Until the past decade, historians of West Virginia statehood generally ignored the role of gender and any legislation that may have affected women. Consequently, this article also contributes to the burgeoning field of border-state and borderland analysis.
While, thus far, historians have mostly focused on either North or South during the era of emancipation, studying a border state like West Virginia shows how nineteenth-century Americans absorbed and processed a variety of influences to form a complicated sense of gender roles. In the antebellum period, women in the North and South experienced social restrictions and regulations as befitted their different cultures, although neither regional group lived without the presence of patriarchal control.
In both worlds, ideology reinforced their gender roles in society and within the household. Antebellum Southern women experienced a different set of social forces outlining their role.
The era of emancipation brought the issues of freedom and contract to the fore in American life. Historians have interpreted the impact of these discussions upon women in a of ways. Although the war may have temporarily allowed women to move outside their prescribed gender roles through their involvement in the war effort, some historians argue that women after the war reverted to an older model of femininity and domesticity to help reestablish the concept of traditional Southern masculinity.
The transitions in relationships brought about by the era of emancipation meant that society had to find new methods of social negotiation, thereby moving from bondage to contract. With the advent of industrialization, the North viewed contract as the more enlightened and less restrictive method of social interaction, a change which had divergent meanings.
Yet, although West Virginia achieved statehood during the Civil War, in many ways the movement had begun decades prior to the official split. Western Virginia was a mountainous area, not conducive to the plantation-style farming and slave society that formed the backbone of the eastern Virginia economy. Still, it was not simply economically that the two regions had diverged. A of conventions in the antebellum period attempted to address such concerns and reach a compromise.
In addition, though the compromises of led to some changes in suffrage and election reforms, the convention installed new tax laws highly favorable to the eastern part of the state, and as the decade came to a close, western Virginians once again found themselves burdened by their relationship with the planter elite. Despite sentiment in eastern Virginia, western Virginians remained wary of the effects of secession. Political activist Waitman T. Pierpont governor of the Restored State of Virginia. The Second Wheeling Convention drafted a dismemberment ordinance, which the public ratified in October, despite some minor resistance.
Throughout the early United States, lawmakers based most statutes related to gender roles on English precedents. Women, upon marriage, attained the status of feme covert. Married women could not keep their own wages; they could not sue or be sued. In return for this power, the husband was expected to support his wife and provide her dower one third of his real property if she survived him. During the early part of the nineteenth century, the development of equity slightly altered the interpretation of common law.
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Husbands had to give permission for antenuptial agreements, and estates were often managed by an appointed third party, usually a male relative. Indeed, the passage of such laws often coincided with economic crises.
In fact, in the yearthough thirty-three percent of Northern states had an earnings act, giving women control over their wages, not a single Southern state had one. In Petersburg, for instance, women made use of separate estates and even wrote their own wills to pass down property.
Property laws were not exclusive to any region, although they differed in substance.
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Abraham Soper from Tyler County used repeated examples of situations in which women would be left bankrupt and vulnerable because of intemperate, financially irresponsible, or misfortunate husbands. Still, because these arguments upheld the notions of protection due women, such laws fell within a pattern acceptable within the patriarchal system. In the measure, he saw the un-sexing of the female gender, for women gained their femininity from their submissive role in the marital relationship.
If such a measure were passed, he argued, why not give women the vote?
Why not allow them to the military? Others criticized this notion. Since all the delegates at the constitutional convention were Union sympathizers, the vote cannot be analyzed upon secessionist or Unionist lines.
Despite its initial acceptance by the convention, this amendment was defeated nearly a month later, though the historical record shows no debate or reason why an amendment so acceptable at the beginning of January should be found unacceptable by February. Perhaps he realized that giving married women power over their property would liberate them in some ways.
In order to do so, the codifiers had to look past the South, and especially Virginia, for an example.
In this case, the model was New York, an unusual circumstance in a series of laws often based on the Virginia Code. However, there were limitations. In general, married women in West Virginia experienced a change in their former status as feme covert. They could now sue and be sued.
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Women also received control of their earnings, something which Southern states had hesitated to allow before the war, and only about twenty percent would permit by Possibly this was because of the differences in time period and state status. Inthe break from Virginia was still fresh, and West Virginians had to prove that there was validity in even forming a new state.
Husbands and wives in the antebellum period were able to manipulate the legal system in such ways to obtain separation in a multitude of circumstances. Still, marriage during this period was still interpreted as a lifelong commitment, and the law was most often construed to prevent its dissolution. Though legislators modeled the new divorce laws, codified in the late s, upon Virginia precedent, they quickly moved to modify some aspects of the law.
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Inthe legislature passed a bill that expanded the and type of reasons one could give to attain a divorce. Divorce from bed and board gave the woman rights to property, business, and contracts, as if feme soleand released her husband from his responsibility to maintain her.
Neither party could remarry. Willey, and Francis H. He moved to Parkersburg, Virginia, inwhere he was admitted to the bar and quickly became involved in state politics.
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Van Winkle opposed secession and was an early supporter of the movement to form a new state. The marriage was generally described as a happy one, and Van Winkle was distraught at her death just nine years later. While Van Winkle saw definite distinctions between men and women, he did not believe their relationship to be one exclusively of master and dependent. Drawing from the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve, he contended that the marital relationship was one based first and foremost on companionship.
Another influential Republican legislator during this period was Chester D. Still, his family had many ties to the North, and he returned to Connecticut to attend Wesleyan University. Hubbard found an amiable match in marriage. He married Sarah Pallister inand their correspondence reflects their strong feelings for one another.
He was a founding member of the Wheeling Female College and actively involved in reform movements, such as temperance. Like so many other Unionists and Republicans of the period in West Virginia, he felt the pull of Southern forces but was also strongly inclined toward a progressive view of gender, which indicated his attachment to the North.
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Of the many men involved in the statehood movement and the political development of the state, Waitman T. Willey, U. He was seen as a solid Unionist and, as such, was elected to serve at the Virginia Secession Convention. Willey exemplified many of the uncertainties and complications felt by his state as it formed. Having been born and raised in western Virginia, Willey had more ties to the South than many of the leading advocates for the new state.
Before the war, he was deeply suspicious of abolitionists and was a slaveholder himself. Willey had a close relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, and the pair were devoted to each other from the start. I helped to make your money at least took care of it which is the same thing.
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Throughout his life, Willey was active in the temperance movement, especially through the Sons of Temperance organization. Like Hubbard, his contact with these reformers exposed him to women outside the domestic sphere. It appears he did not. Though receiving some influences from his wife and through court cases, he still maintained a conservative view of gender roles within the household.
Willey was nothing if not complex. Francis H. Pierpont, the governor of the Restored State of Virginia, was also born in western Virginia.
In fact, he and Willey had attended the same college in Pennsylvania.