Ann Romney’s Appeal to Women Ignores History of Inequality

UC Riverside historian Catherine Allgor says GOP candidate’s wife, and many Americans, do not acknowledge system that fails to treat women as full citizens

Catherine Allgor

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Ann Romney’s heartfelt declaration at the Republican Convention Aug. 28 that it is mothers who hold America together was meant as a compliment, but ignores the history of a legal system that still does not grant full citizenship to women, according to Catherine Allgor, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside.

Allgor, who is known nationally for her research on the role of women in American political history, notes that as the Founding Fathers moved toward declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776 Abigal Adams pleaded with her husband, John — who would become the nation’s second president — to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

“She was asking for an alleviation of coverture, the legal stricture that stated that no wife had a political identity,” Allgor says. “Instead, they were ‘covered women,’ subsumed under their husband’s identity. Upon marriage, husband and wife became one, and that one was the husband.  As a symbol of this female invisibility, a woman took her husband’s last name.”

Married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses, Allgor explains.  Married women owned nothing.  Men had the full rights to “the fruits” of female bodies, including women’s children and sexuality.  If a wife divorced or left her husband — or he left her — she might never see her children again.  Coverture assumed a wife’s consent, so under the law, all sex-related activity, including rape, was legitimate.

“We have never abolished coverture completely and vestiges linger in our law books, throwing up unexpected roadblocks in women’s progress toward full citizenship,” Allgor says, adding that American women who married the wrong kind of immigrant lost their citizenship until the 1920s and did not regularly serve on juries until the 1960s. Marital rape was not a crime until the 1980s.

Allgor is an advisor to the National Women’s History Museum.  Her latest book is: “The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison” (University of Virginia Press, 2012).

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Catherine Allgor
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