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“An Act Concerning Feme-Sole Traders,” 1718; from Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1810), I:99-101, reproduced in Carol Berkin and Leslie Horowitz, eds.,Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices: Documents in Early American History, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998, 98-100.

Pennsylvania and South Carolina were the only colonies with explicit feme-sole trader statutes that acknowledged and described the rights and responsibilities of married businesswomen to conduct trade without their husbands' legal or financial involvement. Such statements made it clear that in special circumstances, there were advantages to considering married women as independent legal and economic actors.

Pennsylvania’s 1718 law alludes to the difficulties married women encountered when their husbands were away for long periods. Economic activities, particularly seafaring ones, could undermine a woman's ability to earn a living or support a family during a husband's absence. Such laws raise questions as to the circumstances under which colonial legislators considered it beneficial to grant married women legal rights they otherwise would not have had.


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Document excerpt:
“WHEREAS it often happens that mariners and others, whose circumstances as well as vocations oblige them to go to sea, leave their wives in a way of shopkeeping: and such of them as are industrious, and take due care to pay the merchants they gain so much credit with, as to be well supplied with shop-goods from time to time, whereby they get a competent maintenance for themselves and children, and have been enabled to discharge considerable debts, left unpaid by their husbands at their going away; but some of those husbands, having so far lost sight of their duty to their wives and tender children, who, in all probability, will put them upon measures, not only to waste what they may get abroad, but misapply such effects as they leave in this province....Be it enacted, That where any mariners or others are gone,....leaving their wives at shop-keeping, or to work for their livelihood at any other trade in this province all such wives shall be deemed, adjuged and taken, and are hereby declared to be, as feme-sole traders, and shall have ability and are by this act enabled, to sue and be sued....without naming their husbands in such suits....”

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