Tuesday, November 29, 2016
What research can turn up: Hidden History!
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
"Home and Hearth was the motto of all women in the 17th Century, but Dutch Women, by the addition of a single word, made a huge difference in their lives. For the Dutch woman, the motto was HOME, HEARTH AND MARKETPLACE."
----Jean Zimmerman, The Women of the House
This essay concerns some truly--to me--new and surprising facts about the legal and social system of the Dutch founders of the New York Colony which I stumbled upon during my research on the origins of the Schuyler family. There were founding mothers, it seems, as well as founding fathers! It's another of those pieces of women's past that has only recently been resurrected and studied by historians and humble readers, too, like myself. It is so interesting I wanted to share what I learned in some detail.
MARGARET HARDENBROECK lived from 1659-1691. At the age of 22 this formidable lady arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland. Margaret, described by her biographer as a "Brute in Silks" came seeking her fortune, exactly like a man. She did not come to America in the feminine role of domestic or wife, but in the high status position of Factor. Her task in this booming frontier city was to collect debts for her employer, sell goods on consignment and--of greatest importance, discover and exploit new markets. Margaret was an employee of her wealthy cousin Wouter Volch and had been born into a trading family--nothing small time--for her family owned ships. She was already a seasoned employee who had represented her cousin in court many times, as plaintiff and as defendant. Obviously, she possessed a forceful bearing and excellent public speaking skills.
Among the Dutch, such a woman was known as a She merchant. Unlike other 17th Century Europeans, the Dutch had a tradition of women in business. There were 134 female traders in New Amsterdam between 1653-63. Even in the relative backwater at Albany there were 47 women traders.
Business women were common in Holland because of a progressive legal system and other societal factors. First among these was their educational system. Boys and girls alike were universally educated. Bookkeeping, in this nation of traders, was an integral part of the curriculum.
Another unusual factor favoring women was the Dutch Reformed Church. Unlike other Christians, respect between partners in a marriage was stressed, not simply blind female submission. In England, at the same time, woman was, according to Doctrine "a weak creature not endued with like strength and constancy of mind." When an Englishwoman married, her husband owned her person and everything else, including her clothes and jewels. If widowed, she was granted the use of 1/3 of his property, but she could not sell it, as it belong to his heirs after she died. We are all familiar with Jane Austen's world, in which a widow and her daughters are dispossessed by heirs, as in Sense and Sensibility.
MOST IMPORTANT FOR Margaret and women like her was Dutch Law, unlike that of any other European country at the time. Under English Law, for instance, women were not legal persons. They could not own property, sign legal documents or represent themselves in court. A single Dutch woman, on the other hand, had all those rights, the same that any single man hand. She even had options when contracting a marriage.
IN HOLLAND there existed two forms of marriage. A woman decided which was the most advantageous when she drew up her marriage contract. The "Manus" was similar to English law. However, here 50% of the property of a deceased husband went to the widow and she could remain in the spousal residence. She was the ward of her husband who would represent her in business. However, in "Manus" financial responsibility too was limited. in the event of a failed business or deal. The legal reasoning was that if a woman had no authority to make transaction, why should she be held accountable? In practice, it was a respectable and common event for a Manus widow to place the house keys on the coffin of a deceased husband who had squandered her share of the community property of goods and walk away, free and clear.
Dutch law also prohibited parents from relying upon gender or birth order when making their wills. This meant that daughters were not automatically deprived of an inheritance. In England, the firstborn sons received all of a family's major property holdings (land, houses). Daughters only received household goods (flatware and furniture.) Often, female heirs faced a future after a parent's death without a home or the assets with which to obtain one.
Dutch law also protected unwed mothers. A woman pregnant outside of marriage could either prosecute the alleged father or force him to marry her. If he was already married, she was entitled to demand a dowry and compensation for childbirth expenses, as well as child support. Historians report that women had a good chance of winning these suits. A husband's adultery, abandonment or contraction of a venereal disease also gave a wife grounds for requesting a divorce.
Spousal abuse also received attention under Dutch law. If a wife believed her husband was squandering her property, she had legal recourse to request her half of the estate along with her dowry in full. Regardless of whether she was married, a Dutch woman could institute legal proceedings against any individual, even her own husband. These pragmatic Dutch women brought their belief in Equality under the law as well as their education and training in business to New Netherland.
When the English took over in 1664, they brought their laws; equal rights for women officially disappeared. Fortunately for the She Merchants, the original British rulers of the colony weren't sticklers. For several generations among those of Dutch descent, prenuptial contracts were still drawn while those women with commerce in their bones went on doing business by using their husbands as economic "beards."
When I discovered this fascinating chunk of Herstory, I was gobsmacked. All my life--and I thought I knew more history than the "average bear"-- I had imagined that English law was all there was or ever had been, here in these United States. This was (and is) something to consider, in terms of our understanding of American history and also in relation to today, where to be born a woman is to be an "almost but not quite" full citizen, even here.
Roger and Mary Philipse's Georgian NYC home,
now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion
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