?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  25:56  
Yeah, I mean, my my first stab at it was trying to see if there were, you know, many free women of color who were submitting petitions in the way that their white counterparts would have been. And this is a lot easier to do in Boston, where, you know, they have the most comprehensive petition records. There were two or three in my time period, and they're really compelling petitions. One is a divorce record as well. But you know, you can't write a whole chapter on two or three petition sources. So I had to be a little bit creative in my approach. And obviously, in South Carolina, a slave society, right, you're dealing with more enslaved people than free people of color. And I ended up I think, I forget whether this was an archivist or in a book, I read, thinking about looking at manumission records, these deeds that basically granted freedom to formerly enslaved people. And these are all legal documents that are written in the hand or in the voice of the enslaver, the person who has the legal authority to free the enslaved person, but I kind of read them with an eye towards trying to investigate the actions of the enslaved person that might merit such a manumission from the point of view of the enslaver. So in this way, I kind of argue that with the limited kind of sources in the traditional archives, where we can actually hear enslaved women's and free Black women's voices, this is the next best thing. And there's a way that we can kind of read these sources that are written by enslavers to show evidence of Black women's resistance, right, and their assertion to their right to freedom, and subsequently, the right to freedom of their children, because children would follow the status of their mother. And you know, if a woman is free, then her descendants would be free as well, and how that the stakes of that are just so much higher for Black women than they were for white women in that regard.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:56  
It was so interesting to see the cases where there would be an intermediate. So like a husband would essentially buy his wife, or his wife and children and then set them free. Can you talk a little bit about that? It feels like an icky dynamic today.

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  28:14  
Yeah, it is. It's really, I mean, moving. Sometimes reading these sources, I have to just kind of walk away and take a couple of minutes, take a beat, because they're, they're really difficult and depressing, frankly, right. But there are a number of sources in which men would work to earn money to free their wives and children, and then hopefully earn freedom themselves. But there were instances and I open up this chapter with an anecdote of a free Black man who essentially purchases his wife from this enslaver and then immediately frees her. Right, but what I argue is kind of the icky part that you refer to is that, you know, for you know, even if it was only a moment he owned her, right, and that both the free Black man and his enslaved wife had to buy into this patriarchal power structure in order to free him right to play the game, because that was the law. And that was the power structure, but ultimately, use it in such a way that they could work together to earn her freedom.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:22  
Yeah, yeah. The the idea too, that you that you mentioned earlier, but that you talked about in the book about women, Black women's freedom, having a role in their own descendants' freedom, that it travels through their line. That's so important, I think because we think so much of patriarchal lineage and you know, that that's how much so much of society follows at this time, and you know, the time before and really much of the time after, that that it flips it. What Why is it that that that was the case?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  29:57  
Oh, that I mean, it was very purposefully done so that enslavers could benefit from not just the physical labor, but the reproductive labor of enslaved women. There are lots of historians who have made this case, pretty much from when these slave codes were written in the 17th century that this was, as you say, a kind of deviation from patriarchal patrilineal norms in terms of children and what they would inherit. But it was it was done on purpose, right to exploit the kind of dual systems of labor, that Black women in this case were, how they were exploited. So what I think is interesting, and also maybe a little bit icky to argue is that right, these enslaved women then see that as an opportunity, right, and, obviously, I don't have have their voices, so I can't confirm this necessarily. But what they do when they fight for their freedom, and their their children's freedom is that they know at least legally on paper, that when they are free, any children they would bear would also be free. So they are in that way, kind of granting freedom to their descendants in a way that is far more meaningful than anything the American Revolution did.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:11  
You mentioned earlier that in Charleston, during this time period, when they could not divorce, but they do have ways of getting a certain amount of freedom. Could you talk about that?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  31:22  
Yeah, Charleston from the very early 18th century had this kind of legal status for women, known as feme sole trader status, right. And I don't know how much your listeners may know about coverture, this kind of legal status that women were, you know, the subservients of men in their marriage. Married women couldn't own property outright in their own name, conduct business, sign contracts, things like that. They kind of lost their independent legal identity in marriage. This feme sole trader status was that effectively, with the consent of their husbands through these petitions, women could be granted the legal right to conduct business in their own names and own property outright, while still remaining married, and in all other ways, feme covert. Both Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have this procedure as well, although that's kind of much later in the 18th century. And what other scholars have noted is that this was, in some ways meant to kind of protect patriarchal property through the family line when you know, women of wealthy families are marrying men of other wealthy families, right to keep to keep the property in the family. But the sources I found are a lot of middling and lower class Charlestonians, where, you know, the husband will submit one of these petitions and basically say, like, "I'm not doing a good enough job taking care of my family. My wife is way better at it than I am. So you should grant her the status, because, you know, she's a much better business person," you know, things along those lines, or, you know, "I have XYZ issues, you know, she deserves to be able to kind of conduct business in her own right, and help support the family." And that's always part of the language as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:08  
And then none of them took the the next leap, but like maybe women should be able to run businesses in general.

