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Shall Women Be Equal Before the Law? | The Nation

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Shall Women Be Equal Before the Law?

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Yes!

About the Author

The removal of all forms of the subjection of women is the purpose to which the National Woman's Party is dedicated. Its present campaign to remove the discriminations against women in the laws of the United States is the beginning of its determined effort to secure the freedom of women, an integral part of the struggle for human liberty for which women are first of all responsible. Its interest lies in the final release of woman from the class of a dependent, subservient being to which early civilization committed her.

The laws of various States at present hold her in that class. They deny her a control of her children equal to the father's; they deny her, if married, the right to her own earnings; they punish her for offenses for which men go unpunished; they exclude her from public office and from public institutions to the support of which her taxes contribute. These laws are not the creation of this age, but the fact that they are still tolerated on our statute books and that in some States their removal is vigorously resisted shows the hold of old traditions-upon us. Since the passage of the Suffrage Amendment the incongruity of these laws, dating back many centuries, has become more than ever marked.

In all of our States butone the fundamental law is the English common law, modified by the civil law where the influence of France and Spain was felt. Under the English common a married woman was subjeci to the will of her husband and without legal identity; the husband was the sole legal head of the house; the father was the guardian of the minor child and had the control of its education and the benefitof its labor. Mother as such was "entitled to no power but only to reverence and respect."

Haphazard modifications of this old law by unrelated statutes have created the present anomalous legal position of women in which there is no uniformity. As a matter of fact there are more than fifty points at which the laws of one State or another at present discriminate against women. The National Woman's Party is now making the first complete digest which has ever been made of all these laws in every State -- except one, Wisconsin, where the Woman's Party Equal Rights Bill, with modifications to meet local conditions, has already been passed, and men and women made equal before the law.

Because the common law said that the husband was head of the house, husbands may still in at least forty-five of our States decide where their wives must live and vote. At the last election a woman living in Boston with her husband, wrote to the Woman's Party protesting against the fact that though she wished to play a part in the public affairs of Massachusetts, where she spent her entire time, the only place where she could vote was Maine, since her husband for business reasons maintained his voting residence in Maine.

As the head of the house the husband may say also exactly who may and who may not belong to the family circle. In Georgia, as recently as 1914, a woman who supported the family and paid the rentof the house, went to court because her husband insisted upon having a drunken companion constantly about the house, and she insisted upon not having him. The court told her she "was putting the petticoat in a more advanced position than the pantaloons," and that let would pay the rent, her husband was "head of the house."

In Mississippi, though a husband is entitled to have an adopted daughter live in the house if he wishes, he is also supported by the law if he refuses to allow the child of his wife by an earlier marriage to visit her. Being the head of the house gives a husband control, in many States, of any money which his wife earns within the house. In New Jersey in 1916 a man and his wife lived in the house of an invalid woman for whom the wife did all the housework and acted as nurse. When the woman died without making the payment she had promised far this care the courts ruled thatonly the husband could sueand receive the compensation because the wife had not been "carrying on aseparate business."

Many inconsistencies have grown out of this law. In Vermont if a married woman runs a business on her own account the profits of the business belong to her, but if she teaches school her salary belongs to her husband, according to a recent court decision. In Californihe husband is sole manager of the community property, which consists of all that is acquired during the marriage by either husband or wife excepting through giftor inheritance. Her wages and earnings therefore are under his control during life and he can dispose of them without her knowledge consent. She cannot will one centof this community property even to her own children, and on her death title to her half passes to the husband absolutely, whereas he has the right to will half of the community to anyone that he pleases, the other half passing to her.

But to most people the legal discriminations against women as mothers will seem more serious than discriminations against them as wives. There are States, including Delaware, Georgia, and Maryland, where the father may will away the guardianship of a child from the mother. There are States in which the father is the sole guardian of the legitimate children-South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia, Maryland; Georgia, and Ohio. In some of these States the father alone may decide what church a chiId shall go to, what school he shall attend, when he shall g o to work, and what work he shall do. In cases of divorce, in many of these States, unless the charges against the husband are of remarkable severity, the children are awarded to him.

In many States the earnings of minor children belong entirely to the father, and the father alone is entitled to damages in the case of injuries to a child. In Floridhe father recovers money damages even for the mental pain and suffering of the mother, occasioned by the wrongful death of her child. A father also has rights superior to a mother's in the matter of inheritance from a child; for instance, in Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, and Arkansas, where if a child dies without will the father inherits to the exclusion of the mother. It is a law which must result in many tragedies. As an illustration: A man in Georgia deserted his wife and small son. The mother, an uneducated woman, supported the child -by scrubbing and washing. When he grew to manhood, to repay her, he bought a house and took his mother to live with him. But he died unexpectedly; the father reappeared, turned the mother from the house, and took it for himself, as he has the right to do under the law of Georgia.

