A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 1

This week we’re traveling back in Lowcountry history to talk about women. Every March we celebrate women’s history month, and in the past I’ve presented some programs on various aspects of this topic around the community. Rather than profiling the lives of famous South Carolina women, or talking about famous events in local women’s history, I’ve taken a different tack and tried to focus on the bigger picture, and to include the voices of obscure women. Whether she was rich, poor, enslaved, or free; whether she was of African, European, or Native American descent, the lives of ALL women in early South Carolina were bounded and constrained by a set of laws created by white men, based on ancient laws brought over from England at the founding of the Carolina colony. In order to gain a better understanding of how women lived, say in the first century of South Carolina, we need to understand how the law influenced their passage from the cradle to the grave.

A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 1


It’s a big, complicated topic, and I’ve been struggling to find a good title for this work. My first title was simply, “Women’s Rights in Early South Carolina,” but in reality it’s more like “The Lack of Women’s Right’s in Early South Carolina.” A more precise title might be “An Examination of the Legal Boundaries of a Woman’s life in Colonial South Carolina,” but that’s just too wordy. So how about this, simply: “A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina.” By progress, I don’t mean the accumulation of rights and liberties, as in the women’s progressive movement in the early twentieth century. Rather, I’m talking about a woman’s progression through the stages of life. Not the biological stages of life, but the legally recognized stages of a woman’s existence, from infancy to widowhood.

Now you might think my approach is a bit clinical and dry, but that’s part of the point. I want to you de-romanticize your notions of the past. In the nineteenth century, a new concept we call Romanticism established an idealistic aura around perceived feminine virtues like tenderness, motherhood, childhood, and family unity. In the early days of South Carolina, and the United States in general, however, the reality was far more bleak. Marriage was not about love, but rather about the accumulation and transfer of property. Child-bearing was a duty rooted in the future projection of property and power, not about tenderness and family bliss. In the eyes of the law, and in society in general, women were treated as objects necessary for the present increase and the future survival of a man’s worldly estate. The law offered minimal protection and recognition for women because in our culture, our society, fathers and husbands were expected to shoulder that burden. And of course our Anglo-European culture was rooted in the concept of paternalism, in which the rights and liberties of men far outweighed those of women.

Well that’s all pretty depressing, right? But learning about the laws that framed the lives of women in early South Carolina doesn’t have to be a chore. Actually, I think it’s pretty exciting, because this knowledge gives us the tools to pry back layers of history to get a better glimpse at our ancestors. Working as an archivist and historian for nearly twenty years, I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks who were tracing their family’s genealogy. For the vast majority of us, the women in our respective family trees are pretty silent characters. We have very few—if any—records that describe or document their actions, let alone their thoughts and feelings. They were born, they married and had children, and then they passed away. Often they are simply names on a chart illustrating the progression of generations over time. Without a more robust paper trail, how is it possible to know more about their lives? Sadly, we may never be able to learn the small details of the lives of most of the women who lived in the distant past, but I’ve come up with a solution for helping us recapture or re-imagine the general outline of their lives. By perusing the written laws of early South Carolina, we can gain an understanding of the social customs and legal framework that governed the lives all women. The details varied according to one’s status, of course, so the law was more accommodating to rich women and to free women in general, while poor women and enslaved women enjoyed far less protection under the law. Regardless of these class and caste distinctions, however, there is a common legal outline for the lives of most women in early South Carolina. Let’s call these legal stages Infancy, Spinsterhood, Marriage, and Widowhood.

What about Motherhood? That’s a great question, and here’s my historically accurate, but emotionally unsatisfactory answer: In early South Carolina, being a mother did not offer any special rights or protections in the eyes of the law. Children were a form of property, and husbands controlled the property of their wives. Women who bore children out of wedlock were guilty of the crime of bastardy (yes, South Carolina passed a law against bastardy in 1703), and guilty women were subject to fines, public humiliation, and corporal punishment. In short, our culture and laws regarded childbearing as a normal duty, not as a miracle of life worthy of celebration and protection. With that distressing fact behind us, let’s move on to the earliest phase of a woman’s life: infancy.

