Until 1968, a Married Texas Woman Couldn’t Own Property or Start a Business Without Her Husband’s Permission. This Dallas Attorney Changed ThatHistorians in the News
tags: feminism, legal history, Texas, womens history, coverture, property rights
Around this time of year, Louise Raggio’s three sons miss the smell of cookies wafting from the compact kitchen in their childhood home. On the minuscule counter space, she’d prepare dozens of fruitcakes, peanut butter confections, and lines of sugar cookies squeezed out of piping tubes to create dainty ridges in the dough. “She was not the cleanest person, but I never remember there being discord around the kitchen,” says her youngest, Kenneth, now 71. Raggio, a petite, blond, blue-eyed woman, would recruit her husband to help; she’d spend a full weekend baking, staying up late into the night to package the treats as gifts. She rarely indulged in sweets, but made them by the dozen for family, friends, and colleagues.
Raggio never looked like anything but an average, middle-class homemaker—and that’s exactly the way she wanted it. Frances Harris, a Dallas attorney and friend of Raggio’s, says she always had her hair done, wore sensible and stylish clothing, and never left the house without her signature shade of red lipstick. Those who knew her best say maintaining appearances was key to her many achievements. Raggio’s looks reflected her by-the-book personality, but they also helped her seem nonthreatening, paving the way for her to do subversive, feminist work. She was part of the first generation of female lawyers in Texas and the driving force behind the state’s Marital Property Act of 1967, a little-known but influential piece of legislation that gave married women the same rights as their husbands and paved the way for the country’s first unified family code. Prior to the law, which went into effect on January 1, 1968, women had the same rights as “infants, idiots and felons,” as Raggio wrote in her autobiography, Texas Tornado. Because Texas law required married women to receive permission from their husbands for every signature, lawsuit, and bank check, Raggio counted herself among the lawyers, businesswomen, and other female professionals who practiced illegally for much of their careers.
Raggio drafted the Marital Property Act of 1967 while working at the Texas bar association, and she lobbied officeholders to push the legislation through. In part, lawmakers’ support of the bill was a reaction to their hatred of another push for equal rights by a women’s rights activist, attorney Hermine Tobolowsky. “The Legislature felt compelled to support either marital property law or [Tobolowsky’s] equal rights amendment,” explains Nancy Baker, a historian at Sam Houston State University who is writing a book about Texas’s female legal reformers. “[Tobolowsky] had made herself so unpopular with some of the state legislators that they basically called Lousie Raggio in and told her, ‘Tobolowsky hates this bill? Then we’re for it.’”Although Tobolowsky eventually got her way with the passage of the Texas Equal Legal Rights Amendment in 1972, Baker says that Raggio’s work laid the groundwork for that development and others.
The Marital Property Act of 1967 did not lead to immediate monumental change, but, according to Faber, the number of women-owned businesses in Texas increased after its passage. The bill later became part of Texas’s unified family code, which made it easier for lawyers to work within the set of family law statutes and identify inconsistencies. After she spearheaded that project in 1979, Raggio served as counsel to other states looking to reform their family codes, and she quipped that she brought Texas “from worst to first.” Today, Texas is ranked as one of the nation’s friendliest environments for female business owners and entrepreneurs.
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