Before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, women in Virginia and throughout the country had second-class citizenship with few political rights. Men held the power to write all of the laws, including those pertaining to marriage, family, and property. Laws relating to women, families, and property were based on early perceptions that women were weaker than men and dependent on men and therefore not competent to participate in the public arena. This status, along with the high level of class consciousness in colonial Virginia society, contributed to women's inferiority to men under the law, causing them to have fewer rights regardless of their marriage status. A married woman, with the legal status of feme covert, had no right to acquire, own, or dispose of property without her husband's permission. That did not change until passage of the Married Women's Property Act of 1877.
In colonial Virginia, marriages were often arranged with considerations of property and social standing rather than romantic love as top priority. Women who chose not to marry and widows who chose not to remarry often had fewer restrictions on their ability to control their own property and sign contracts. Widows also had more legal rights, as they could own property, enter into contracts, and sometimes take over the trade of a deceased husband.
Despite these few exceptions, women essentially had no political rights in Virginia from colonial times to the twentieth century. They could not even serve on juries until 1950. The social and legal restrictions on women's behavior and their lack of political power kept women under the control of their husbands, which typically resulted in the loss of property, money, and independence. Moreover, there was no law of divorce in colonial Virginia, and women like Ruth Fulcher whose husbands neglected or abused them had few legal recourses
Petitioners like Fulcher appealed to the courts or the General Assembly for monetary support or for physical protection. Although courts sometimes viewed women's petitions with skepticism, women and the legal agents who occasionally helped them prepare petitions and other official documents often appealed to judges' and legislators' sympathies. The goals of the petitioners often included protection from further abuse and award of monetary support for their children. Ruth Fulcher was successful in her petition in spite of having no voting rights and no independent legal standing.
1. Why did Ruth Fulcher write this petition?
2. What were some of the complaints that she and others who wrote petitions like this discussed?
3. How did the laws in Virginia at this time view women?
4. What obstacles did women like Fulcher face when trying to make a better life for themselves and their children?
1. Many women like Fulcher submitted petitions to the court for support from their husbands, yet many were not successful in gaining this compensation. Why do you think that John Fulcher was required to pay his wife while others were not? What can be found in Virginia law from this time period that could explain this?
The Colonial Papers Collection at the Library of Virginia contains loose papers more closely connected by age than by any other single factor. The collection consists largely of records kept by the clerk of the colonial Council, the House of Burgesses, the governor and other officials, relating to county as well as colonywide government. The records of the colonial government have, for the most part, been destroyed by wars, fires, and early neglect. This collection of loose colonial papers is arranged in chronological order, in fifty-three folders. The collection includes petitions to the governor or House of Burgesses, court records, orders, summonses, patents, accounts, proceedings, returns, grants, proclamations, addresses, certificates and correspondence. The items in the collection are each cataloged and described in the Library of Virginia's online database of archival and manuscript records, and the collection has been microfilmed.
Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Tarter, Brent. “When 'Kind and Thrifty Husbands' Are Not Enough: Some Thoughts on the Legal Status of Women in Virginia.” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy 33 (1995): 79–101.
Lebsock, Suzanne. The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784–1860. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1985.