Risky Business: Women, Credit, and Fraud in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Endorsed by the BHC, SHGAPE, and WASM

Friday, March 31, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Legal and Constitutional; Women's History


The American Revolution did nothing to change the importance of credit: the U.S. economy ran on credit, just as the colonial economy did. Yet a person’s credit was never just a matter of economics. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, social and cultural considerations still shaped an individual’s credit: access to it depended on presumptions about race, ethnicity, class, and gender, as well as a person’s reputation and family connections. Credit was also inseparable from law, which determined who had credit, who could go into debt, and—perhaps even more important—whose claims on debtors would be honored. The three papers on this panel explore various aspects of the social, cultural, and legal contours of credit in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on women and the underlying reasons for women’s problematic relationship to the most basic elements of the economy: buying, borrowing, and, ultimately, building wealth. The papers proceed chronologically and thematically. Laura Edwards begins in the decades following the Revolution and deals with the relationship between changes in coverture and the emerging credit system, which favored the interests of outside lenders over the claims of family members, particularly those of wives, and undermined all women’s claims to the value of their labor and family property. Emily Remus carries the story forward in time, to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, exploring the difficulties that flowed from the kinds of changes that Edwards lays out, with merchants in a bind because they could not hold married women accountable for their debts. Susanna Blumenthal addresses the gendered dimension of the evolving credit system from another angle, exploring the genealogy of the pathological liar. First applied to a population of adolescent girls and young women who displayed proclivities to lie, cheat, steal, and prostitute their bodies rather than marry, this diagnosis had broader economic and legal implications, painting women into a corner. If they were unmarried, they were unreliable and unworthy of credit; if they were, they were reliable and still unworthy of credit. Together, the papers tell a different story about economic change, one that not only underscores the importance of law and cultural in shaping economic dynamics, but also sketches a narrative arc in which economic access becomes more, not less problematic for women over time.

Papers Presented

Lying and the Single Woman

This paper examines the problem of credibility presented by the wayward girls in Progressive America. As exponents of a socialized law struggled to contain the recidivism that plagued urban centers in this era, they were confounded by the repeat appearances of delinquent girls who told the most arresting stories of abuse, neglect, immorality, and illness, often implicating themselves as well as those supposed to be nearest and dearest to them. While initially credited by judges, social workers, and psychiatrists, they ultimately proved the most unreliable of narrators. Casting themselves at the dramatic center of ever more elaborate and utterly implausible tales of woe, they left their professional audiences divided as to whether their seemingly pointless and often self-defeating fabrications were the product of dishonesty or disease. Into the breach stepped the progressive psychiatrist William Healy, who diagnosed the delinquents as pathological liars. Although Healy was not the inventor of this type, he wrote the first monograph on the subject, Pathological Lying and Swindling (1915), which gave the diagnosis a gendered spin, characterizing it as a predominantly female trait that moved the afflicted to cheat and steal without any apparent motive or purpose, at once conveying the ruinous effects of economic life on the single girl and the havoc she might wreak if she remained unmarried. As it traces the genealogy of this diagnostic category and its cultural effects, this paper also seeks to account for the relative rarity of the female fraudster in the gallery of American rogues.

Presented By
Susanna Blumenthal, University of Minnesota

Coverture Writ Large: Women’s Property and Credit in the Nineteenth-Century United States

This paper explores the connection between fraud and women’s property. Legal professionals in the new republic embraced a rigid definition of coverture elaborated by Sir William Blackstone that, over time, replaced a more fluid set of principles. This version of coverture consolidated familial property in the name of the husband, giving individual men an open-ended grant of authority that outstripped the capabilities of many and failed to account for misfortunes beyond any individual’s control. It also ignored the fact that household economies were a collective endeavor that involved wives. Those problems, however, were obvious to women’s rights activists as well as women and their families, which explain persistent efforts to work around coverture’s legal restrictions: through wills that passed property through women, separate estates, homestead exemptions, and even married women’s property acts. This version of coverture was not just about women. It also elevated creditors’ claims over those of family members, including those of wives. By extension, efforts to shield property from creditors became associated with fraud. Because so many of those efforts involved women, the implications tainted all women’s property, linking it to fraud and undermining their ability to access credit, build wealth, and develop their own business ventures. This paper focuses on the implications for women’s economic standing and the challenges, by women and their families, to legal changes that undermined collective understandings of property that provided support to families as well as individual women’s ability to function within the developing economy.

