Inheritance: the Good Old Days were terrble!

Most people I think are aware that for more than the first hundred years of our existence, only white men could vote. And white men who owned property besides.

Inheritance of property was another perk restricted to and for men. Like the English system, after which this country’s early laws followed, a woman lost all rights to her property upon marriage. Her dowry, if she had one (not so common in the early US), any property such as horses, even her clothing now belonged to her husband. If he gambled away the family assets, oh well.

If she divorced, which was not so common, and wanted to remarry, the clothing she wore belonged to her soon-to-be ex. In one of the examples I read, a woman had to be married in her nightgown, her new husband standing by with new clothing. As soon as she was officially wed, she changed into ‘his’ clothing.

A married woman, since she owned nothing, could not leave a will. Only a widow could prepare a will leaving her possessions, and that was dependent upon the will of her deceased husband. If she were not mentioned in his will, she became the responsibility of her eldest son. If her husband specifically left his wife goods in his will, however, she owned them and could leave them to someone in her turn.

Such restrictions upon a woman make the appeal of the Shakers easy to understand. Although one would own nothing, one also owned a piece of everything. All the members of the community were treated alike and expected to be obedient. A woman might aspire to a role governing the Family as an Deaconess or Eldress. And the Shakers cared for the elderly members until they ‘went home to Mother’.

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