According to the law of early South Carolina, which was based on centuries of English legal traditions, infancy was a long phase of dependency, from a child’s birth to his or her twenty-first birthday. At age twenty-one, the law recognized that a person had reached their “majority,” and could make decisions for his or her self. The period of infancy was, therefore, a period of “non age,” or “minority,” during which time they lacked the legal ability to do anything. This is still pretty much the reality for children today—they’re totally dependent on adults for all the necessities of life. Just like today, infants could acquire property through gifts and legacies, but they could not manage such property until they reached their majority. Control of an infant’s person and property was legally vested in the child’s father or legally-appointed guardian. Notice that I didn’t say “mother.” Women had so few rights in the eyes of our early laws that a mother had no legal standing over her own children. Today we take it for granted that a mother is a child’s natural, primary guardian, but such was not the case in colonial times.

For example, let’s consider the case of Mary Haly. Mary was the young widow of Lieutenant Lachlan Shaw, who died in 1761 while fighting the Cherokee in western South Carolina. Lieutenant Shaw had neglected to make his will before going off to fight the Indians, and so the management of his modest estate was unclear. Mary had an infant son named Lachlan Shaw junior, but the boy had no legally-appointed guardian. Today we might think “what’s the big deal? Surely Mary is the guardian of her own child.” But that wasn’t the way it worked in earlier times. The law considered the infant boy the natural heir to his late father’s property, and it would be held in trust by a guardian until his twenty-first birthday. Women simply did not control property, so young Lachlan needed a proper guardian. In 1763, Mary wed Dr. John Haly, but even this step did not automatically empower Dr. Haly to act as the legal guardian of his stepson. To achieve something that seems natural to us today, an extraordinary step was required. Shortly after her re-marriage in 1763, Mary Haly petitioned Governor Thomas Boone, asking to be appointed legal guardian of her own son and his property. The governor granted her request, and created a document that reads like an apprenticeship contract. Mary was required to provide her son with meat, drink, washing, clothing, lodging, and education, and to guard his property until Lachlan reached his majority.

Speaking of apprenticeships, let’s make a brief diversion into education. Most young women in early South Carolina spent their childhood within a family household where they performed chores and learned skills like sewing and cooking that would be essential in adulthood. Girls generally received a very sparse education. Our social traditions dictated that women were destined to become wives and mothers, so book learning was generally considered a waste of expensive resources. Some young women did perform apprenticeships, however, living their teenage years in the household of another family where they worked in return for a modicum of an education. I know of no data about the frequency of this practice in South Carolina, but there are some records available in scattered sources.

For example, I’ll mention the indenture of Charlotte Philips in the year 1708. As a young teenager, Charlotte was sent by her parents to live with another family, René and Charlotte Ravenel, as a servant, until her twenty-first birthday. The document recording this arrangement survives among the Records of the Secretary of the Province, at our state archive in Columbia, is really an apprenticeship indenture, which is just a fancy name for a contract. In the document, the Ravenel family agrees to feed and protect Charlotte as long as she behaves herself. In return, they will teach Charlotte to sew, to pray, and to read (but not to write–which was a separate skill in early America). That was the extent of young Charlotte’s education, and that was not uncommon.

Consider also the following apprenticeship notice printed in the South Carolina Gazette, Charleston’s first newspaper, in late April 1746. An anonymous writer was looking for a girl between the ages of ten and fourteen years of age to be taken in as an apprentice. In return for her work, the girl would be “kept in a House & taught needle work.” I guess that’s better than living in a barn, or in the kitchen house, right? Some girls did learn trade skills, however.

Consider the case of Anne Anderson, a short, thick, red-faced apprentice girl of sixteen years who ran away from her master, a stay-maker named Elizabeth Harvey in the spring of 1767. According to a runaway notice printed in the local newspaper, young Anne was learning a money-making skill from a local business woman, sewing stays (what we would call boned corsets), but some disagreement or dissatisfaction had caused Anne to flee, and now there was a reward of £5 for her return. Today this would be a matter of great concern for the child’s welfare, but in 1767 there was a bounty on the head of an ungrateful servant. Perhaps Anne was frustrated by her lack of options and chose to rebel against the narrow lines that constrained a young girl’s life in that era.

Sadly, things changed little for young women with an appetite for education until the early twentieth century. South Carolina didn’t enforce compulsory education for girls until 1919. That isn’t to say that girls didn’t have opportunities for some education before 1919. Rather, the educational playing field wasn’t leveled for the sexes until the early twentieth century. In 1868 we created our State Board of Education, but shortly afterward the progress of public education in South Carolina was derailed by the Jim Crow segregation laws of the late nineteenth-century, and didn’t really get back on track until after World War I. Poor Anne Anderson wasn’t the only young apprentice girl to run away in search of better opportunities, but I’ll let the writers of historical fiction track down their stories.