Presented By
Laura Edwards, Princeton University

Cash, Credit, and Coverture: Urban Retailers, Married Women, and the Changing Landscape of Financial Risk

This paper considers how married women’s peculiar legal status under coverture shaped credit practices and perceptions of creditworthiness at the turn of the twentieth century. In this era, as urban marketplaces expanded and became more anonymous, retailers could no longer claim personal familiarity with the vast majority of their customers. The risks associated with providing open book credit grew, and merchants increasingly struggled to collect debts. Many turned, unsurprisingly, to the courts for help. Yet assistance there was not always forthcoming, especially when the delinquent customer was a married woman. In such cases, the law of coverture, which prevented a wife from contracting her own debts, collided with a host of laws designed to protect creditors, notably the law of necessaries and state family earnings acts, to make responsibility for a married woman’s purchases difficult to establish. Retailer after retailer in cities across the U.S. found themselves embroiled in costly lawsuits to extract payment from the husbands of female customers. In this environment, merchants soon recognized that the very persons who spent the most money in consumer institutions—married women—could not always be held accountable for their purchases. To insulate themselves from loss, retailers began experimenting with new payment practices, including cash-only policies. They also dramatically expanded their private credit evaluating and monitoring practices. Indeed, as this paper shows, in the absence of clear legal and state support for collecting debts from wives, merchants modernized and professionalized private credit reporting and notions of what made someone worthy of credit.

Presented By
Emily A. Remus, University of Notre Dame

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Maureen Eleise Brady, Harvard Law School
Maureen E. “Molly” Brady is a professor of law at Harvard Law School, where she teaches property law, land use law, and urban legal history. Her scholarship uses historical analyses of property institutions and land use doctrines to explore broader theoretical questions. Her current research projects involve the relationship between covenants and zoning, the persistence of community knowledge in property doctrine, and state constitutional takings law. She is also an Associate Reporter for the American Law Institute’s Fourth Restatement of Property.

Previously, Professor Brady taught at the University of Virginia School of Law, where she received the 2019 UVA Student Council Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2018 Z Society Distinguished Faculty Award for “one outstanding member of the University’s faculty who has positively impacted the student body,” and an invitation to the Seven Society 27th Annual Monticello Dinner Series for “exemplary scholarship and transformative instruction of students.” Her recent article in the Yale Law Journal, “The Forgotten History of Metes and Bounds,” won both the Association of American Law Schools’ Scholarly Papers Prize for junior faculty members in their first five years of law teaching and the American Society for Legal History's William Nelson Cromwell Article Prize for the year's best paper by an early-career scholar. In addition to this piece, she has published articles in forums including the Harvard Law Review, Virginia Law Review, Pennsylvania Law Review Online, and many others.

Professor Brady received an AB summa cum laude in history from Harvard College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was awarded the Harvard-Radcliffe Foundation for Women's Athletics Prize for the top female scholar-athlete. Professor Brady then obtained her JD from Yale Law School, where she was the two-time recipient of the Parker Prize for legal history scholarship and was awarded the Quintin Johnstone Prize in Real Property Law, the Jewell Prize for an outstanding contribution to a Yale Law School journal, and the Cullen Prize for the best paper written by a first-year student. Following graduation, she served as a clerk to Judge Bruce M. Selya on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and practiced at Ropes and Gray in Boston as a corporate associate focusing on intellectual property transactions. After leaving practice, she was in the first graduating class of the PhD in Law program at Yale University.

Presenter: Susanna Blumenthal, University of Minnesota

University of Minnesota
William L. Prosser Professor of Law, 2018-
Professor of History, 2017-
Co-Founder/Co-Director, Program in Law and History, 2007-

Ph.D., History, Yale University, 2001
J.D. Yale Law School, 1996
A.B., Government, Harvard College, 1990

Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Fellow, 2020-21
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, American Antiquarian Society 2016-17
Law and Public Affairs Program, Princeton University, Fellow, 2009-2010
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Sargent-Faull Fellow, 2003-2004

Monographs and Book Chapters
The Apprehension of Fraud in Modern American (in progress)
Law and the Modern Mind: Consciousness and Responsibility in American Legal Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016)
“Positivism’s Humbugs: Criminology and its Cranks in Progressive America,” The Limits of
Criminological Positivism: The Movement for Criminal Law Reform in the West, 1870-1940
(London: Routledge, 2021)
“Counterfeiting Confidence: The Problem of Trust in the Age of Contract,” Money in Law and
Literature, edited by Martha Nussbaum, Saul Levmore, and Alison LaCroix) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)
“The Legal Person: A History of the Forensic Fiction,” The Ashgate Research Companion to
Law and Humanities in Nineteenth-Century America, Nan Goodman and Simon Stern, eds.
“A Mania for Accumulation: The Plea of Moral Insanity in Gilded Age Will Contests,” Making
Legal History, Daniel Hulsebosch and Richard B. Bernstein, eds. (New York: New York
University Press, 2013)
“‘Death by his own hand’: Accounting for Suicide in Nineteenth-Century Life Insurance
Litigation,” Subjects of Responsibility: Framing Personhood in Modern Bureaucracies,
Andrew Parker, Martha Umphrey, and Austin Sarat, eds. (New York: Fordham University
Press, 2011)

