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Unpublished Paper
Marriage and Law Reform: Lessons from the Nineteenth Century Michigan Married Women’s Property Acts
ExpressO (2010)
  • Ellen Dannin

If law reform had the neat trajectory of a bullet from a smoking gun, life and law would be neater – but less interesting. This article began as a simple empirical study to test whether Michigan’s 1844 Married Women’s Property Act affected conveyancing.

When the results showed that it had no effect – that married women were included as grantors even before the MWPA made it legal for them to own property – the study expanded into a quest to identify the processes that led to its enactment and explained its operation on the family, a fundamental social institution. In that period, the family changed from a unit that must be obedient to a single head or risk anarchy and dissolution. The Married Women's Property Acts were enacted within a society – and a legal system – struggling with traditional views of marriage, the nature of democracy, economic disaster, the institution of slavery, women’s inequality, wars and their aftermath, and the state and country’s evolution into an industrialized society.

This was not the first nor, likely, the last, battle for legal change affecting families. The right to marry a person of a different race was part of the larger struggle for civil rights in the twentieth century. In our own day, we see unfolding equally complex and uneven efforts to reshape the rights of married couples. The story of the MWPA provides useful perspective and evidence on how complex legal, social, and personal issues play out.

  • women,
  • law reform,
  • real property,
  • marriage,
  • families,
  • legal history,
  • Michigan,
  • debtors,
  • creditors,
  • bankruptcy,
  • debtors,
  • creditors
Publication Date
April 12, 2010
Citation Information
Ellen Dannin. "Marriage and Law Reform: Lessons from the Nineteenth Century Michigan Married Women’s Property Acts" ExpressO (2010)
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