“MONTANA LAWS THAT ARE OF PECULIAR INTEREST TO WOMEN”
“A short time ago, one of the leading newspapers of Montana reported that the school board of San Francisco, including two women members, had gone on record as unalterably opposed to the employment of married women as teachers, one of these women adding for good measure that ‘a married woman should stay at home and take care of her husband.’
Discussing employment of married women is not the primary purpose of this article, but incidentally let us look at the subject a little about which there is so much discussion. Scarcely more than a hundred years ago, the employment of women outside of the home was the exception. But then each home was a workshop. The women in it were spinners of flax and wool, the weavers of cloth out of which they fashioned the garments which clothed the whole family. They carded the wool and spun it into yarn from which they knit mittens, caps and hoods. Little money was then required even for raw materials. But with the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenney and the exercise of Yankee ingenuity in other ways, it gradually became more profitable to buy ready-made garments, boots and shoes, until today, it is the exception when any garment is made at home. This radical change has revolutionized the whole economic scheme. To buy garments takes money. Labor no longer required in the house is potential wealth, but must be converted into cash. To convert this potential purchasing power into money, women have been forced into gainful occupations and are working today, not from caprice, as some would have us believe, but as a result of economic pressure.
It may be true that the employment of married women outside of the home has a tendency to undermine the home, as we know it, and that the situation is growing more acute. It is becoming quite the fashion for a young matron to continue on her job after marriage, even here. But I presume that the average salary for a man in this state is less than $150.00 per month. Of men in the trades, I am told that annual earnings are less than $1,000.00, and that is what his family must live on. Take the average family of five persons at that rate (And I am not exaggerating the situation) and then say whether or not there is any wonder that married women work. Again, I venture to say that the inventory of the average estate probated in rural communities of this state, is less than $10,000. What the average estate of the wage-earner may be, I hesitate to contemplate, for unless he has been able to accumulate insurance, he is bound to leave his family but poorly provided for. When I speak of estates, I mean the property which is the joint accumulation of husband and wife during coverture, and when you consider results, do you wonder that married women insist on working? I think the wonder should be that any of them stop. I think women are beginning to wonder, in a feeble way, just what they get from sacrifice, and why this sacrifice should be demanded of them, and the old order is changing whether for better or worse, I know not, but it is not thru the caprice of women, perhaps not even by the choice of a majority of them, but thru stress of economic conditions.
Generally speaking, the laws of Montana are liberal to women, and I am now speaking of ‘married women,’ for as to single women there is practically no discrimination. A married woman is accorded the right to make contracts, buy and sell and conduct business in her own rights, she may sell or mortgage her real estate without her husband’s consent, and neither the husband, nor his creditors, have any claim on her property except for necessaries. She can make a will but cannot by that means deprive him of one-third of her property, if he survives her. S.he can even control her earnings outside of the home, if she so desires.
But if a married woman has no property of her own, and if she spends her time and strength as a majority of women in rural communities do, assisting in the work which usually falls to the lot of the farmer’s wife, and if she assumes as most of them do, that the fruits of the joint labor of herself and her husband is hers, as well as his, she is doomed to a rude awakening, if she survives him. She will then suddenly discover that the property she has fondly regarded as ‘ours’ has become ‘your husband’s estate,’ and subject to the control of the Probate Court under the jurisdiction of our probate laws. But tradition has so bound and shackled women and so imbued them with the beauty and duty of self-sacrifice on the part of wife and mother, and this duty has been so religiously inculcated into them, that they hardly venture to resent the injustice which the law inflicts upon them.
We will suppose, for illustration, that a young woman earning from $50.00 to $75.00 per month as a teacher, married a quarter of a century ago at the time when it was still possible to take up homesteads in Montana. That they did so and settled down to develop and improve it and have met with moderate success. That the land is worth from $8,000 to $10,000 and that the stock and equipment is worth a couple of thousand more. The land was proved up on in his name necessarily as ‘head of a family,’ and the presumption is that the personal property is his, also, but as a matter of fact, her life, heath and strength has gone into the accumulation quite as much as his, and it is the result of their community effort. He dies, without leaving a will, and this situation confronts her. There is not one article of property she can point to and call her own. As his heir, and by virtue of her relation as his wife, she has some property rights, but she has none in her own right, even tho her health and strength has been absorbed and sacrificed in its accumulation. By the laws of succession, if there be one child, she is entitled to one-half, if more than one child, then to one-third. Even the homestead which the law provides for is set aside not to her, but to her and the minor children; likewise the exempt property and the family allowance.
All her life, as wife and mother, her own nature and custom has decreed her immolation on the family alter, and in her widow-hood, the law completes the sacrifice. If custom decreed hari kari, it seems to me it would be a more dignified ending, and more humane, than the economic insecurity the law accords the widow in the distribution of the average estate. Of course, when you criticize a law that favors a child to the disadvantage of the mother, you are treading on exceedingly dangerous ground. I have had mothers tell me that they were willing to trust the future to their children. Well, there is no law against trusting, but a woman should be so hedged about that she should not be compelled to coin that trust into food and lodging, at least not when her efforts have helped accumulate property which should legitimately be hers. I have known well-to-do people who have not hesitated to apply for old age pension for their indigent mother, and one never knows whether the child she reared in love and kindness, may not in the stress and strain of poverty or greed, dispose of her as a burden in the poor house.
The case I have used as an illustration is an ordinary occurrence. On the other hand, if the wife dies under those conditions, the husband goes on without a ripple. No accounting to anyone, no sharing up with the children, the property is not then sequestered for his creditors — he can marry again and scatter the children to the four winds of heaven, and squander the joint accumulation without let or hindrance. On the other hand, had this young woman continued on her job, it is to be presumed that she would have accumulated enough to care for her in old age, instead of being dependent on her children or the recipient of old age pension dole.
The situation is bad when called upon to share up with her children, but it is infinitely worse, should there be none, for in that case, the law divides the property equally between her and her husband’s father and mother, if living; if not, his brothers and sisters share with her, and you will all agree that there is neither fairness nor justice in that.
My contention is, that the joint accumulation during coverture which I have tried to show is exceedingly limited, should vest in the surviving husband or wife. It may be iconoclastic, but if there were no probate courts to sequester property for the benefit of creditors, it might have a useful tendency in that it would lessen the proneness to unrestricted credit which is the bane of modern existence; and minor children do not need assistance, as the law makes it the duty of both father and mother to care for their minor and dependent children.
Our laws are also unfair in one other respect in that it fails to recognize the mother as the natural guardian of her minor child with right to its custody superior to that of the father. A law is wrong that tacitly gives to a recreant husband and father the right to steal a minor child from its mother, and should not be left on our statute books. It is a law which violates a natural law and is honored more in its breach than in its observance. When a woman is driven to deny that her child born in lawful wedlock is the offspring of its putative father in order to retain possession of the child, statute law becomes reproach, and the law should be changed to accord with the natural law.
The Montana Woman, June 1926