Women and Property in Early Louisiana: Legal Systems at Odds
Abstract

This study examines the intersection between gender, law and ethnicity in female property holding in Louisiana between 1811–1835. The civilian legal tradition, operative in Louisiana during this time period, offered married women considerable economic benefits compared to the common law legal tradition utilized in most other states. Women under Louisiana civil law retained their legal identity and they inherited half of the property accrued during marriage. They might also own and manage their separate property. A comparison of women’s probated wealth, in a contiguous transect of counties and parishes in Mississippi and Louisiana demonstrates that Louisiana women accrued economic benefits from these provisions and fared better economically than their common law counterparts in Mississippi. Some women actively managed their property. For others, there is evidence to suggest that their property allowed them a kind of “bargaining power” within marriage. Yet, Louisiana women reaped economic benefits from civil law only if their families adhered to the law. Ethnicity influenced whether that happened. French-speaking families, more familiar with the civil law tradition, were more likely to adhere to the letter and spirit of the law. As a result, French-speaking women in Louisiana were more likely to reap economic benefits from the law than their Anglo counterparts. Female property holding in Louisiana exposes a legal borderland where civilian and common law legal traditions were at still at odds.


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