Baubles & Power: The Enduring Myth of Magpie Women and Shiny Things.
As we emerge from February, we emerge from the relentless onslaught of ads regarding women and jewelry. While men and women wear jewelry, and have worn it for thousands of years, there is a certain lore regarding the fact that men have to, need to buy jewelry for women. The theme has been the same for--well, forever. Women want jewelry, run on jewelry, strive for jewelry. Marilyn Monroe sang "Diamonds are a girl's best friend," and apparently we're all supposed to believe it. Certainly, when engagements happen, there is much rhetoric regarding whether "he did good," or "how much he loves her." The upshot, though, is that women measure affection through the size of shiny baubles and the inescapable conclusion is that women are vain & superficial.
But, as is often the case with women's history and stereotypes, the root of the story is deep within patriarchy and women's attempt to negotiate a space for themselves in a world hell bent on giving them none.
While women could own property for a significant length of time, that trend drastically ended in various parts of the world by the middle ages. In England, in the 1100s, men created the concept of "coverture." Under this doctrine, men and women were one legal entity, with the husband being the only one in charge. Married women could not own property, run businesses, or sue in court. Eventually, the concept was extended to making wives the property of their husbands.
I would also make the important disclaimer that the laws, as described below, applied to white women. It would be much longer and much harder for black women to obtain property rights of any kind.
In 1839, Mississippi was the first state allowing white women to own property in their own names, but these were largely rights regarding white women's ability to own slaves. So even the progress made as to white women's property rights came at unfathomable cost to black communities and black women.
In 1848, New York passed the Married Woman's Property Act, whereby women were not automatically liable for her husband's debts, she could enter contracts on her own, she could collect rents and receive inheritance in her own right, and she could file a lawsuit on her own behalf. New York was the first state to pass this type of legislation. But this was a first step towards long denied progress.
In 1872, Illinois granted freedom of occupational choice to both men and women. However, when Myra Colby Bradwell--who had studied in her husband's law practice and had passed the bar--tried to practice law, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state did not have to grant a law license to a married woman.
In 1881 in France women were given the right to open their own bank accounts and in 1886 this right was extended to married women. The US did not follow suit until the 1960s.
In the 1960s, women in the United States won the right to open bank accounts in their own names. Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, women were not able to apply for credit in the United States. Please think about this: until 1974 women could not apply for credit. This means they could not purchase homes, cars, start businesses, or extend liquidity if they needed to get away from their husbands.
In 1981 Kirchberg v. Feenstra is issued, holding that a husband is not allowed to take a second mortgage on property held jointly with his wife.
With this backdrop, the one piece of wealth that women could amass without raising eyebrows was jewelry. And it was certainly in their interest to claim and maintain hegemony over shiny baubles. Because if all went to hell, they could buy a train ticket, a couple of meals, a night of lodging, and some degree of independence.
So when we see the imagery of the magpie woman, both celebrated in their gilded cages and painted as gold diggers, it's worth taking a moment to pause and consider that in our long history, shiny baubles may have been the only way to gain a modicum of financial independence. And as often is the case, the stereotype is grounded in women's survival.