Friday, July 5, 2013

Women As The Property Of Men

Some lies are so often repeated that people start taking them for granted. One of these lies is that throughout the ages women were considered as nothing more than the property of their fathers and husbands. Of course, even in ancient times, when slavery was practised in every society on Earth, the husband couldn't usually sell his wife at the marketplace.

The father of the family sometimes had such a right over both his sons and daughters. That's what Wikipedia says about the authority of the Roman pater familias: "The pater familias had the power to sell his children into slavery; Roman law provided, however, that if a child had been sold as a slave three times, he was no longer subject to patria potestas" (Read the whole article over here ). As the society progressed, the right to sell the children into slavery was severely restricted.

Daughters could be emancipated from their fathers' authority by law, which gave them the right to take legal action on their own behalf. Roman freeborn women had the citizen status and though they couldn't vote, they could own land and write their own will (Read  the Wiki entry on the status of women in Rome). Roman marriage law was somewhat complicated by the existence of two forms of marriage, marriage cum manu when the wife came under her husband's authority, and a more equal marriage when she retained her maiden name and her property rights, plus the existence of concubinage, but it's not my objective to write about it in more detail, it's enough to point out that Roman women could hardly be considered property.

When we turn to the Bible, we have Numbers 30, which deals with the subject of vows. As we can see, while the daughter in her youth is subject to her father's authority, just as the wife is subject to that of her husband, a widow and a divorced woman can act in their own name: "But every vow of a widow, and of her that is divorced, wherewith they have bound their souls, shall stand against her." Numbers 30:9. This Biblical principle became the basis of the distinction in status of married vs single women in the West.

As Thomas Fleming states in his article The Wrongs Of Women Rights II: Coverture: "Under English law a single woman could make contracts, sue in her own name, and manage her own property; however, once she married, such rights were merged into her husband's legal identity." However, women being under their husbands' authority didn't mean that they were regarded as property.

The position of the husband was that of a guardian: "Even in the old Common Law tradition, man and wife were not so merged that women had no legal identity.  The wife’s position was not that of a possession but of her husband’s ward.  She could, for example, maintain property rights, though they were limited by her husband’s authority."

While legally the man was the head of the family, it also meant that he was considered responsible for the welfare of his wife and children: "the husband is bound to provide his wife with necessaries by law, as much as himself; and if he contracts debts for them, he is obliged to pay them.....If the wife be indebted before marriage, the husband is bound afterwards to pay the debt."

He was also held responsible for his wife's wrongdoings: "The husband, at least in law, was the presumed master of the house and, consequently, could be held liable for his wife's torts, including those to which she had been liable before marriage, and for misdemeanors and certain felonies that were performed in his presence and could thus be presumed to be done under his orders.  In criminal cases  the husband's complicity did not have to be proved, and he, rather than the wife, was subject to punishment." (If you are interested, you can read the whole article here)

Whether you agree with such an arrangement or not, you have to conclude that the position of the wife was still not comparable to that of a slave. Coverture hardly makes the case for women being treated as property, and even some modern women desire the return of this legal principle (for instance, the author of this article essentially argues for the restoration of the coverture laws, at least to some degree).

To sum it up, traditionally, women were never viewed as men's property, at least in Western countries. Single women could conduct business, own property and manage their own affairs. A married woman was under the authority of her own husband (not all other men!), but this authority came with obligations, financial and otherwise, which made her position desirable. She was certainly much higher in status than a slave. Managing the household was considered an important job, unlike now. Another myth busted!


  1. You've nailed it. Very well explained. "A married woman was under the authority of her own husband (not all other men!)" That is absolutely correct.
    I love it when the truth is told!

    I'm intrigued by the book you wrote, that's pretty cool. Your a good writer so I'm sure the book is very good. I rarely read non fiction, the last one I read was one recommended by Lady Lydia and it was pretty good. I hope your book get lots of attention!

    1. Thanks, Shaolin! I'm afraid there is a lot of misinformation going around, and another problem is that people are trying to interpret the past through the modern lens. Take, e.g. the laws barring married women from employment and "equal pay for equal job" thing (basically attacking family wage concept). Those laws were introduced in the 20th century by social feminists, to protect married women from the necessity to earn a paycheck, another reason was that they simply didn't have enough jobs to go around and people considered it unfair that one family had 2 incomes, while the other had none. The majority of women used to support these laws, yet now they are demonstrated as the eternal proof of discrimination!

    2. As for the book, thanks for the compliment on my writing skills:) Those who read it (including Lady Lydia whom I sent a copy) found it a nice one. The action takes place in the future in a galaxy far far away...:) but the planets remind some countries on Earth, e.g., one is like Victorian England. It also has a Christian message in it, though I was trying not to be preachy. There is a review if you are interested, just click on book and film reviews label.

  2. People are so narrow minded and ignorant. Yes, the wife was and is the property of her husband. Stupid people just associate property to mean "slave". The wife was NOT a slave and yet she was still the property of her husband just as his house is his property yet NOT his slave. Is it possible for stupid people to just be quiet? Guess not!