I have had cause to think quite a lot about the idea of people as property. Amongst other places in which this has come up in my teaching and research have been: medical law (yes – once upon a time used to teach that) where it features in relation to embryos and organs, for example; property law (can you have property in a corpse?) and of course legal history. In thinking about the history of women and the law, it is not uncommon to see references to the effect that ‘oh well, of course women used to be the property of their husbands/fathers etc.’. I have never been very happy with this line – apart from anything else, it often seems to be something of a device to encapsulate and dismiss a whole messy and uncomfortable area of historical (mis)behaviour, a somewhat ‘othering’ tendency too (for, if older dispensations can be seen as stark, and starkly different from present ideas, any nasty continuities and analogies of injustice can be ignored). I made some comments on the ‘women as property’ idea in the recent book on Women in the Medieval Common Law. It continues to bubble away in my mind, and here are a couple of other thoughts on it.
- Working with words and processes
One of the reasons why it might feel right to make a link between legal treatment of women and property in chattels is the recurrence of words in legal process relating to both categories. Thus abduxit would be used in relation to both the removal of a woman and the removal of a sheep, and relevant legal processes might also bear some resemblance, one to another. I am not sure, though, that that can be taken to indicate that ‘women were property’ in any meaningful sense.[i] The truth is that there were limitations of both linguistic and procedural sorts which go quite some way to explaining why there would be such similarities. The linguistic issue is that those choosing words for legal process and its records had a limited selection from which to select, and we should be slow to infer from the use of a term in two different legal contexts that it was understood in an identical sense in both. To take a possibly silly example, just because the verb used in relation both to wrongful cutting of a tree bough, and also to wrongful removal of a person’s arm in a sword fight would be amputavit, it does not mean that medieval common lawyers thought people and trees were the same. Likewise, the ‘vocabulary’ of legal process was finite, and the fact that a husband’s action with regard to the removal of his wife looks a bit like an action for the removal of a chattel cannot be taken too far. As students of legal history will know, the process of putting a set of facts into a few pre-existing procedural patterns is one of the hallmarks of common law development. Of course, the fact that the husband is accommodated in seeking legal action in relation to wrongs to his wife shows that he was seen as, and made, her superior – but I am not convinced that this should be seen as ‘property’ rather than ‘power’.
The links between ‘women as property’ and the explicit treatment of enslaved people as property are potentially problematic. Those noting the difficulities of women, or involved in campaigning for improvements in women’s rights have long made the connection (see also Jacobites, American independence fighters). It is particularly hard, now, to understand the viewpoint of those who talked of the injustice of women’s position in terms of ‘slavery’, while living in an age which did not reject the slave trade or the material benefits derived from such exploitation. See, for example,these lines from a poem which makes this analogy:
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762),
Epistle from Mrs Yonge to Her Husband (1724)[ii]
All bargains but conditional are made;
The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;
Defrauded servants are from service free;
A wounded slave regains his liberty.
For wives ill-used, no remedy remains,
To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.
O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue.
The change is justified by something new;
But we must sigh in silence – and be true
It did strike me today, however, when reading a review of a new publication on resistance by enslaved women, that, if we proceed with extreme caution, there could be some useful transferring of ideas for modern scholars of women’s history from the growing body of work done on enslaved people. In particular, I was arrested by the observation of the author, Rebecca Hall, that slave traders, afraid that there would be resistance by those being shipped into slavery, insured against cargo insurrection, and noting the complete contradiction between (explicitly) calling something a cargo (and really treating it as such – see the Zong Massacre) and yet admitting that there is a human will there. The point which is useful, from the point of view of women’s history, is not exactly the ‘persons as property’ part, it is the ‘subordinated persons as amenable to being put into whichever legal class we want, maybe even two arguably contradictory classes at the same time’ idea which is implicit. That unrepentant mental gymnastics point certainly applies to the history of women’s legal treatment (see one of my recent posts, on petty treason) , and I think deserves some further thought.
[i] Let’s leave aside the difficult question of defining ‘property’, and comparison of ‘property words’ and expressions in different languages. I am sure a better linguist would be able to do more with the comparative aspect of this, though I do enjoy this distinction between English and colloquial Welsh: ‘I have a cat’ v. ‘Mae cath gyda fi’ (= ‘There is a cat with me’). If you will excuse a reference to extreme high culture, it is somewhat reminiscent of the distinction between ‘You belong to me’ (Police, The, ‘Every Breath You Take’) (stalky and unacceptable) and Swift, T. ‘You Belong With Me’ (a touch desperate, perhaps – the object of Ms Swift’s affections in this classic work clearly not being worth it – but both ‘relatable’ and acceptable).
[ii] Norton Anthology of Poetry, p. 580, footnote – ‘In 1724, the notorious libertine William Yonge, separated from his wife, Mary, discovered that she (like him) had committed adultery. He sued her lover, Colonel Norton, for damages, and collected £1,500. Later that year, according to the law of the time, he petitioned Parliament for a divorce. The case was tried in public. Mrs Yonge’s love letters were read aloud, and two men testified that they had found her and Norton “together in naked bed”. Yonge was granted the divorce, his wife’s dowry, and the greater part of her fortune’. I have long used this as a source in my undergraduate legal history teaching.