“The History of U.S. Women's Property Rights”: Colloquium with Prof. Laurel Shire
To trouble the premise of the provocative question that served as the official title for her March 16 Women’s History Month keynote address, “What’s the Matter with White Women,” Western University Prof. Laure Shire did not turn to the question’s contemporary implications—its reference to the 53% of white women voters who supported a presidential candidate in spite of allegations leveled against him of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination—but instead to the history of territorial Florida. Specifically, she focused on a legal loophole that secured property rights for certain married women in Florida during an era when coverture was still the common law as a way to expose the flawed logic of assuming that “white women” can culturally, historically, or politically be analyzed as a monolithic, coherent category.
Take, for instance, what is ultimately revealed by the 1831 case of Victoria LeSassier v. Pedro de Alba that Prof. Shire cited in introducing her study of Florida legal history. As she explained, on the one hand, that the court felt obliged to protect LeSassier’s estate from the unscrupulous reach of her husband reflects the unique rights that some women enjoyed under the territory’s hybrid legal structure. Per the Spanish civil law that was in place up until the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty, which ceded Florida to the U.S., married women had the right not only to all property owned before marriage but also to half of property accrued during the marriage. And while the United States initially attempted to impose prevailing common law norms in Florida, an 1824 statute reverted the governing doctrine back to the pre-treaty standard, marking the first time in U.S. history that a married woman’s legal and property rights were not subsumed by those of her husband.
However, Prof. Shire added, cases like LeSassier’s are not primarily significant because of the legal anomaly they expose but because of the implications of the notion of ‘whiteness’ that they introduce. For one, she noted, that the Spanish LeSassier was even treated by the courts as white reflects how whiteness was constructed in Florida around a functionally different perception of the need to establish supremacy—i.e., not as a way to draw hierarchical distinctions between Europeans but instead as a way to create and strengthen a united, “civilized” line of defense against Native Americans and freed blacks who were seen as a threat to the United States’ colonizing ambitions. As she went on to discuss, this construction of race is likewise necessary for understanding the broader, interlocking importance of the uneven application of Spanish civil law in Florida and the U.S.’s underlying motivations for reverting back to it in the first place. Though the language of Articles 6 and 8 of the Adams-Onis Treaty seemed to protect the property rights of all Florida women who married prior to 1819, the courts rarely and sporadically actually extended this protection to non-white women. This unpredictable drawing of the color line, Prof. Shire argued, shows how the history of property rights in Florida is not at all a progressive one, but rather one in which white women were a necessary cog in the larger effort to support and expand the purview of white, patriarchal settler colonial societies and the many ills that came with them.
As the example of Laura Wirt Randall shows, the consequences of supporting colonization in Florida were comprehensively destructive. As members of an elite frontier planter class, Randall and her husband were part of the extension of slavery, and all of its inhumanity, into the new territory; they were likewise part of a migration boom to Jefferson County which drove land prices up and spurred the displacement of indigenous peoples from central Florida; and though she was part of a group that wielded its power and perceived supremacy broadly and often violently, Laura Wirt Randall herself was not empowered by her anomalous property rights but was only a carrier of wealth from father, to husband, to son.
Laurel Clark Shire received her B.A. in Sociology from Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. in American Studies from George Washington University, and she currently serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Western University in Ontario. She is the author of The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and her scholarship has appeared in Journal of the Early Republic and The Journal of Women’s History, among other places. Prof. Shire previously taught at University of Hartford, and she has received fellowships and grants from the Center for the Study of Public History and Public Culture, the Women’s Education and Leadership Fund, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.