Women in Missouri History is an exceptional collection of essays surveying the history of women in the state of Missouri from the period of colonial settlement through the mid-twentieth century. The women featured in these essays come from various ethnic, economic, and racial groups, from both urban and rural areas, and from all over the state. The authors effectively tell these women’s stories through biographies and through techniques of social history, allowing the reader to learn not only about the women’s lives individually, but also about how groups of “ordinary” women shaped the history of the state.
The essays in this collection address questions that are at the center of current developments in the field of women’s history but are written in a manner that makes them accessible to general readers. Providing an excellent general overview of the history of women in Missouri, this collection makes a valuable contribution to a better understanding of the state’s past.
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Women in Missouri History
In Search of Power and Influence
By LeeAnn Whites, Mary C. Neth, Gary R. Kremer
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2004 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
French Women in Colonial Missouri, 1750–1805
Susan Calafate Boyle
Ste. Genevieve, a community on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about sixty miles south of St. Louis, was one of a number of French settlements in a region that extended from Quebec to Louisiana. During the eighteenth century, the territory on both sides of the Mississippi River, between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, including present-day Missouri, was called the Illinois Country. Like other communities in the Illinois Country, the population of Ste. Genevieve was highly mobile and included French, Spanish, Americans, blacks, and several Indian groups.
French settlement began in Ste. Genevieve in the middle of the eighteenth century, when habitants (resident farmers) trickled in from Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Post Vincennes, Prairie du Rocher, Nouvelle Chartres, and other communities in the vicinity, along with some from Canada, particularly the province of Quebec. Cession of the Mississippi's east bank to Britain in 1763 prompted French settlers to cross the river, as did the advance of Americans into the region after the Revolutionary War. Then, from 1766 on, the river's west bank was Spanish territory, but Spanish rule was only lightly felt.
During the eighteenth century, Ste. Genevieve remained small and predominantly male. It expanded from 23 settlers, according to the 1752 census, to 1,170 in 1800. In 1803 a French visitor, M. Perrin du Lac, reported that it had reached a population of about 1,300, including blacks and a number of white Americans.
Travelers in the Illinois Country noted that French women, whom one described as "by no means prone to consider themselves in the light of goods and chattels of their liege-lords," tended to assume greater responsibilities than we might expect. In 1811 Henry Marie Brackenridge revisited the town where he had spent three years of his childhood. A man of letters, a lawyer, a diplomat, and a perceptive observer, he remarked that the women of Ste. Genevieve "will not be considered secondary personages in the matrimonial association. The advice of the wife is taken on all important, as well as on less weighty concerns, and she generally decides."
A year later, Amos Stoddard, the first U.S. civil commandant of the area, offered a strikingly similar assessment:
The women have more influence over their husbands than is common in most other countries. Perhaps this arises in part from the example of the parent state; in part from the respect, which the men entertain for their wives; and perhaps still more from the almost exclusive right, which the women have to the property, in consequences of marriage contracts.... Even in most instances of purchases and sales, the women are consulted; and they not unfrequently assume the management of property.
Few studies have focused on Missouri women during the French colonial period, but general histories of the area tend to support these travelers' observations. This study tests their validity and explores how demographic, legal, and economic factors interacted in Ste. Genevieve to allow French women a stronger role in decisions affecting themselves, their families, and their community.
Since the French in the Illinois Country left virtually no surviving diaries, reminiscences, or personal correspondence that might provide intimate glimpses of their activities or attitudes, this analysis is based on official records—marriage contracts, wills, estate records, land sales and transfers, petitions, and legal proceedings. Although these documents are not numerous, they include all the known surviving official papers of the community of Ste. Genevieve. A few travelers' accounts round out the body of evidence. These records are the main source to study women of French descent, principally wives and widows. While this study focuses on Ste. Genevieve, it is likely that conditions in other communities in the Illinois Country were substantially similar.