The double standard of morals is written into the laws of many States. In only ten States, according to a recent report of the Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board, is prostitution an act of the male as well as of the female in Maryland white woman who has a child by Negro Mulatto may be sentenced to the penitentiary for a number of years, but a white man under the existing Maryland law can have a child by a Negro woman and receive no punishment. This type of discrimination enters also into the divorce laws of more than one State. In Texas a husband is entitled to a divorce for a single act of infidelity on the part of his wife, but a wife is denied a divorce on this ground, and is granted one if her husband is living a state of infidelity and addition has abandoned her.

State education is still not open to women on equal terms. The State University of Florida is closed to women. The State University of Virginia accepts men at the age of 16, while refusing entrance to yomen until 20 and maintaining a different standard of requirements for each.

There are also laws which discriminate against women as citizens. For instance, there are States which do not permit women to serve on juries, and in least one, Massachusetts, a ruling has been made since the passage of the Suffrage Amendment to the effect that a woman cannot sit in legislature.

The National Woman's Party believes that it is a vital social need to do away with these discriminations against women and is devoting its energies to that end. The removal of the discriminations and not the method by which they are removed is the thing upon which the Woman's Party insists. It has under consideration an amendment to the Federal Constitution which, if adopted, would remove them atone stroke, but it is at present endeavoring to secure their removal in the individual States by a blanket bill, which is the most direct State method. for eighty-two years the piecemeal method has been tried, beginning with the married women's property act of 1839 in Mississippi, and no State, excepting Wisconsin, where the Woman's Party blanket bill was passed in June, 1921, has yet finished, even the Empire State defeating a jury-service bill this year and New Jersey, which last year passed a jury-service bill, this year failed to pass seventeen separate bills the removal of discriminations against women.

The shocking humiliating nature of many of the legal discriminations makes it imperative not to endure unnecessary delay and a common-sense regard for economy of the precious resources of life drives one to seek a better technique.

Section 1. Women shall have the same rights, privileges, and immunities under the law as men, with respect to the exercise of suffrage; holding of office or any position under the government, either State or local or for which governmentor subsidies are used, and with respect toremuneration services in such office or position; eligibility to examination for any position affected by civil-service regulations; jury service; choice of domicile, residence,. and name; acquiring, inheriting, controlling, holding, and conveying property; ownership and control of labor, services, and earnings within and without the home, and power torecover damages for loss of such labor, services, and earnings; freedom of contract, including becoming a party in any capacity to negotiable instruments or evidence of indebtedness, or becoming surety or guarantor; becoming parties Iitigant; acting as executors or administrators of estates of decedents; custody and control of children, and control of earnings and services of such children; grounds for divorce; immunities or penalties for sex offenses; quarantine, examination, and treatmentof diseases; and in all other respects.

Section 2. This article shall be construed as abrogating in every respect the common-law disabilities of women.

Section 3. This act shall not affect laws regulating the employment of women in industry.

Section 4. AI1 acts and parts of acts in conflict with any of the provisions of this statute are hereby repealed.

Wisconsin, where the Woman's Party blanket bill modified to meet local conditions was passed in June, 1921, reports the effect as good. Governor Blaine stated recently:

You ask in your letter of January 12 that give you my opinion as to the value of the Wisconsin equal-rights law, present and prospective, in the light of our experience. . . .

There are two ways by which discriminations against women may be removed and by which equal rights before the law be conferred. One method is by a general enactment, such as the law to which I refer, and the other method is by amending a multiplicity of special statutes on a variety of subjects freated in the statutes:. The first method is simple and direct; the second is cumbersome, complicated, and inconsistent with the amendment to the Federal Constitution granting full privileges and rights by the fundamental law.

Our experience, therefore, convinces us that the general actment is in complete harmony with the Federal amendment, and directly effective in establishing full equality of men and women before the law.

In Louisiana the Woman's Party, at the recent special session of the legislature, secured the passage of a number of the provisions of the blanket bill. By this legislation, consentof the wife to the sale or mortgaging of the family home was made obligatory, though until this bill was passed even if home had been acquired after marriage by the exclusive labor of the wife, the husband could dispose of it without the wife's consent. Women were admitted to membership in the "family meeting," which in Louisiana passes by law upon matters pertaining to the family, and women who are widows were given the right to retain the guardianship of their children after remarriage, a right which a widower but not widows had previously possessed. The Woman's Party also won Louisiana women, by this recent legislation, rights corresponding with the rights of men in regard to the guardianship of children; the right to be appointed administrators and executors the same terms with men, to become arbitrators, notaries'.public, and to act as witnesses, assist public inventories, and to bezapable of all kind of engagements and functions, and were 'given the same rights, authority, privileges, immunities, and obligations as men possess and are required to perform in the election and appointment to, and holding of office, civil and political. The present program of the National Woman's Party is to introduce its Woman's Equal Rights Bill, or bills attaining the same purpose, in all State legislatures as they convene. It is building up in Washington a great headquarters from which this campaign can be conducted, and it is acting in the faith that the removal of these discriminations from our laws will benefit every group of women in the country, and through them all society.

No!

