By Gelene Simpson
Corsicana Daily Sun
When I was growing up in Corsicana in the 1940s and early ‘50s, I saw firsthand how important my parents thought it was to exercise the right to attend the church of their choice and to vote in every election of state and national representatives. In those earlier times voters had to pay a poll tax. My parents saved all those poll tax receipts. Mother seemed particularly interested in impressing upon us the importance of making sure that we had followed every requirement so that our ability to vote would not be challenged when we reached voting age.
In time I began to admire women who crusaded for women’s rights and family justice. Louise Ballerstedt Raggio was just such a woman. She came from a small farm where there was neither electricity nor even a book. Nevertheless, she became a famous attorney, responsible for the revamping of women’s legal rights and family law. How did she accomplish this outcome back when even after five years of law school at night, no one would hire her?
Of course, if she would settle for typing and filing she could have a job. But being a real lawyer seemed out of the question. But she kept on scrambling, and in Dallas in the 1950s she finally landed a job as assistant district attorney in charge of child support and the related categories of delinquent dads and juvenile court. This was under the authority of family law.
There was some bad news about family law, however. It really held women hostage. In Texas a woman once married had no property rights. She couldn’t get a bank loan, couldn’t start a business of her own, and couldn’t even have protection for herself or her children if they became abused or there was a divorce. At that time, there were 44 different laws discriminating against married women in Texas and 27 legal disabilities of coverture. In fact the only way a married woman could control her property was to die. Then she could “give her half of the property to her children or anyone else of her choosing.”
Another great irony was the fact that even though a single woman could have a bank account, she lost control of it if she married. Her husband could tell the bank “not to allow her access to her own money.” The disabilities of coverture caused trouble for married women. They could be removed “only for mercantile and trading purposes.” Professional women did not have the same right. In fact, all married women like Raggio, who were professional before 1967, were “actually practicing illegally” because the way the law read, their husbands were responsible for the actions of their wives.
Of course this did not apply to single women, widows or those who were divorced, only the married women. The husband, however, “could sell his property without even telling his wife.” Pressure built up for something to be done about this situation.
The Equal Legal Rights Amendment kept being introduced, but it didn’t get anywhere. Raggio could see why this was so. The legislature didn’t want married women to have equal rights and didn’t like the women who were sponsoring the amendment. The president of the State Bar in 1964 was Joyce Cox. As a male, of course, he felt pressured to name a committee to draft a bill to do something about the “disabilities of coverture of property rights for married women.” Raggio worked on this, but it did not result in legislature action. She realized that tampering with the law in one area threw things off in another area. The situation was much too intertwined to be righted by a constitutional amendment. It would be like Prohibition and would probably have been rescinded.
Finally, however, a bill was approved and in June of 1967, Louise Raggio saw Gov. John Connally sign the bill in Austin. Married women in Texas could thereafter conduct their own affairs and be responsible for themselves legally.
(Facts from “Texas Tornado: The Autobiography of Louise B. Raggio” with Vivian Anderson Castleberry.)
Gelene Simpson is a Daily Sun columnist. Her column appears on Tuesdays. Want to “Soundoff” on this column? Email: email@example.com