The dichotomy between freedom and slavery powerfully shaped early feminists’ political language. Just as the idea of “wage slavery” enabled northern workers to challenge the inequalities inherent in market definitions of freedom, the concept of the “slavery of sex” empowered the women’s movement to develop an all-encompassing critique of male authority and their own subordination. Feminists of the 1840s and 1850s pointed out that the law of marriage made nonsense of the description of the family as a “private” institution independent of public authority. When the abolitionists and women’s rights activitists Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell married, they felt obliged to repudiate New York’s laws that clothed the husband “with legal powers which ... no man should possess.”

Feminist abolitionists did not invent the analogy between marriage and slavery. The English writer Mary Wollstonecraft had invoked it as early as the 1790s in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (discussed in Chapter 8). But the analogy between free women and slaves gained prominence as it was swept up in the accelerating debate over slavery. “Woman is a slave, from the cradle to the grave,” asserted Ernestine Rose. “Father, guardian, husband—master still. One conveys her, like a piece of property, over to the other.” For their part, southern defenders of slavery frequently linked slavery and marriage as natural and just forms of inequality. Eliminating the former institution, they charged, would threaten the latter.

Marriage was not, literally speaking, equivalent to slavery. The married woman, however, did not enjoy the fruits of her own labor—a central element of freedom. Beginning with Mississippi in 1839, numerous states enacted married women’s property laws, shielding from a husband’s creditors property brought into a marriage by his wife. Such laws initially aimed not to expand women’s rights as much as to prevent families from losing their property during the depression that began in 1837. But in 1860, New York enacted a more far-reaching measure, allowing married women to sign contracts, buy and sell property, and keep their own wages. In most states, however, property accumulated after marriage, as well as wages earned by the wife, still belonged to the husband.

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