Let’s move on to the next legally-recognized phase of a young woman’s life: Spinsterhood. Many cultures around the world celebrate or mark a girls passage into womanhood with ceremonies and some change of status. In the laws of early South Carolina, this change is recognized as the passage from infancy to a new state known as spinsterhood. A spinster, according to our old laws, was simply a young woman who was legally eligible to be married. Most folks who hear the word “spinster” immediately conjure up images of an older, unmarried woman, an “old maid,” if you will, but that isn’t a historically accurate image. In its most common usage, the term spinster usually referred to a teenage girl who had attained the socially-recognized minimum age for marriage. Less frequently, the term was used to denote a woman in her twenties who was still unmarried, but such a woman was a rarity in early South Carolina. Even less frequently, the term spinster was applied to women who made it to an advanced age without having ever married. In an era when marriage and child rearing were a woman’s primary social duties, elderly spinsters were quite a rare phenomenon.

So in the eyes of the law, at what age does an infant girl become a spinster? You won’t find the answer to this question in the statute law of early South Carolina, but rather in the ancient traditions that came to us through the Common Law of England. As a short cut, let’s turn to a legal resource that was published in Charleston by a man named William Simpson in 1761. In that year Simpson, a minor government official, published a book titled The Practical Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, of His Majesty’s Province of South Carolina. This is a fascinating reference book containing an alphabetical list of crimes with definitions and instructions on how each should be prosecuted. You can find the book in libraries around the state, and the full text is now online as well. According to Simpson’s book, the legal age at which a young woman can consent to sex is TEN. At twelve, she can be married, but only if she has the consent of her father or her guardian. Without such parental consent, no woman under the age of twenty-one can legally contract marriage. But of course exceptions were made in rural communities without much legal presence, where pre-marital children and “common law” unions were not uncommon.

All of this might sound horrible and irresponsible to us in the twenty-first century, but it’s important to remember that many young women in the early generations of South Carolina were first married at the age of fourteen or fifteen. In affluent circles, especially in urban centers like Charleston, the parents of newly-minted spinsters paraded their teenage daughters before friends and neighbors in a spectacle that we call a debut. Some people still relish this antiquated practice, but in its original form the debut was a sort of glorified cattle show, the purpose of which was the initiate the process of bidding for the opportunity to marry into a prosperous family. Of course this ritual wasn’t kind to the young women, but life expectancy was shorter then. In fact, it was not uncommon to find widowed mothers under the age of twenty. The point of all this history is not to arouse contempt for the past, but rather to underscore the fact that in earlier times a woman’s life often turned very rapidly from the innocence of childhood to the duties of marriage and the hardships of motherhood.

Moving right along with our tour through the legal phases of a women’s life in early South Carolina, let’s talk about marriage. It’s one of the greatest disappearing tricks in our history. Before you call me crazy, consider this fact. In the eyes of our early laws, which of course were based on ancient English laws, a woman, upon her marriage, disappeared. That is to say, her rights and her property disappeared by melding into that of her husband. In the words of the great English legal scholar, William Blackstone, “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.” This legal phenomenon is known as the “doctrine of coverture.” A married woman is, in the legal Latin of old English, a “feme covert.” The husband speaks for the wife and takes control of any property she might have brought to the marriage, but he is also obliged to care for and protect her and the offspring they produce. Whatever property or wealth she brought to the marriage is her dowry, and it immediately becomes his property.

A married woman had a one-third interest in all of her husband’s property, and this interest was called her dower. If a husband wanted to sell a piece of real estate, therefore, his wife had to sign a separate document called a “renunciation of dower,” in which she acknowledged that she consented to the sale without coercion. Even if the husband did coerce his wife into signing the renunciation, a woman in the early days of South Carolina had little option but to bend to the will of her husband. You might think this sounds like a quaint, ancient practice, but the state of South Carolina required married women to sign “renunciations of dower” until the year 1984. Sounds incredible, right? But this fact underscores the deep roots of our state’s legal framework.

In all matters, civil and criminal, a husband spoke for and represented his wife. Married women could not enter into contracts, sue or be sued, or even complain, in their own person. Furthermore, since a husband was answerable for a wife’s misbehavior, the law empowered him to correct, restrain, and chastise his wife, “within reasonable bounds,” as William Blackstone observed. In the conclusion to Chapter 15 of Blackstone’s famous Commentaries on the Laws of England, the author even added the following patronizing comment on women’s rights: “Even the disabilities which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit. So great a favorite is the female sex of the laws of England.”

