Women Under California Laws (1911)

This item appeared in the June 1911 issue of The Western Woman Voter newspaper.

A brief examination of the status of women under the laws of California will convince anyone of two things: First, that women had no part in making these laws, and second, that she should have had a part, for they determine the conditions under which she must live.

The most progressive legislature that ever met in California this winter changed these laws concerning women in only two particulars: It passed the eight-hour law and it increased the penalty for stealing girls. But in submitting to the voters an amendment granting suffrage to women, this legislature of 1911 has made possible an improvement in all the laws.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s Women’s Suffrage Collection. We can provide access to fully searchable newspapers by and for women including The Lily (1849-1856), National Citizen and Ballot Box (1878-1881), The Revolution (1868-1872), The New Citizen (1909-1912), The Western Woman Voter (1911-1913), The Woman’s Tribune (1883-1909) and the antisuffrage newspaper, The Remonstrance (1890-1913).

The following outline of the laws of California as related to women has been examined by several lawyers and found to be correct:

Fathers Sole Guardians

One of the most unjust and unreasonable laws that California imposes upon women, is the one making fathers sole guardians or custodians of minor children. The care, custody, control, education and services of minor children belong legally to the father alone if parents live together. Illegitimate children are under the control of the mother.

A man can no longer will away his unborn child in any state.

A child’s inheritance of money has been provided for, and the courts appoint a property guardian. This must not be confused with general guardianship. The father is sole custodian.

Court decisions are often reported where young children have been given by the court to the mother. This does not prove that the mother had any legal share in the custody of her children prior to the decision. It proves that when a family is torn to pieces, the judge awards the pieces.

Besides the direct results upon mother and child, of the sole guardianship law, there is an indirect result that is wholly wicked. It is the threat a bad husband may hold over his wife , that he will do so and so to the child, unless the wife submits to his will absolutely. He has the law on his side. She has no redress except an appeal to the courts . This usually implies action for divorce.

In the “Naramore tragedy” of Massachusetts in 1901, a mother became desperate when the father planned to separate the children from her and from each other. She killed all six of them with an axe and then tried to suicide. This tragedy aroused Massachusetts, and a joint guardianship law was passed.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have laws making fathers and mothers joint guardians with equal responsibility and authority.

(Joint guardianship bills failed of passage in the legislature of 1909 and 1911.)

Minority of Girls

A girl’s minority ends at eighteen, while a boy is a minor until he is twenty-one. This is unfair to the girl. The age of minority is a protection. It is no favor to remove this legal protection from girls three years earlier than it is ended for boys. The age of majority should be the same for both sexes.

(Bills to make the age of minority of girls the same as for boys failed of passage in the legislatures of 1909 and 1911.)

Contract Rights

A woman may make any legal contract a man may make. The courts have decided she is a person and a citizen, though not a voter.

Unmarried Women

A woman who is unmarried suffers no injustice as to property rights. She may hold property, engage in business, and will property as freely as a man.

An unmarried woman has the same right that a man has, married or unmarried, of relinquishing citizenship in the country of her birth; or of her father, and enrolling as a citizen in the country of her choice.

Citizenship of Married Woman

Marriage gives to a woman the citizenship of her husband. An American girl who marries a Frenchman, becomes a foreigner.

Marriage has no effect upon a man’s citizenship.

However, a wife may apply for naturalization, and may secure it even without the consent of her husband.

Separate Property

A wife may hold separate property. All that she had before marriage (provided care is taken to separate it in the beginning and to keep it separate) all that she may receive as gift or inheritance, is separate property. This may be kept in her name alone, and is wholly under her control. A husband may hold separate property under similar conditions.


A homestead may be declared by either husband or wife , its value being limited to $5,000. The furniture of the home, and the clothing of wife and children are community property, but may not be sold without the consent of the wife .

Community Property

All earnings of husband and wife are community property. If this were really held in common, it would belong to both partners. But community property is under control of the husband alone. Calling it community or common is small comfort, since the husband controls it just as long as he may live.

The only restrictions placed upon the husband are that he shall not give such property away, and cannot will it all away. He can will away half of it.

Wife Cannot Will Community Property

But the wife cannot will away the other half. The half he cannot will away she can have if she outlives him. If he dies first, she loses the shadow of title she had alive. While he lives, she cannot control a dollar of community property, even though it is a dollar she earned. If she dies first, she cannot will any part of so-called community property to anybody. Her death removes all restrictions, and gives it all to him absolutely.

Wife’ s Signature Not Necessary

It is a matter of common knowledge that the wife is required to sign deeds when the husband sells property. Many people wrongly believe that this signature is necessary, and that it implies a degree of control by the wife , even a half interest in the property. These conclusions are false.

If she did not sign the deed, there would be a possibility of a suit over the title, in order to prove that the property was sold for a valuable consideration, since the husband cannot give it away. To prevent a possible suit with cost and delay, the lawyer and buyer require the wife’ s signature. But the action is only a precaution. Wives have tried in vain to recover a share in so-called community property sold without their knowledge.


A husband is bound to support his wife. A wife is bound to support her husband when he cannot support himself. Her separate property is liable for certain community debts.

“Sole Trader”

A married woman may become a sole trader by certain legal steps, at some expense, and with humiliation. As such she may control her earnings and business as an independent individual.


Divorce may be granted for any of the following causes: Adultery, extreme cruelty, wilful desertion, wilful neglect, habitual intemperance, or conviction of felony.

Women Students

Women are admitted on the same terms as men to all departments of the State University.

Women Office Holders

Women are eligible to school office throughout the state. Half the county superintendents of schools are women. Women serve as school trustees. Women are lawyers, doctors and ministers in churches of all denominations except three. No law prevents their serving as jurors. In 1900 the first woman physician was appointed to care for women in one of the state hospitals for the insane, though thousands of the patients have always been women.

Eight-hour Law for Women and Girls

The new law limiting to eight hours a day the time women and girls may work at nearly all kinds of labor became effective May 21, 1911. It has been carefully drawn to prevent its being declared unconstitutional by the courts .

“Age of Consent”

“The age of consent” is sixteen years. A girl cannot legally sell any property at sixteen, but she can consent to the loss of her virtue. Girls are often stolen or seduced, but convictions are extremely rare. The codes protect clams and lobsters and fish and birds, but they fail to protect girls sufficiently, and the courts have failed to punish those who trade in girls as sex slaves. The maximum penalty for stealing a pig is five years. Until 1911 it was the same penalty for stealing a girl. Now girl stealing may be punished by ten years, the same as stealing a mule or a calf.

California Women Have no Votes

Women have not even school suffrage in California. They are not allowed to vote for school trustee. Women have votes in 29 states. Three of these are tax-paying suffrage; three are school and tax-paying suffrage; 18 have some form of school suffrage. One state has municipal suffrage. Five states have votes for men and women on equal terms.

What is the Earliest Date at Which Women May Vote?

A woman’s suffrage amendment has passed the legislature with a heavy majority in each house. October 10, 1911, is the date of the special election on all amendments. A majority of votes cast for the suffrage amendment will carry it. Every vote counts toward the total. Amendments take effect immediately.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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