Throughout the eighteenth century, males outnumbered females in Ste. Genevieve by a considerable margin, the number of white women in the population rising from 25 in 1752 to 430 in 1800. The census of 1766 showed that even though the proportion of females was low (30 percent), the imbalance would prove temporary, since over half (54 percent) of the individuals aged fourteen and older were females. Among those younger than fourteen, however, males were heavily preponderant (68 percent). The census of 1779 revealed a similar pattern, listing 178 adult males fourteen or older for 90 adult females of the same age range. The more detailed 1787 census recorded slight changes. The percentage of females increased to 34 (and for the first time females are listed as heads of households), but the gap between males and females of marriageable age widened even more. There were 111 men aged eighteen years or older for 21 women aged fourteen years or older. Comparing the 1766 and 1787 censuses also shows a decline in the proportion of adult women, from 42.2 percent in 1766 to 37.9 percent in 1787.
Sexual imbalance resulted in a considerable discrepancy in the ages of the marriage partners. In 1787, sixty-one of eighty households were headed by married couples. In fifty-three of these, the husband was older than the wife, the average difference being 10.1 years. Thirty-three husbands were at least eight years older than their wives, and thirteen were more than sixteen years older. These circumstances were not limited to 1787. Analysis of age at first marriage for all couples who drew contracts between 1754 and 1805 reveals that the average bride was almost nine years younger than her husband (18.8 years of age for women versus 27.8 years of age for men). Brides were as young as fourteen years of age, but the majority of women (83.7 percent) got married between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. Men began to wed at eighteen; however, the age at first marriage for most men (86.7 percent) ranged much more widely, from twenty to thirty-six.
Dramatic sexual imbalance combined with wide age discrepancy between many spouses understandably produced a large number of widows and a higher rate of second and third marriages for women than for men. Almost 20 percent of the brides who drew marriage contracts were widows, but fewer than 10 percent of the grooms were widowers. Some wives who were very young when their husbands died enjoyed considerable influence and independence for many years of their lives. Examination of the notarial register, which was maintained from 1766 to 1805 and lists many of the community's legal transactions, reveals a high rate of participation by widows. Of the seventy-five women noted, fifty-six were widows and six were legally separated. Although close to 25 percent of these women remarried, they continued to be active in social and economic affairs.
The presence of a small but influential group of mature females characterized eighteenth-century Ste. Genevieve. Maturity was the distinctive feature of the wives and widows who initiated legal proceedings, the average age of such women being close to forty. It is doubtful that the very young Ste. Genevieve brides could have had much influence in the early years of marriage. The evidence suggests that newly married women kept a low profile; unless acting jointly with their husbands, they seldom participated in significant socioeconomic activities. Their days were devoted to child rearing and learning to manage their households. With time, however, they became involved in more varied transactions, acquired experience and greater responsibility, and improved their status vis-à-vis their husbands.
Demographic factors do not totally explain the circumstances of women in the Illinois Country. Equally influential were elements of the French legal system that survived there throughout the eighteenth century. The French colonies in North America were governed according to laws compiled in the coutume de Paris (Custom of Paris), which adopted the form of property devolution traditionally used in the western regions of France: equality among all heirs regardless of sex. According to students of French inheritance laws, the system contributed to high rates of celibacy and late marriage because it delayed the final division of parents' property. At the same time, by giving all the children a share of the patrimony, it encouraged them to remain close to the paternal home. Especially in times of high mortality, this system of lignage (descent) served as an important element in organizing the relationship between generations by providing guidelines for property transfer and by ensuring some measure of financial security for descendants. In Ste. Genevieve this became crucial.
Marriage contracts, partages (divisions of estates), and wills record the system of property transfer used in the Illinois Country. Marriage contracts are the most important. One hundred and fifty survive. When these are checked against the parish register, which contains the most complete list of marriages for the overwhelmingly Catholic community of Ste. Genevieve, we find that for the whole period 1752–1804, 63 percent of couples who married in the parish church drew marriage contracts, with fluctuations as follows: 1760s, 47 percent; 1770s, 88 percent; 1780s, 58 percent; 1790s, 61 percent. Most of the longstanding French families in Ste. Genevieve, regardless of their economic position, drew such documents, even for illegitimate daughters. Couples of mixed ethnic background, particularly when the wife was an Indian, were less likely to resort to this formality. Contracts were also rare among those who had not lived long in the community.