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  33:14  
Yeah, it's still the 18th century. So yeah, we shouldn't expect too much. Like I said, the bar is low. But yeah.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:21  
So in the cities, where divorce is possible, in Philadelphia and Boston, of course, it's nowhere near as common as it is now. What were the circumstances under which people were able to successfully petition for divorce?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  33:33  
Yeah, at least in the case of Philadelphia, because the Pennsylvania law dictated that spousal desertion for more than four years was grounds for divorce. That was what I saw most frequently, abandonment or desertion by a spouse. And I looked at divorces specifically filed by women, so it was mostly husbands who absconded. Adultery is also pretty central in these cases. Sometimes you see multiple offenses, like adultery and desertion or physical abuse as part of this as well. Although women had to be really careful about how they presented domestic abuse, because there were some expectations in the culture, but also in the legal code, that a certain amount of what they might call correction was permitted or accepted. So what women had to do and again, kind of echoing this language of dependence, right was that, you know, they made every effort to be a good wife, to be obedient, to do XYZ, and for no reason at all, their husband was violent, or, you know, he had taken to drinking or whatever the case may be, right. They always had to provide multiple justifications for their own behavior being on the straight and narrow and then demonstrate all the ways in which their husbands had undermined, you know, what their duties as a husband were.

Kelly Therese Pollock  34:55  
So in the cases of desertion, the ones that I found really fascinating were the ones where the desertion, you alluded to this earlier, but the idea that they were leaving because they were loyal to the British states, or they were forced out because they were thought to be loyal to the British state. I mean, it really feels like women and children are caught in these crosshairs of war, and what is happening there. Can you talk about some of those cases?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  35:22  
Yeah, I mean, I think what happens a lot, because the records that I were looking at were of the revolutionary state governments, so from the perspective of the so called Americans, American colonists, those in rebellion. Where I come into contact with these sources, women kind of seeking to either repatriate their husbands or go join them are in the wake of British occupation ending, right, of these cities. And that's quite obvious, because if they had been kind of loyal to the British state in that way, during British occupation, they're in a good position. Often, at least in the case of Charleston, which I found interesting, women are asking for their husbands to be able to come back into the state. The language that a lot of these women use is basically, "He didn't really have a choice, because what he was doing was fulfilling his duty as a husband and father," so basically, kind of women taking the blame for that, right. He needed to take care of us. So what he did was just kind of go along with what the British told him. You know, he isn't really loyal to the British Empire, but you know, he just did what he had to do to protect his family, right. And in that regard, he's fulfilling his duty. There are also instances where women's husbands kind of purposefully left and there are women, a couple of them in Boston, who have no desire to follow their husbands wherever they've gone, and are trying to claim their husbands property in their own right. And in a lot of cases, the Massachusetts General Assembly essentially gives them what's, you know, amounts to their right to dower, which is a third of their husband's property in the event that he would die. So they effectively argued that he was legally dead, and sure, yeah, why don't you take your 1/3 of that property, which for the women that I found is often quite substantial.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:14  
And what is, of course, there are numerous incentives going on here. But like, what is the state trying to accomplish? You know, are they or the city or, you know, whoever's making the decision in various cases, are they looking out for the benefit of individuals, of the state? You know, what's going on here?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  37:33  
Yeah, it's it's hard to tell, but to me, at least from reading these petitions, it seems like the state is looking out for its own interests. Because if they really wanted to, you know, stop these problems from happening, they would have to do kind of what what you insinuated, an overhaul of the legal system as it applied to women. And they're not going to do that, right. I think, what what is interesting, too, about all of these cases, being very much on the individual level, is that it might seem that like this one man is the problem, right? He's not kind of performing his own sense of masculine duty as a father, as a husband, as an American citizen. He's the problem, the system isn't the problem. So let's kind of, you know, plug the hole or put out this tiny fire. Meanwhile, there are little fires all over the place, right? So it's indicative when you look at all of these petitions together, that there are these larger systemic and structural problems. But the state doesn't look at them that way. The only case that I can think of that actually kind of has, you know, bigger ramifications is the one that I just referenced where this woman is seeking, essentially, her dower rights after her husband absconded, and the Massachusetts General Assembly does right in the passage of the approval of her petition that this is how we should deal with all cases that come to us like this. But it's also kind of privileging women of an elite socioeconomic status as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:03  
So I want to wrap back around then to the sources and ask just you know, what are the limitations? You have a note on sources at the end. What are the limitations in these sources? What what sorts of things do you wish that you might have been able to find?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  39:16  
Yeah, I mean, I talk a lot about this being part of the traditional archive, right, that and this is not to diss archivists, archivists are amazing and great. And they're the reason why we're able to write any history at all, but thinking about the archive as an idea of a space where our history is preserved. Right, somebody at some point made a choice to preserve certain records and not others and to maintain them and to organize them in a certain way. So I write about, you know, the difficulty of finding Black women's voices and experiences in this traditional legal archive, because Black women didn't really have access to traditional legal power in the same way that elite white men would have had, you know. Trying to locate them in the organization of an archive was also quite difficult. Massachusetts has really voluminous legal records, they're really incredible. They're really rich, but it's really hard to work your way through them. You know, South Carolina had this great little online index for their petitions that someone put a lot of labor into doing. Right. But, you know, it's just the the legal records in Massachusetts are so vast that you would have to really go through all of them individually to try and find the records of what you're looking for. My strategy was to look at the index, because what the legal clerks at the time did would often be to label the race of non white people, indigenous people, and Black Americans at this point. So if the clerk decided that he wanted to identify a person of color in the record as such, then I went and looked at that source. But otherwise, it's 10s of 1000s of pages of documentation on microfilm that are not particularly well indexed, right. We have the original index of the time. So you know, someone should do that project, that would be great. But for this book, I didn't have the time nor the resources to dedicate to that, unfortunately.

