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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"All property, real and personal, of the wife, ...shall be her separate property."

These are the words that set off a furor during the Wisconsin constitutional convention of 1846.

When the population of Wisconsin Territory had grown high enough to permit our becoming a state, 124 elected delegates met at Madison to prepare a constitution. Among them were a critical mass of visionaries such as Warren Chase, organizer of the utopian commune at Ceresco, and of fiscal conservatives who had been burned by the failure of frontier banks in the Panic of 1837. They argued for ten weeks before producing this document which would have allowed immigrants who applied for citizenship to vote, made the question of black suffrage subject to popular referendum, and granted married women the right to legally possess their own property.

That final provision, which begins at the foot of page 17 in Article XIV, reads: "All property, real and personal, of the wife, owned by her at the time of her marriage, and also that acquired by her after marriage, by gift, devise, descent, or otherwise than from her husband, shall be her separate property. Laws shall be passed providing for the registry of the wife's property and more clearly defining the rights of the wife thereto, as well as to property held by her with her husband, and for carrying out the provisions of this section. Where the wife has a separate property from that of the husband the same shall be liable for the debts of the wife contracted before marriage."

This section it had vocal supporters, such as this anonymous writer (if Virginia Woolf was right, "anonymous" was usually a woman). And of course it had its share of critics, as well, such as Racine attorney Marshall M. Strong. In the end, the sections permitting some women to own property in their own name and forbidding privately owned banks were enough to sink the constitution, which was rejected by the voters in April 1847. At the same time, voters rejected suffrage for black residents of Wisconsin.

Having learned that they were ahead of the curve, the authors of the constitution went back to the drawing board and drafted a second document that did not contain such alarming ideas as that some women ought to be able to own property. It passed easily, and Wisconsin became the 30th state in 1848.

You can read more about the constitutional controversies of 1846 in Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on March 8, 2005
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