Contracts followed the French tradition of community property to which both husband and wife made contributions, mostly their propres—the property inherited from parents or other relatives. Drawn up at the moment of marriage, these contracts regulated the distribution of property at the marriage's dissolution. The system granted each spouse half of the estate upon the death of the other, with the remaining half to be divided equally among the couple's children. If they had no offspring, the survivor was entitled to enjoy the couple's property for life. In addition, the wife was entitled to a douaire (dower), a sum of money stipulated in the contract that she would receive when her husband died.
Ste. Genevieve contracts show concern about protecting the property of the descent line and in so doing safeguarded the bride's property from mismanagement by her husband. In eight instances a distinction was made between the property that would remain hers or her relatives' and that which was to become part of the couple's communal assets. Was this an attempt to protect the property of these women from the vagaries of the local economy, or did it reflect fear of mismanagement of their estates by their husbands? Only for women who had been previously married do contracts systematically identify the value of the property brought into the spousal community—usually their share of the community of the first marriage. The douaire and the preciput (another sum listed in the marriage contract that normally went to the surviving spouse) from the bride's first marriage were sometimes excluded from the community of the second one. In some cases, grooms provided their wives-to-be with additional shares.
A wife had the option of renouncing the community property if, upon the death of her husband, their estate was burdened with debts. In such cases the widow received her douaire, her propres, her personal effects, and the preciput, while creditors vied for the remaining assets. In cases of separation, the wife could also renounce the community property. Thus a wife's property was protected from a husband's rapacity or fecklessness. The system provided women with financial security, while at the same time it tended to discourage risky economic activities.
Commentators on French customary law believe that the right to renounce the community property was a privilege accorded women as a counterbalance to the limitations that marriage placed on them. Having little say in the success of her family's economic enterprise, a woman in France was free to disclaim its failures. This privilege was also maintained in the Illinois Country, although in Ste. Genevieve the contribution of the wife to the welfare of her family was more significant than in France.
Partages also shed light on inheritance practices. Of almost four hundred surviving sets of estate records for the 1752–1830 period, twenty-five contain such divisions, pertaining mostly to estates of medium to above-average size. Legal expenses probably discouraged the less well-to-do from taking such formal measures. The poor are apt to have relied on a different, extralegal system to hand down property to their children. It is unlikely that men or women who owned only one arpent (about 0.85 of an acre) of land, a cow, and a few tools would have resorted to the same inheritance strategy as the more affluent.
Numerous other estate documents, dealing with such matters as appointments of guardians, repartitions among debtors, and separations, offer direct and indirect evidence that confirms the existence of a single system of property division—division by halves and equality among heirs. First, the share of the surviving spouse was established. The preciput and the douaire, if the survivor was the wife, were deducted from the total assets of the estate. The remainder was halved, with one half going to the surviving spouse and the other half to the offspring. Divisions reveal that all children received similar portions of the various kinds of property the family held—slaves, land, stock, tools, furniture. There was no discrimination against female offspring.
Wills were rare in the Illinois Country; only forty-five survive for the period examined. Such low numbers are understandable in that the coutume did not require that heirs be named or their shares specified. Twenty-three testators were single men or widowers who bestowed their property on surviving kin. Testaments from five widows followed the same pattern. Wills drawn jointly by couples, of which there were seven between 1752 and 1830, granted the surviving partner the entire estate regardless of sex and without any reservations. Also during this time, the ten documents drawn by married men placed the wife in complete charge of the couple's property until the children came of age. When that time came, the widow got at least half of the property and in some cases an additional share, while the remainder was equally divided among the children. Even if she remarried, a widow did not lose her half of the community property, and in no case was she deprived of her dower. The evidence indicates that the customary law was followed in Ste. Genevieve. Only one will, that of François Leclerc, shows disregard for the provisions of the coutume. He not only made his wife his sole heir and administrative executor, but also established that when his two sons came of age, she was to give each only 1,500 livres, a very small share of the couple's property, which was assessed at over 50,000 livres.
Excerpted from Women in Missouri History by LeeAnn Whites, Mary C. Neth, Gary R. Kremer. Copyright © 2004 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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