Before the enactment of separate property and contract rights for married women, generations of married women in seaport cities and towns conducted business as merchants, traders and shopkeepers. The first part of this article shows how private law facilitated their business activities through traditional agency law, the use of powers of attorney, trade accounts and family business networks. These arrangements, largely hidden from public view in family papers, letters, and diaries, permitted married women to enter into contracts, to buy and sell property, and to appear in court. Private law, like equity, thus provided a more flexible alternative to the common law of coverture under agreements made within the family itself. On the other hand, public law proved much more restrictive for wives who were not part of a viable or harmonious marriage. In post-revolutionary Massachusetts, for example, the feme sole trader statute and various judicially adopted exceptions to coverture applied only to certain wives abandoned by their husbands.
The second part of the article provides a case study of three generations of married women traders from Nantucket during the whaling era, the oil exploration business of its time. Their stories show how some married women, within the constraints of the law as it developed in Massachusetts without courts of equity, attained a form of autonomy in business or commercial activity at the same time that they fulfilled their family responsibilities. Their stories also uncover tensions underlying the first wave of women’s rights reform efforts in the mid-nineteenth century, including the developing separation between work and home that continues to pose challenges for family law and for men and women today. In a broader sense, this historical study also illuminates the interaction among private law, public law, and evolving social practice as the law both reinforced and shaped family roles during a period of increased commercialization and industrialization.
Mary Heen, Agency: Married Women Traders of Nantucket, 1765-1865, 21 Geo. J. Gender & L. 35 (2019).