To the Tennessee Bar Association
July 11, 1912 — 31st Annual Meeting of the Bar Association of Tennessee, Knoxville TN
The President: I corrected that this morning before I came in.
Mrs. French: That is all right. I am glad I did not hear you, because I would not have had an opportunity to speak of it myself.
Now to the subject on hand, ad I do not think I have digressed any more than most of you men digress when you speak on various subjects, so I am not making any more apologies.
We want to put Tennessee in the progressive States, and on very important factor, gentlemen, in putting them there is to not alter simply one law concerning women here and there, but to take the whole bunch and burn it up, and begin over again. That might be a big task. I don’t believe it is as big as to alter one and then another. For several years I have been studying this subject, not as president of the Woman’s Suffrage Association, but as President of the Tennessee Federation of women’s Club, which is not in favor of women’s suffrage unanimously, but they are in favor of having just laws for women, and they are studying those laws over this State, and watching every legislature, and so I give you notice of the fact. Now the Delineator, a woman’s magazine, is investigating the laws of the United States concerning women, and they are going to continue to make full investigation of them — and it puts Tennessee at the bottom of the line as doing justice to women — Tennessee and Louisiana — they are undecided which is worse. Tennessee laws are still founded principally on the old common law of England, and the Louisiana laws on the Code of Napoleon, and the Code of Napoleon in regard to women, you lawyers know is no better than the common law of England
I once had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by Judge [Charles A.] Ingersoll before the Ossoli Circle, and he stated to us this: That the common law of England in regard to married women was equal to the assertion that man and wife were one, and that one was the man. The investigation of the laws that I made show me that Judge Ingersoll spoke truly, as I knew he did at the time. The twentieth century law is in fact so that all the States of the West — none of the States of the West treat women that way — married women. Married men and women, if they are one, they are one, equal and whole. As a general rule, the States of the West make the women the equal of her husband in every respect. So much for having newspapers, and for their laws not being founded on the Code of Napoleon, or the common law of England.
And [William] Blackstone says in his Commentaries, that a mother as such is entitled to no power, but only to reverence and respect! The Tennessee laws agree with Blackstone’s summing of the common law, and have found as to the rights of the mother, that the mother has no power. I don’t know — I have not found that they say anything especially about reverence and respect, but certainly they give her no power.
Now, gentlemen, nobody can revere and respect people that have no power. Reverence and respect is given to people who have power, and by power I do not mean force, but I mean there must be some way to compel. Good men may love and protect their mothers. You cannot make them revere and respect them. Reverence and respect come from the character of the woman. You give it to her because of her character, and often because of her power in various ways — one way and another.
I have found that in our laws founded upon this old common law of England, concerning which I have told you that Judge Ingersoll said that it held that man and wife were one, and that one was the man — I have found here a condition that is a most beautiful thing for us, a fine thing — this tenancy by courtesy. I can not think of anything else in the law that would be so beneficial to a man that married a wealthy wife. I find that this tenancy by courtesy obtains even when a man gets a divorce from his wife. If it is her fault, the tenancy by courtesy still prevails: Tenancy by courtesy means that as soon as you marry a man, he has control of all your real estate, rents, and all, and he has your personal property. What is left, you have. That is tenancy by courtesy. That prevails sometimes even when he gets a divorce, and when you die. Tenancy by courtesy is a patent right that was not spoken of yesterday by the gentleman who is an expert. Ah, gentlemen, tenancy by courtesy is a fie thing. As I have told you, I have studied law, and I have never in my life — and I have studied a good deal of law at various times, seen anything equal to this tenancy by courtesy existing now in the State of Tennessee. There is only one objection to this tenancy by courtesy, and that is, you good gentlemen should apply it to the wife as well as the husband.
Now, gentlemen, I want to ask you to investigate thoroughly this thing. That is one of the points I want you to investigate. Can’t you make the tenancy by courtesy apply to the women, to the wife, ad well as to the husband, and then we will have no quarrel with it, because it be just, it would be all right. They will be one then, if it applies on both sides. I deny that they are now one, because one side is so much larger than the other that the one sinks into utter insignificance.
There are a great many points to speak of, so much that I cannot get to it in the time I know you are willing to give me, because the women have to be shoved always sin a little bit of a corner, and then the men have all the rest, and you have discussed men’s business here for three days, but I suppose you will begrudge women having one-hand hour in the twentieth century — she has never had any time before.
But I notice this: when you men get up long papers, you just read as long as you please, it don’t matter how impatient the president gets, and I am going to try to copy the men in that.
Now I want to speak upon the desertions of wife and children, and I have some very voluminous documents here. If I was a man, I would read every one of them to you, and never let you get enough, but being a woman, I am going to say that I have them here for your committee that I feel sure you are going to appoint. One of them is on the present condition of laws concerning the desertion and no-support of families by men, in all the States. It is one of the great problems. All our charity organizations have to meet this thing of non-support and desertion, and your laws, while you have protected your men and given them all the property of the rich women, have never protected the women and punished the men for desertion and non-support in any adequate way. I do not mean to say there is no law. I see some of them. Oh, yes, there is a law there, something about twenty-five or a hundred dollars, but it does not go into any particulars at all. I want you to read this book and see what the other States are doing for them, and we want Tennessee to do something adequate towards defending helpless women and children along this line, the desertion of wife and children.
