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Legal] Stow, Mrs. J.W.

Act for the Protection of Widows, and Comparative Law, An.


A Bold Attempt To Gain Property Rights For Married Women
By A Little-Known San Francisco Widow And Activist
[Legal issues]. Stow, Mrs. J.W.  An Act for the Protection of Widows, and Comparative Law.  [San Francisco: Published by the Author, ca. 1878-1879].
Small 8vo; self-wraps, printed on all but final blanks and lower panel; ex-library, with a faded light purple ink stamp on the top of the front wrapper cover (Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio); light ink markings on the top of the front wrapper cover; final two blanks affixed to each other in one small spot, with a consequent ½ inch tear to the rear wrapper. In a specially made cloth slipcase.
First and apparently only edition of this extremely rare self-published tract. Stow opens with sections one through seven of her Act (pp. 1-2), followed by two-dozen pages of "Comparative Law" (pp. 2-26). Her Petition to the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives, signed by nearly fifty men and women (including Charles Francis Adams, Lydia Maria Child, Horace Mann's widow Mary, Judge Isaac Ames's widow Mary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Charrison, Henry Wadsworth Longellow, and other New England notables), is printed on page 27. Her Memorial in Support of A Bill for the Protection of Widows, delivered by her before the Probate and Chancery Committee (in the Massachusetts State House) on February 6, 1878, takes up pages 28-34. A two page Appendix prints a two-section version of "The Stow Bill, entitled 'An Act for the Protection of Widows,'" along with a Petition in Support of the Bill signed by 120 additional supporters. A final page offers something called "The Widow's Portion" in which the author excerpts Chapter 470 of the Laws of New York on the subject.
Scarce; though the Library of Congress lists for editions of Stow's earlier work, Unjust Laws Which Govern Women. Probate Confiscation (1877; reprinted 1879, 1974, 2003), copies of which are held by many legal libraries, they do not own this work. Stow printed Unjust Laws for distribution on her lecture tours throughout the United States "in an effort to enlighten citizens of those states and demand repeal of probate laws in each state." One source tells us that Stow
returned from a trip abroad to find that her husband, a prominent San Franciscan, had passed away. Although her husband was considered to be quite wealthy, Mrs. Stow found herself nearly penniless. Here [in Unjust Laws…] she vigorously describes her dealings with the San Francisco Probate Court, and attempts to expose the injustice of the probate system. …[T]he volume is a passionate and insightful first-hand account of the legal system as it was experienced by women in the United States in the latter quarter of the nineteenth-century, as well as a well-informed feminist legal tract calling for economic justice and property rights for women and widows and their children. (
The publication and distribution of Unjust Laws…, we surmise, led Stow to prepare this Act for the Protection of Widows, and Comparative Law, likely sold nationwide as was Unjust Laws. (The stamp on the first page attests to one subscriber, the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio.) Here, as in her earlier publication, Stow details her encounters with the San Francisco Probate Court, and argues for communal property rights for married couples. The final paragraph before the Appendix notes that despite the "earnest and able" efforts of Senator Joseph S. Ropes, Hon. Samuel E. Sewall, William Lloyd Garrison, and others, it failed to pass because "the great mass of the people have not thought upon the subject, and discussed its merits. Public sentiment must be aroused, ere legislators will act." Clearly Stow intended, with this pamphlet, to inform the public and arouse such sentiment as would eventually lead to the passage of the necessary legislation for the protection of widows like herself.
Throughout the pamphlet, the author argues her subject with intelligence and wit.  In part:
I maintain that women earn money in wedlock.  No city husband would like to exchange his position as the "money-getter" for the never-ending cares of the household.  Placing the wife in the light of a companion, or superintendent only, still, I say, she earns money in excess of her board and clothes.  It is an absurd idea that a wife is supported by the husband.  His feeding and clothing her is but a fraction of what is hers by right.  I cannot find a lady companion, who is my peer in education and social position, who will perform her duties faithfully for simply her board and clothes; and that is all a wife gets. (p. 2)
The subject of "Married Women's Property Rights," as it would come to be called, is a long and hard-fought one.  AWH (Doris Weatherford, NY: Prentice Hall, 1994) devotes a full two pages to the subject (pp. 222-223) that is well worth reading and can only be briefly summarized here.  According to Weatherford,
Under the laws of most states when the nation began, a married woman literally did not own the clothes on her back.  Though she probably sewed them, most states entitled her husband to legal possession of everything a woman earned, whether that was cash income or an item of value as intimate as her clothing.  
….The feminist movement that emerged from the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention enjoyed its first important successes in the revision of these laws.  Though the vote would take more than seventy years to obtain, significant changes in these laws began as early as 1854 [just over two decades before Mrs. Stow's activist publication], when Massachusetts passed a Married Women's Property Bill….Throughout the 1850s, Susan [B.] Anthony led efforts for an expanded bill, and in 1860, Elizabeth Cady Stanton set a public speaking precedent by addressing a joint session of the state assembly on the subject.
….The very nature of property rights inevitably linked it closely with the controversial topic of the marriage contract and the right to divorce….Thus, the incremental, state-by-state changes of laws took decades, while these legal disabilities had daily ramifications for married women….
….Well into the twentieth century, there was a great deal of contradiction between what the outmoded law books said and what women…actually did.  Though some of these legal relics were resurrected in the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, people took them no more seriously than unrepealed laws that limit the speeds of horseless carriages. (pp. 222-223)
Despite the depth of Mrs. Stow's understanding of the issues, the fervor with which she promoted her cause, and the prominence of those she drew to her side in support, she remains virtually unknown. Identified as Marietta Lois Beers by one source, she does not look up in the standard reference sources: NAW, AWH, Webster's Dictionary of American Women, The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography, nor A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800 do not identify her by Stow or Beers. Nor does the Library of Congress offer any biographical information beyond the year of her death, 1902.
This fascinating legal tract about women's property rights by a virtually unknown female activist  is a remarkable survival of a scarce and fragile item.

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