Legal Rights: Women Taking Control of their Affairs

Before the 20th century, American women had restricted rights compared to men. Married women lived under a system of coverture, in which husbands represented, or “covered,” their wives’ political and legal interests. Married women could not own or transfer property, control their earnings, enter into contracts, or sue for economic grievances. Free women of color had even fewer rights, including restrictions on gathering in groups, travelling, and testifying in court. Sometimes, however, women exercised greater power than the law accorded them. The stories of Annie Henry Christian and Eliza Tevis illustrate how women found ways to exert control over their circumstances.

Framed documents from the Women at Work Exhibit

Annie Henry Christian directed her husband's salt works operation south of Louisville following his death in 1786.

Annie Henry Christian

Annie Henry Christian, born circa 1738-1739, was an early settler of Kentucky. She devoted her life solely to being a wife and mother until 1786, when her husband, William Christian, was killed in a skirmish with the Wabash Indians. Widowhood restored the formal legal rights Christian had lost in marriage, and she became the head of her family. She assumed a leading role directing her deceased husband’s enterprises and repaying his debts. William Christian’s estate consisted of several thousand acres of Kentucky land, a plantation on Beargrass Creek, a salt works south of Louisville, and a workforce of nearly 50 enslaved laborers. Over the following two years, Christian stabilized the family’s enterprises and secured her children’s fortunes.

Agreement between Eliza Hundley, James Guthrie, and Robert Tyler

This agreement is between Eliza Tevis, her lawyer, and her former employer for withheld wages. 

Eliza Tevis

Eliza Tevis was born into slavery circa 1800, most likely in Virginia. In her early life she was the slave of brothers John and Thomas Hundley, who owned an estate in southeast Jefferson County. She was emancipated in 1833, and Thomas Hundley left her property, money, and household furnishings in his will. When she married Henry Tevis in 1843, instead of forfeiting her legal rights and possessions to her husband, she arranged to protect her independence. Prior to her marriage she deeded her possessions in trust to Louisville lawyer James Guthrie, who held them for her own separate use. The agreement also gave Tevis the right to dispose of her property with a last will and testament.

By the end of the 19th century, some women had gained expanded legal rights. State legislatures modified coverture law—a response, in part, to women’s increased participation in the public sphere and the need for legal clarity. Some married women had already petitioned for feme sole status in the courts, requesting to be legally granted the more permissive rights accorded to single women. In 1894, the Married Woman’s Property Act passed in the Kentucky legislature, and women regained rights that had long been stripped from them upon marriage. Women of color, however, continued to face discrimination. By the end of the 19th century, Jim Crow laws were being established throughout the south and would be enforced until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Legal Rights