If the Common Law of old England acknowledged the disappearance of woman’s legal existence in marriage, the Equity Law of England and early South Carolina recognized a sort of loophole. A woman’s property could be protected from her husband’s potential ill management through a legal instrument called a “marriage settlement,” which was usually, but not always created just prior to a marriage. This settlement is a tripartite agreement between a woman, her husband-to-be, and a neutral trustee who was usually a member of the woman’s extended family. By placing a woman’s property in the hands of a third party, her fortune or dower rights would be legally off-limits from her husband’s potential meddling or debts. Besides protecting a wife from her husband’s potential for bad investments or bad behavior, the marriage settlement also allowed family property to pass legally from one generation to another through a matrilineal line. Furthermore, in case of her husband’s death, the woman with a marriage settlement enjoyed legal powers over his estate that ordinary women could only dream of. In early South Carolina, just like today, these sorts of pre-nuptial marriage settlements were almost always created by and for rich folk. Nevertheless, you’ll find hundreds of early marriage settlements among the records of the Secretary of State at our state archive in Columbia. They offer an interesting view into premarital negotiations of a segment of the population of early South Carolina, and could be very useful material for creating a historical soap opera.

I’ll give you one quick example. In October 1793, twenty-three-year-old Harriet Neyle of Charleston had agreed to marry a recently-arrived French refugee named John Sollée. Harriet’s family had arrived in Charleston two generations earlier and acquired a respectable amount of property and prestige. From her late father, Harriet had inherited a handsome amount of property. John Sollée was an unknown quantity, a native of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), who in late 1793 was about to begin construction a French theater on the west side of Church Street downtown. Wary of the risks involved, Harriet’s family drafted a marriage settlement that John Sollée grudgingly signed. In the document, which you’ll find at the state archive, Harriet’s family offered Sollée a small cash settlement—a dowry—in exchange for his promise to give up any claims to ownership of any of Harriet’s property. In this case, Harriet’s family was right to exercise caution. John Sollée’s French Theatre was quite popular after it opened in 1794, but Sollée himself proved to be a poor businessman, and money flowed through his fingers like running water. Suing John Sollée for debts was a popular activity in the late 1790s. The couple had children, of course, and thanks to the marriage settlement, Harriet’s property bypassed her husband and passed safely, and intact, to her children.

The marriage settlement offered rich women a modicum of independence from their husbands, but women of more modest means had a legal avenue to greater mobility as well. A married woman, legally a feme covert, could become a feme sole, that is, a business woman independent of her husband’s finances. Like the rest of our legal framework, this practice came to us from England, and was fairly common in the urban society of colonial Charleston. To become a feme sole, a woman’s husband first had to execute a contract, like a performance bond, with another man, pledging not to meddle in his wife’s business affairs. Of course a woman had to convince her husband to allow her to engage in business, and, as you can imagine, conversations about this topic took place almost exclusively in working-class households, where the wife’s extra income might be greatly appreciated.

For example, in the summer of 1768 Mrs. Mary Stevens convinced her husband to allow her to become a feme sole. The Stevens family had recently moved from England to Savannah to Charleston, and Mr. John Stevens was employed as a music teacher and organist at St. Michael’s Church. John drafted a contract with his neighbor, a baker named James Wright, pledging to forfeit a sum of money if he interfered in his wife’s business. John also acknowledged that Mary “may have and exercise any business or trade as a Sole and Separate dealer in buying selling bartering exchanging and retailing all kind of goods . . . whatsoever in Charles Town or else where and in such other way or manner she may think fit.”

South-Carolina Gazette, 11 July 1768

South-Carolina Gazette, 11 July 1768

Two weeks later, in early July 1768, Mary Stevens announced her new venture in the South Carolina Gazette. She identified herself as a “sole trader” who had opened a boarding house at the corner of East Bay Street and Longitude Lane. A short while later, the boarding house expanded and became a fashionable coffee house. When John Stevens became Deputy Postmaster for the province of South Carolina, Mary’s boarding house also became the town’s post office. Following John’s death in 1772, Mary was not a wealthy widow, but her valuable experience as a businesswoman endowed her with more stability and more independence than most married women in this country.

Tune in next week for more about the status of women in early South Carolina, including details relating to enslaved women, free women of color, and Native American women.