The coverture law denied women the right to property ownership, transferred their legal identity to their husbands, and forcibly submitted them to their husbands. The best description of the coverture law is that it denied women moral and legal liberty by limiting a woman’s control over herself and her properties by endorsing absolute power to her husband except under some particular provisions. The coverture was depicted as a denial of rights by Mary Wollstonecraft, who said, “many innocent girls become the dupes of a sincere, affectionate heart, … ruined before they know the difference between virtue and vice” (Wollstonecraft and Brody, 2014). Capping women’s legal identity to their husbands and forceful submission to their husbands denied them the right to vote and freedom to motherhood, among other things. In her work, Margaret Sanger illustrates the denial of moral liberty as she fought for the freedom of motherhood. She critiques the issues of controlled motherhood, arguing that women needed to choose when and how to bear or have real children (Sanger, 1921). From a legal approach, women were denied the right to vote, shown in Sanger’s story and the struggle for emancipation by feminists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others (Hanisch, 1997; Lader, 1975). While this law protected women against legal consequences by placing the virtual of a man shielding her, it was significantly opposed by feminists.
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Reform of coverture laws includes the Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 and the 19th Amendment. This reform began with the writing of feminists like Wollstonecraft, who condemned the idea that women would be properties of men. The character Maria in the book Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, Wollstonecraft depicts women as whom “affections had banished [unable] to trace or govern the strong emotions of the heart” (Wollstonecraft and Godwin, 1799). In 1848, 300 people attended the Seneca Falls Convention, which would become the first convention on women’s rights. The convention became the start of the women’s suffrage movement, which would, in the long term, earn women the right to vote. However, in the short term, the convention led to the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which claimed both men and women had unalienable rights to life and property (Hanisch, 1997). The declaration escalated to the enactment of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 in New York, which became the major cause of the slow erosion of the coverture laws. Other women who influenced the debate include Lucy Stone, Suzy B Anthony, Lloyd Garrison, and Gertrude Bustill Mossell.
In 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, but Margaret Sanger and Leta Hollingworth were still fighting yet another batter, freedom to voluntary motherhood. Rooted in the coverture laws, women did not have a right to themselves, and therefore, they did not have the freedom to voluntary motherhood. Sanger illustrates these issues in two approaches: first, women would forcibly take contraceptives, and second, women would forcibly bear children (Sanger, 1921). Sanger and Hollingworth used logos (appeal to reason) explaining why women had been denied the right their freedom to motherhood. For instance, Sanger reasons with her audience in the book Woman and New Race that the 1920 legislation on woman morals was flawed since it did not differentiate empirical evidence from human desires, which forcibly required women to bend upon their freedom to make the world better (Sanger, 1921). She explains that congressmen had passed the laws in haste, and they hardly understood the nature of parenthood from a mother’s perspective.
Using the same approach, Hollingworth (1916) critiqued the law, personal beliefs, art, and education – the primary tools used to control women’s right to bear and raise children. She appealed to the professionals in arts to stop concealing the agony of women and to educators that they may provide real enlightenment to women. Hollingworth has similar thoughts with Sanger that mothers had a better understanding of parenthood, and that like nature, mothers, would control the growth of a population (Hollingworth, 1916; Lader, 1975). According to Hollingworth (1916), children deserve a good life, and mothers needed release from social institutions that used women to deserve children a good life.
Sanger and Hollingworth also believed that “enforced” motherhood benefited men and society and disregarded women’s control her body and entitlement to sexual pleasure and fulfillment. Both writers explain that motherhood is a significant burden to a woman’s life, necessitating alienation of the moral perspective of marriage, womanhood, and motherhood (Hollingworth, 1916; Sanger, 1921). Hollingworth (1916) explains that controlled motherhood does the work of nature to assure an optimal society population and give children a good life. Also, Sanger focuses on womanhood and motherhood in her discussion on contraceptives and insists on the need for women’s entitlement to be entitled to sexual pleasure and fulfillment (Lader, 1975). Such an approach biases the place of men as to be favored in the context of the issue. I agree with Sanger and Hollingworth that birth control only benefits men while disregarding the wellbeing of women in this context. First, it was unfair that women would be considered properties of men. Hollingworth (1916) explained that it meant that societal tools would be used in favor of men’s desires before considering women’s desires. Also, the primary method of birth control in that era was contraceptives, taken by men only. While that would be the best choice clinically per se, forceful birth control or childbearing was discrimination against women and denial of their free will. Lastly, enforced birth control benefited society by bringing a new race, with a desirable number of children, whom the parents could give a quality life.
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Lader, L. (1975). The Margaret Sanger Story and the fight for birth control. Praeger.
Hanisch, C. (1997). Promise & Betrayal Voices from the Struggle for Women’s Emancipation, 1776-1920. Canal Press.
Hollingworth, L. (1916). Social Devices for Impelling Women to Bear and Rear Children. American Journal Of Sociology, 22(1), 19-29. https://doi.org/10.1086/212572
Sanger, M. (1921). Woman and the new race (1st ed.). Brentano’s.
Wollstonecraft, M., & Brody, M. (2014). A vindication of the rights of woman. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Wollstonecraft, M., & Godwin, W. (1799). Maria: or, The wrongs of woman. Printed by James Carey, no. 16, Chesnut-Street.