Women's Rights in Early New York
Document Showcase is a regular feature that highlights a topic from State history using records from the New York State Archives. Each Showcase includes sample documents, an historical sketch, and links to educational activities for classroom use. Check out previous topics we have covered in our Document Showcase Archive.
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The documents in this month's showcase contain handwritten Dutch and English. Translations or transcripts are available.
New York State bears the imprint of both its Dutch and English colonial past. Despite the conquest of New Netherland by the English in 1664, the impact of Dutch culture and religion, as well as the influence of New Netherlands’ most powerful families could still be felt centuries later. Likewise, Dutch legal traditions endured in parts of colonial New York for nearly a century following the English take-over.
Gradually, the English replaced Dutch laws with practices rooted in English common law and English colonial experiences in North America. Women were among those most profoundly affected by changes in the legal system. Under Dutch law, married women could retain control over property they possessed prior to marriage, buy and sell property, make contracts including ante-nuptial agreements, write wills, and appear in court on their own behalf. Widows were entitled to inherit at least half of the marital estate, with the remaining portion being divided equally among children regardless of gender. Consequently, both single and married women in New Netherland found opportunities for economic independence and prosperity.
Under English law, women surrendered control over property upon marriage and could not enter into contracts, write wills, or initiate legal action without consent or participation of their husbands. A widow's legal inheritance was limited in most cases to one-third of the marital estate and most fathers favored sons over daughters in wills involving real property. Gradually, English laws affecting property began to significantly curtail the participation of women in business and trade. In 1710, the colonial assembly equated women with minors and those "not of Sound mind" in an act specifying requirements for obtaining legal title to land. It was not until more than seven decades after independence that New York State returned some of the rights that women had enjoyed under Dutch rule.
Document 1: Excerpt of the marriage contract of Brant Peelen and Marritje Pieters, widow of the late Claes Pietersen, 1643. Series A0270, Register of the Provincial Secretary, 1642-1660, New York Colony Secretary of the Province.
Document 2: Petition by the Heirs of Samuel Palmer of Westchester that his widow be granted a letter of administration, 1670. Series A1894, Council papers, 1664-1781, New York Colony Council.
Document 3: Excerpt of Chapter 216 of the Colonial Laws, classifying married women with minors and those "not of Sound mind," 1710. Series A0212, Original colonial laws, 1683-1775, New York Colony Council.
Document 4: Excerpt of Chapter 200 of the Laws of 1848, enacted for the protection of the property of married women. Series 13036, Enrolled acts of the State Legislature, 1778-2005, New York State Department of State Bureau of Miscellaneous Records. View a transcription of this chapter of the Laws of 1848.
For More Information
The New Netherland Project transcribes, translates, and publishes Dutch-language documents related to the the seventeenth-century colony of New Netherland.
The Colonial Albany Social History Project was produced by the New York State Museum and provides a glimpse of what life was like for people living in colonial Albany. The project contains biographies of over 16,000 people who lived in Albany during its infancy.
Send questions or comments about the Document Showcase to the Public Programs Office of the State Archives by email at: ARCHEDU@mail.nysed.gov or phone (518) 474-6926.