Looking Back: Where is Sarah Hunter Snow?

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 10, 2021


BIRMINGHAM — In October of 1856, Alonzo Snow sold the Hunter House and much of the land it sat on to Ira Toms. Over the previous decade, he had purchased the house from his father-in-law, John West Hunter, who had built it in 1822.

Just like today, decisions about buying and selling property were often a joint decision by a married couple, so why isn’t Sarah Hunter Snow, Alonzo’s wife, on any of the legal documentation from either transaction?

The answer is a holdover from English common law called coverture. The wife was legally considered to be “covered” by the husband, and as such, her entire economic and legal identity was subsumed by her husband. In practical terms, a married woman couldn’t hold property, enter into contracts or collect wages for labor. Even the couple’s children were considered the sole property of the husband.

Critics pointed out the many flaws in this practice, and bills began to appear in state legislatures overturning parts of coverture starting in the early 1800s. In 1844, Michigan passed a law that allowed married women to own and hold property in their own names. By the late 1800s, many states also allowed women to control their own wages, although some states specified that the husband’s permission was needed. From the mid-1800s onward, coverture was eroded bit by bit with new laws and the expanded presence of women in the arenas of business and public life.

The road to women’s equality is a series of victories. To learn more about this story and other influential women in Birmingham’s history, visit the 2020-2021 exhibit “Beyond Suffrage: Empowering Birmingham’s Women” through the end of the year.

— Caitlin Donnelly, museum specialist at the Birmingham Museum