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Going it on their own

They weren’t at all rare.

It happened all the time.

The Legal Genealogist found that the court records and even the newspapers of the day are full of the reports:

• On the 23rd of February 1880, the application of Eliza J. Limbaugh was approved by the Superior Court, Clark, Judge, Sacramento County, California.1

• On the 11th of May 1880, the application of Maria Alexander was granted by the Superior Court.2

• On the 11th of October 1880, Mrs. Helen Schindler had her application approved by the court.3

• On the 16th of May 1881, Anna A. Woodward’s application was granted by the Superior Court.4

• On the 11th of July 1881, Mrs. Lenora W. Spillner got a favorable ruling from Superior Court Judge Clark.5

• On the 10th of October 1881, Margaret Morse got the same affirmative nod from Judge Clark.6

So… what were all these women doing in Sacramento, California, that took them into the courts — and got them into the newspapers of the day?

They were taking on the legal status of sole traders.

On the 12th of April 1852, the California Legislature approved a statute that proclaimed, in section 1, that “Married women shall have the right to carry on and transact business under their own name, and on their own account, by complying with the regulations prescribed in this act.”7

Now a married woman had to jump through a lot of hoops in order to do this. She had to publish her intention for four weeks in the newspaper, she had to appear in court and prove that she wasn’t doing it to defraud her husband’s creditors, she had to get court approval and had to swear she was going into business with her own money to support herself and her children.8

If she managed to jump through all the hoops, then “the property, revenues, moneys, and credits, so invested, shall belong exclusively to such married woman, and shall not be liable for any debts of her husband; and said married woman shall be allowed all the privileges, and be liable to all legal processes, now or hereafter provided by law against debtors and creditors, and may sue, and be sued, alone, without being joined with her husband.”9

And, if she pulled it off, she — and she alone — was responsible for supporting her children10 and her husband wouldn’t be responsible for any of her debts.11

California wasn’t the only state to recognize sole trader status for women. Colonial Pennsylvania and South Carolina had also done so,12 and Massachusetts passed a sole trader law in 1787.13

But nowhere was the law as expansive as early as in California. The woman’s husband didn’t have to be absent. She didn’t have to show she needed the money or she and her kids would starve — just that she would use the proceeds to support herself and the children. Many women with good and enduring marriages took sole trader status. It protected them — and their family asserts — just in case… and it gave them rights other states didn’t grant for decades.

Now the local paper couldn’t resist commenting on occasion about what the women were intending to do. Anna Woodward, the paper said, “thereby acquires the privilege of suing and being sued like other folks.”14 And when Maria Alexander got her permission, the newspaper was quick to note that it “does not necessarily intimate that she is to launch out into the boot and shoe business.”15

Want to know more about these women, and particularly the women sole traders of Sacramento County? The folks who’ll be hosting me this weekend at their Spring Seminar — the Root Cellar Sacramento Genealogical Society wrote the book on that: The Women Proprietors or Sole Traders, Sacramento, CA, 1850-1930 is an alphabetical guide listing the women’s names and their husbands’ names and business. And you can order it online.

Just sayin’…


  1. “The Courts,” The (Sacramento) Record-Union, 24 Feb 1880, p. 4, col. 2; digital images, ( : accessed 2 May 2017).
  2. Ibid., “Local Intelligence,” 11 May 1880, p. 3, col. 1.
  3. Ibid., “Brief Notes,” 12 Oct 1880, p. 3, col. 4.
  4. Ibid., “Local Intelligence,” 17 May 1881, p. 3, col. 1.
  5. Ibid., “The Courts,” 12 July 1881, p. 4, col. 4.
  6. Ibid., “Local Intelligence,” 11 Oct 1881, p. 3, col. 2.
  7. § 1, “An Act to authorize married women to transact business in their own name as sole traders,” 12 April 1852, in Theodore H. Hittell, The General Laws of the State of California: from 1850 to 1864, Inclusive (San Francisco : Bancroft & Co., 1872), I: 1024; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 2 May 2017).
  8. Ibid., § 2.
  9. Ibid., § 3.
  10. Ibid., § 4.
  11. Ibid., § 6.
  12. Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 44-46.
  13. Jone Johnson Lewis, “Property Rights of Women: A short history of women’s property rights,” updated 30 June 2016, ( : accessed 2 May 2017).
  14. “Local Intelligence,” The (Sacramento) Record-Union, 11 May 1880, p. 3, col. 1.
  15. Ibid., “Local Intelligence,” 11 May 1880, p. 3, col. 1.
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