"The removal of all forms of the subjection of women is the purpose to which the NationaI Woman's Party is dedicated."

A few years ago the Woman's Party counted disfranchisement the form of subjection which must first be removed. Today millions of American women, educated and uneducated, are kept from the polls in bold defiance of the Suffrage Amendment. Every form of subjection suffered by their white sisters they also suffer. Deprivation of the vote is theirs alone among native women. Because of this discrimination all other forms of subjection weigh a hundred fold more heavily upon them. In the family, in the effort torentor to buy homes, as wage+earners, before the courts, in getting education for their children, in every relation of life, their burden is greater because they are victims of political inequality. How literally are colored readers to understand the words quoted above?

Sex is a biological fact. The political rights of citizens are not properly dependent upon sex, but social and domestic relations and industrial activities are. All modern-minded people desire that women should have full political equality and like opportunity in business and the professions. No enlightened person desires that they should be excluded from jury duty or denied the equal guardianship of children, or that unjust inheritance laws or discriminations against wives should be perpetuated.

The inescapable facts are, however, that men do not bear children, are freed from the burdens maternity, and are not susceptible, in the same measure as women, to poisons now increasingly characteristic of certain industries, and to the universal poison of fatigue. These are differences so far reaching, so fundamental, that it is grotesque to ignore them. Women cannot be made men by act of the legislature or by amendmentof the Federal Constitution. This is no matter of today or tomorrow. The inherent differences are permanent. Women will always need many laws different from those needed by men.

The effort to enact the blanket bill in defiance of all biological differences recklessIy imperils the speciaI Iaws for women such, for wives, for mothers, and for wage-earners. The safeguarding clause affords no adequate safeguard for these protective measures.

For fourteen years the Consumers' League has been engaged, with uniform success, in defending before the highest courts laws which shorten the working day of wage-earning women or provide for minimuin-wage commissions. Because this process, however slow and costly, is necessary for the good of the country, in the interestof the public health, we press for answers to certain questions.

If women are subject to the freedom of contract as men, will not women wage-earners lose the statutory eight-hour day, rest at night, and one day's rest in seven, which they now have under statutes that, tmto, limit their freedom of contract? Could women get for themselves an eight-hour law or a minimum-wage commission in State where these do not yet exist, and where working men do not care to get them because they prefer for themselves negotiations backed by organizations and strikes"?

Why should wage-earning women be thus forbidden to get laws for their own health and welfare and that of their unborn children? Why should they be made subject to the A preferences of wage-earning men? Is not this of great and growing importance when the number of women wageearners, already counted by millions, increases by leaps and bounds from one census to the next? And when the industries involving exposure to poisons are increasing faster than ever? And when the overwork of mothers is one recognized cause of the high infant death-rate? And when the rise in the mortality of mothers in childbirth continues?

If there were no other way of promoting more perfect equality for women, an argument could perhaps be sustained taking these risks. But why take them when every desirable measure attainable through the blanket bill can be enacted in the ordinary way?

Section 3. This act shall not affect laws regulating the employmentof in industry. [The wording of this clause differs from State to State in the blanket bill.]

Concerning legislative innovations, the important point is not the promises made by the advocates but bill says and what experience has taught the people who will be affected by it to expect. Until the items of the blanket bill have been passed upon by the courts, what greater value than patent-medicine advertisements can any claims for the safeguarding clause have?

The proponents point to the Wisconsin law enacted a year ago as having wrought no harm. But new laws are not like bombs. They do not explode. Women cap-makers can never forget that the Sherman Law had been on the statute books for years and wage-earning men and women had been assured that it could never apply to them. In the end, however, under a decision of the United States Supreme Court, that anti-trust law was the cause of the loss of the homes of hundreds of working-class families in a single State and a single industry.

For women new to the field of legislation, however, the term "safeguarding clause" has an attractive sound. They do not know that in the processes of enactment, slow circuitous (or like a lightning flash in the closing hours of the session), nothing is more easily lost than a safeguarding clause.

In Maryland the blanket Bill recently passed the House of Delegates without a repealing clause. If the bill were so enacted, would it (by implication) amend or repeal other laws? Opponents of the bill would argue that any attempted amendment of the existing law is futile without a clear statementof the laws to be changed and their wording as amended. Until the courts had spoken, who could what the law actually was?

On the other hand, if the blanket bill its sweeping repealing clause should pass unchanged, sooner or later the courts would have to decide whether any laws had been nullified and, if so, which ones. If it should then be held in spite of the safeguarding clause, as might readily happen, that the wage-earning women's protective laws had been repealed, in some States the constructive work of years would be undone. The police power it is true would remain, but fresh legislation would be required to give it life. The police power does not act spontaneously. As a part of a blanket bill, the effect of asweeping repealing clause is incalculable.

Is the National Woman's Party for or against protective measures for wage-earning women? Will it publicly state whether it is for or against the eight-hour day and minimum-wage commissions for women? Will it publicly state whether it is for or aganst the eight-hour day minimum-wage commissions for women? Yes or No?

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