Mississippi: PIONEER IN WOMEN'S LIB
By Sue Thompson
In November, 1972, Women's Day, reporter Sue Thompson contributed the following article:
The fact that married women today have protected property rights is due to the stubbornness of a Chickasaw Indian princess of Mississippi who around 1830 married a white man named John Allen. It so happened that before he entered the holy bonds of matrimony, John Allen contracted a tremendous amount of debts. His creditors, knowing him to be practically indigent, had little hope of collecting form him.
However, Betsy Allen, his new Chickasaw bride and princess, rich in her own right, brought with her considerable property, and the alert creditors immediately sued her for her husband's ante-nuptial debts, which was their legal right under the common-law ruling then existing in the state. Betsy, brought up in the Chickasaw tradition, which allowed married women the right to separate property, took the matter to court. The legal battle finally reached the Supreme Court of Mississippi in 1837, where Chief Justice Sharkey, in the case of Fisher v. Allen (which centered on a slave who was Betsy's personal property), ruled that since Betsy Love and John Allen had been married by the Chickasaw ceremony, tribal law governed the marriage, and since Chickasaw tribal custom gave the married woman the privilege of owning property free and separate from that of her husband, Betsy's personal property could not be attached or sold to settle debts her husband contracted before the marriage.
Two years later, in 1839, the lawmakers of Mississippi, undoubtedly influenced by the Supreme Court's momentous ruling, passed the first law of any state in the Union giving married women the right ot their free and separate estates. Other states in the country gradually followed, but in conservative old England it was not until 1882 that recognition was given to the trend of the times by an act of Parliament.
We do not wish to convey the impression that the legislators of Mississippi defied tradition without opposition. Even the Boston Post commented adversely on the 1839 bill. Observed the Post: the law's effect would be "to destroy that confidence between man and wife which constituted the greatest charm of the married state, and without which there can be no such thing as domestic happiness."
The Post quoted from the opposition speech of the Honorable Robert Josselyn of Lafayette County. "Pass this bill," he said, "and what will be the result? Where there should be union, there will be division. Confidence will be impaired, jealousy will arise, matrimonial quarrels will occur, domestic happiness will be lost. The sanctity of the law that husband and wife are one will be no longer true. There will be two heads of the family - two separate interests."
But the bill was passed on February 15, 1839, and is now the law of the entire land. However, the courageous young Chickasaw bride, Betsy Allen née Love, was soon forgotten, following her death in the same year she won her case.
Around a century later an enterprising newspaperman resurrected the case and gave it wide publicity. The publicity caused a woman's civic club of Tuccopola, Mississippi, to remove Betsy's remains, figuratively, from an old Indian burying ground that had become a pasture and re-inter them ceremoniously in a new grave on the campus of the high school.
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