Journal Articles
“Toward a Legal History of Humbug,” 64 Buffalo Law Review (January 2016)
“Of Mandarins, Legal Consciousness, and the Cultural Turn in U.S. Legal History,” Symposium
on Robert W. Gordon’s “Critical Legal Histories,” edited by Hendrik Hartog in 36 Law &
Social Inquiry (Winter 2012)
“‘The Mind of the Moral Agent’: Scottish Common Sense and the Problem of Responsibility in
Nineteenth Century American Law,” 26 Law and History Review (Spring 2008)
“The Deviance of the Will: Policing the Bounds of Testamentary Freedom in Nineteenth
Century America,” 119 Harvard Law Review (February 2006)

Merle Curti Intellectual History Award for Law and the Modern Mind from the Organization of American Historians
Cheiron Book Prize Law and the Modern Mind from the Society for the History of Behavioral & Social Sciences

Presenter: Laura Edwards, Princeton University

History Department
Princeton University
136 Dickinson Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1017

Princeton University
Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor of the History of American Law and Liberty, 2021-

Ph.D., History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1991
M.A., History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1987
B.A., American Culture, Northwestern University, 1985

American Council of Learned Societies, Postdoctoral Fellowship for Full Professors, 2019-2020
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois, 2019-2020
Visiting Neukom Fellows Chair in Diversity and Law, American Bar Foundation, Chicago, Illinois, 2016-2017
John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, 2012-2013
Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, 2007-2008

Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022)
A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000; paperback ed., 2004)
Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). Excerpted in: Paul Escott, David R. Goldfield, Elizabeth Hayes Turner, and Sally G. McMillan, eds., Major Problems in the History of the American South, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999); Sylvia D. Hoffert, ed., A History of Gender in America: Essays, Documents, and Articles (New York: Prentice Hall, 2003)

Peer-Reviewed Articles
“James and His Striped Velvet Pantaloons: Textiles, Commerce, and the Law in the New Republic,” Journal of American History 107 (September 2020): 336-61
“The Legal World of Elizabeth Bagby’s Commonplace Book: Federalism, Women, and Governance,” Journal of the Civil War Era 9 (December 2019): 504-523
“Sarah Allingham’s Sheet and Other Lessons from Legal History,” Journal of the Early Republic 38 (Spring 2018): 121-47
“The Reconstruction of Rights: The Fourteenth Amendment and Popular Conceptions of Governance,” Journal of Supreme Court History 42 (November 2016): 310-328
“Textiles: Popular Culture and the Law,” Buffalo Law Review 64 (January 2015): 193-214

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring, the Graduate School, Duke University, 2013
Howard D. Johnson Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching, College of Arts and Sciences, Duke University, 2009-2010
Charles Sydnor Prize, awarded by the Southern Historical Association for best book in southern history, 2009, for The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South
Littleton-Griswold Prize, awarded by the American Historical Association for best book in American Law and Society, 2009, for The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South

Presenter: Emily A. Remus, University of Notre Dame
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

434 Decio Hall
Notre Dame, IN 46556
(312) 772-2345

2021-present Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Notre Dame
2021-present Concurrent Associate Professor, Gender Studies, University of Notre Dame
2016-2021 Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Notre Dame
2017-2021 Concurrent Assistant Professor, Gender Studies, University of Notre Dame
2015-2016 Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of History, University of Notre Dame
2014-2015 Visiting Scholar, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

2014 Ph.D., with Distinction, History, University of Chicago
2007 M.A., History, University of Chicago
2006 B.A., Phi Beta Kappa with High Honors, History, Swarthmore College

A Shoppers’ Paradise: How the Ladies of Chicago Claimed Power and Pleasure in the New Downtown. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, April 2019.

Charge It: Women, Credit, and the Making of Modern America, book manuscript in progress
“Cash, Credit, and Coverture: Urban Retailers, Married Women, and the Changing Landscape of Financial Risk in the Early Twentieth-Century United States,” article in progress.

“The Central Business District in American Cities,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Urban History, ed. Timothy Gilfoyle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019): 169-179.
“Consumerism and Popular Culture—A Historiographical Survey,” in Routledge History of the Twentieth Century, eds. Darren Dochuk and Jerald Podair (New York: Routledge, 2018): 315-324.
“Retail Evolution: Creating the American Shopping Landscape,” Journal of Urban History, 44 (Sept. 2018): 1032-1036.
“Disruptive Shopping: Women, Space, and Capitalism,” The American Historian (May 2017): 16-23.
“Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siècle Chicago,” Journal of American History, 101 (Dec. 2014): 751-777.

Finalist, Shapiro Book Prize for Best First Book in American History, Huntington Library, 2021
American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship, for Charge It: Women, Credit, and the Making of Modern America, 2019-2020
Alfred D. Chandler Jr. Travel Fellowship, Harvard Business School, 2020
Fishel-Calhoun Article Prize, Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, for “Tippling Ladies,” awarded to the best article published in any journal in the last two years dealing with any aspect of U.S. history between 1865 and 1917, 2016