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:20  
So how can listeners get a copy of your book?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  41:23  
Oh, well, it's available where most books are sold. But if you buy from the press website, I actually have a discount code I can share from NYU Press. If you search the title of the book, and my name, you should find it. And the code is my last name, But it's also available where all major books are sold. I recommend your local independent bookseller, or, if you're able.

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:59  
Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  42:02  
The kind of major takeaway that I'd like people to get from the book, just on the whole is to think about women's expressions of power differently. Just because this doesn't look like something we might recognize doesn't mean that they're not expressing power in their own way in their own moment. And even if it, you know, might seem a little uncomfortable to us, women kind of reciting this language of their own subordination in the patriarchal system, it's still important for them to kind of push their way out of these individual crises by employing that language that they knew worked.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:36  
Kind of makes you wonder what sorts of things we're doing today like that. Somebody will be like, "hmmm."

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  42:44  

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:45  
Well, Jackie, thank you so much. This was a really great read and it was really fun to talk to you.

Dr. Jacqueline Beatty  42:50  
 Thank you.

Teddy  43:39  
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Jacqueline BeattyProfile Photo

Jacqueline Beatty

I am Assistant Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania, where I teach courses in Early American, Women’s and Gender, and Public History. In the past, I have taught at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as a Visiting Assistant Professor, and at George Mason University as an Adjunct Instructor and Graduate Teaching Assistant.

My book, In Dependence: Women and the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary America, will be published with New York University Press in the spring of 2023. In Dependence explores the ways in which women in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston manipulated their legal, social, and economic positions of dependence and turned these constraints into vehicles of female empowerment. Although the law and social custom established restrictions on women’s rights and behavior, early American women were not completely powerless in their dependent state. By using legislative petitions, divorce cases, marriage settlements, equity cases, probate records, manumission deeds, freedom suits, almshouse records, and charitable institutional files, In Dependence demonstrates that women defined their relationship with the patriarchal state—the colonial, revolutionary, and early national governments and organizations helmed by elite men—in terms of their multifaceted dependencies. I argue that many women in this period were able to achieve a more empowered role not in spite of their dependent status but because of it. They thus exposed the paradoxes of their legal and social subordination by using the very terms of their dependence to undermine the system that was meant to keep them in submission. My dissertation, on which this project is based, was a finalist for the 2017 SHEAR Manuscript Prize.

My other publications include “Privileged in the Patriarchy: How Charleston Wives Negotiated Financial Freedom in the Early Republic” (South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2018) and “Complicated Allegiances: Women, Politics, and Property in Post-Occupation Charleston,” in Holly Mayer, ed., Women Waging War in the American Revolution (UVA Press, 2022).

My publicly-engaged work includes writing with the Washington Post’s Made By History; filming with C-SPAN’s Lectures in History Program, “Women’s Political Power in Early America” (September 2022); public talks with York College of Pennsylvania; the York, PA chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution; TAFEPa; and various contributions to the Revolutionary Spaces organization, including its “Tea Party Tonight!” program and consultation on its 2023 exhibit, “The Humble Petitioner: Fighting for Rights in 18th Century America.”

I received my PhD in Early American and Women’s and Gender History from the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University in December 2016. I earned my MA in United States History and Women’s and Gender History from Villanova University in 2012, and my BA in History from Boston College in 2010.