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Women, men, property, and inheritance: Gendered testamentary customs in western Massachusetts, 1800--1860. Or, diligent wives, dutiful daughters, prodigal sons, westward migration, reciprocity, and rewards for virtue, considered

Glendyne R Wergland, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Abstract

This study uses probate records to explore gender patterns in testamentary customs from 1800 to 1860 as well as heretofore-unexamined shifts in testamentary relationships between men and women in the mid-1800s. ^ In western Massachusetts, beginning in the 1830s, fathers favored wives and daughters over sons as their primary beneficiaries. This finding counters conventional wisdom that nineteenth-century fathers preferred to bequeath property to sons. Fathers' favoring wives and daughters as heirs, plus increasing numbers of “sole and separate” bequests to women, indicates that men protected women with bequests well before the passage of Married Women's Property Acts in the 1840s and 1850s, so this cultural change predated changes in the law. One possible explanation for favoring female beneficiaries is that sons were devaluing themselves as heirs by emigrating, thereby making themselves unavailable for supporting widowed mothers and dependent sisters. Another explanation might be that fathers had already made premortem land grants to sons, reserving only the residue for female heirs. A less quantifiable possibility is that propertied and prudent fathers may have had rising respect for women at a time when men's character issues such as debt and drinking were a target of public concern. “Sole and separate” bequests, which protected married women's property from husbands and husbands' creditors, suggest that men's debt and/or character were primary areas of willmakers' concern. ^ This evidence, along with declining bequests of dower thirds, shows that men challenged socioeconomic traditions to benefit female heirs. If it is true, as Marylynn Salmon asserts, that “control over property is an important baseline for learning how men and women share power in the family,” then testators were engaged in a redistribution of power in western Massachusetts from 1830 to 1860.1 ^ Finally, because women favored female heirs from 1800 to 1860, property women acquired tended to remain in women's hands, and because many women served as moneylenders in small towns where creditors were often individuals, women wielded economic influence behind the scenes. ^ 1Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (1986), xii.^

Subject Area

History, United States

Recommended Citation

Glendyne R Wergland, "Women, men, property, and inheritance: Gendered testamentary customs in western Massachusetts, 1800--1860. Or, diligent wives, dutiful daughters, prodigal sons, westward migration, reciprocity, and rewards for virtue, considered" (January 1, 2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. Paper AAI3000355.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI3000355

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