Then we want mothers made equal guardians of her children; and we don’t ask that the women shall have more rights. We just ask that they shall be equal — and to think that a mother cannot have equal rights in the control of her children! I don’t like to talk about it.
All of these subjects will come under our juvenile courts when we get them well established. This thing of these helpless women and children, these men deserting their wives, is the reason you require juvenile courts, because of that desertion by men of their families and children, who become helpless and get them on the streets, and there we are. Quantities of our helpless poor come from that, and this boo will tell you about them.
So I pass on because I cannot have time; but I hope you will appoint your committee and that this will all come up before it.
Now as to the laws about women holding office. In the Code of the State of Tennessee there is a clause that states those who are eligible to hold office. In studying your laws, gentlemen, I have found out this, that if there is any punishment to e meted out, the women are included in it, but if there is any reward, it does not include them. Ad that is the law that the courts have made. So much for the court laws that have been made. I have never found it did not hold it in all cases of punishment and degradation. Now, the legislature has the right to pass a law. The constitution does not have to be changed, for the legislature has passed many laws — no, not many — two; that is not many — making a woman eligible to hold the office of State Librarian, and making women eligible to the County Superintendency. I want to go to the history of these, they are quite interesting. There are two. At one time, a notary public was not regarded as one who held an office. I do not know what you gentlemen think about it, but it looks to me like it was hardly ay more of an office than washing dishes. A notary public does not do anything more than swear people to an oath, and it seems to me women might do that; and still the point was made that notary public was an office. When the point was made that County Superintendency was an office and under the constitution women could not hold it, the legislature immediately made a law that women could be County Superintendents. That shows that the legislature can make this law, because the constitution does not forbit making it, and it made the law that women can be County Superintendents. When they found out notary public was an office, the court decided women could not hold it. That was carried to the last legislature and defeated; why, I don’t think anybody knows. Why should not a stenographer, a woman stenographer working in one of your offices, be a notary public. Why should they want to deprive her of making that little fee to add to her small income? I leave that to the committee to answer, for I have never been able to answer.
Those school laws of 1907! Those men who drew them up, did a most curious thing. Previous to 1907 there was no law forbidding women to act on school boards. Now as late as that year, when twenty-seven States of the West have women voting on school boards, voting, I mean, on school questions, the State of Tennessee, this progressive State — that is going to be — in making its law, puts in a clause that the county boards shall be composed of voters, legalized voters. Now, I don’t know why they did that, when the women all over the country are being educated more than the boys in the high schools, more girls than boys graduate, when the great majority of the teachers are women, when clubs all over, tens of thousands of women in clubs, study all sorts of questions all the time — the Tennessee lawmakers forbid them to be on boards of education. Why, there is nobody so much interested in educational matters a the women of this State — and then you are very much surprised when you find that Tennessee’s illiteracy is enormous. It does not surprise me at all, for a State that will not make us of its educated women to help them in an effort to improve its schools will never get out of the bottom of the line of illiteracy if they don’t do it. The other States are doing that, and they are getting rid of illiteracy. So I wish you would look into that school law and see that women are allowed to be on the school boards.
Then I want to speak to you, and I am now at the end of the line — not at the end of what it ought to be if I had all day to talk to you about it — but at the end of what I think maybe is your patience. I want to speak to you about a law that was made in 1911, and I wish to say to you gentlemen, I wish you should consult some woman before you make any laws for them or against them. Just let them have a say. Now, here was a law made in 1911. You know, even a woman’s wage has not been hers, and when she had a bad husband, and a few women have bad husbands — men are not all perfect — and when this woman had a bad husband, he would go and get her wages and drink it up and then she was left without any.
Now our legislature goes and makes a law, without consulting any woman upon the subject, and it is this sort of a law: that any woman who will sign a paper saying that she is dependent upon her labor for the support of herself and her child — ad she has got to bring in the child — then an employer must not pay her wages to anybody else — it means her husband, but they are afraid of hurting his feelings, and they do not say that — they just say shall not pay to anybody else. Of course, nobody else is doing to collect it, but I think it was right to respect their feelings. Now see what a difficulty that puts this woman in. She had got to sign this paper, which disgraces her husband. Well, that is contributing to family harmony, isn’t it? You have contributed a great dal to family harmony in the State of Tennessee by such a law as that. I mean the legislatures, not you.
Now, why was that put there. I don’t know any more than I know the other two things. Why shouldn’t a woman’s wages be her own, whether she has to support herself and children or not? If she works for it, why isn’t it hers? Why does she have to sign any such papers. We should simply have a law that a woman’s wages belong to her, and are nobody’s else, and say to every employer, if you pay it to anybody else, you have to pay it over again to that woman, without her signature. Now, gentlemen, I want you to see that that law is changed. I have not asked for anything radical. I have not asked you for anything that would put you even among the most progressive States of the Union. I have simply asked you to appoint a committee that will investigate all these laws, will have time to go through them, and will recommend to the legislature such legislation as well put the women, the legal status of the women of Tennessee, on an equality with — Miss Jane Adams [sic] says Colorado has the best laws concerning women. There is a difference in opinion about this — but that will put Tennessee in the column of those States that are generous and just to the woman.
I thank you very much for giving me this time.
Source: Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Session of the Bar Association of Tennessee, Held at Knoxville, Tenn., July 9, 10, 11, 1912, Volume 31, 1912, pp. 155-163.