Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Property Rights, Education and Suffrage

Somebody said to me yesterday:

Every advance in our culture that you take for granted was protested and fought by conservatives. As a woman, can you vote? Own property in your own name? Attend higher education? Become a doctor or lawyer? Have bank accounts or investments in your name? Serve in the military? Serve in government? 

That person was a "progressive," and he would like to attribute any rights that anybody has to the agitation of people like himself. But he is wrong. Progress does not necessarily happen in a straight line progression. Sometimes as some rights are gained, other rights are lost. Trying to imagine what our life would be like in an earlier historical period depends very much on who we might have been, because different people during the same period find themselves in situations that are as different as night from day.

Of course, we could always imagine that we might have been wealthy and prosperous and have belonged to the ruling class, and a lot of historical fantasies are based on that. What would it have been like to be Queen Elizabeth the First? How would we have handled that kind of power? Even though most women of her day and age were uneducated, without property or a say in their government, this woman was not only highly educated but a successful ruler of men.

Marie Laveau
by Frank Schneider
Other fantasies are exercises in self-subjugation and humiliation. What would it be like to be a slave girl on a plantation with a very harsh and inhumane master? How could we maintain our human dignity while having so little control over our own persons? Would it be possible?

But most people's lives, during whatever period they happen to live in, do not fall into either extreme. They are not entirely helpless and without political and economic power. And they are also not rich or royalty or commanders of great armies and fleets. In Theodosia and the Pirates, I explored some of the in-between spaces. I described middle class people of different ethnic groups with varying degrees of education, property ownership and power.

Do you imagine that during a time when the insititution of slavery was intact every black woman was powerless, enslaved and not a property owner? Would it surprise you to know that there were many eminent free, property owning, business-running, influential women of color living in the 19th century prior to the emancipation proclamation? Do you think they waited helplessly for Abraham Lincoln to come and free them?

Take Marie Laveau, for instance:


She was not only free, she was born free! Both her parents were free, and her children were born free. She owned property. She ran businesses. She was wealthy and influential. Her power exceeded that of many white men and women of her time. But most importantly, she was an individual. Her life, like the life of any person during any period, was shaped by her own decisions, within the context of the society in which she lived. You or I placed into her shoes might not have fared as well.

I didn't write about Marie Laveau in Theodosia and the Pirates, but I did include Marie Villard as a supporting character. Marie Villard was not nearly as powerful or influential as Marie Laveau, but she, too, was a woman of color who was free, owned property and enjoyed a relationship of plaçage with a relatively important man: Pierre Laffite. Plaçage guaranteed Marie the ownership of a home of her own and the acknowledgement of her children. It was better than marriage. It left Marie free, while guaranteeing her financial and social security. And all because miscegenation laws did not allow for legal marriage between races.

This is one of the ironies of anarchy versus lawful living: oftentimes the contractual agreements arrived at by free people to get around a law that will not allow them to do something can be much more fair than the legal thing they weren't allowed to do. If Marie Villard had married Pierre, she might not have been able to own property and be financially independent. But because she could not marry him, she was able to negotiate what amounts to a very nice settlement that provided for herself and her children.

A white woman, either married to or having an affair with a white man, found herself under quite a different situation. Theodosia Burr did not own property. She did not run a business. She was highly educated, but in many ways helpless to determine her own fate.

But even the question of education is a complicated one. Before mandatory state-run education was instituted, just how much of an education anybody got was very much dependent on who was the head of the household and how highly that person valued education. Aaron Burr saw to it that his daughter, Theodosia, was better educated than many men of her day. He also educated his slaves.

But just in case you think this was a complete aberration on Burr's part, please consider that his own mother, Esther Edwards Burr, the daughter of the preacher Jonathan Edwards, was also highly educated. Her diary reveals a witty, fluent and expressive writer. If conservatism is to be equated with keeping women in the dark, why was Esther Edwards better educated than most young high school students today of either gender?

These are complex issues. Education, property ownership and  the right to vote do  not mean anything, unless they are seen in the context of the society in which they arise and the personal abilities of the individual who receives them. We are not all better off because of universal suffrage, universal education and the emancipation proclamation. Not all black people were slaves. Not all women were illiterate or lacking in property rights before women's lib. Not all gained by the change in society. Having free education available actually makes it harder for some to educate their children than it was before this "right" was granted to all.

There is an ebb and flow to all things in human affairs. We take two steps forward and three steps back. Things do not always get better, there is not just one side to every argument, and looking into the lives of many different people both in the past and the present will show you how much progress we really are making. That's why I think historical fiction is worth exploring.


  1. I for one never thought women were illiterate or uneducated before the era of women's rights. Yes, I do prefer that we have the right to vote and hold office today, but anyone who studies history knows that most families of class and character wanted their daughters to be educated if they could afford it. For instance, look at Laura Inglass Wilder and how she studied on her own to become a teacher to help pay for her sister to go to the college of the blind. I am thinking only the most rigid and controlling of men would be intimidated by a woman knowing how to read and write, and after the invention of the printing press, women and men pretty much were neck in neck in learning how to read and write.

    1. I agree, Julia. But often people try to intimidate us into accepting their political agendas by claiming that without their politics, we could never have had anything. There were free black women who owned property and ran businesses long before the emancipation proclamation. There were many literate women long before literacy became mandatory

  2. I always enjoy reading your perspectives on such issues.