Feme sole traders (married women engaged in trade) held a unique legal status in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century South Carolina. The laws and customs of the time prevented married women from undertaking commercial dealings without the consent of their husbands. An important exception to this state of affairs, however, was the granting of feme sole trading status. As a feme sole trader, a married woman became “as if sole” or unmarried in the eyes of the law regarding her economic status.
Statutes regarding feme sole trading in South Carolina first appeared in the early eighteenth century. In 1712, noting the presence of feme sole traders who “do contract debts . . . with design to defraud the persons to whom they are indebted by sheltering and defending themselves from any suit brought against them by reason of their coverture [married status],” the Commons House of Assembly passed an Attachment Act with provisions making a feme sole trader “liable to any suit or action to be brought against her for any debt contracted as a sole trader . . . as if such woman was sole and not under coverture.”
In 1734 the assembly revised the Attachment Act to grant feme sole traders the power to sue in their husbands’ names and with their husbands’ consent. By 1744 the assembly had determined that owing to the absence of husbands or difficulty in obtaining husbands’ approval, the method prescribed for feme sole traders to recover debts owed them was “very tedious and almost impracticable.” The assembly empowered feme sole traders to sue for debts owed them, naming the husbands for conformity, without the need to obtain his consent.
Because the activities of a feme sole trader could deprive the husband of services that marriage entitled him to, his consent was required, as was his agreement not to meddle in her business dealings. Although registration was not required, more than six hundred deeds or contracts conveying feme sole trader status were registered between 1754 and 1824. It is unknown how many other women operated taverns, inns, or boardinghouses; kept shops; ran bakeries; sold liquor, provisions, dry goods, poultry, livestock, and other farm commodities; and engaged in other suitable female employments with only the tacit consent of their husbands.
Feme sole trader status was frequently granted in legal separations (divorce was prohibited) in lieu of alimony. In cases of extended absence, banishment, or desertion by the husband, feme sole trader status was granted automatically. Court cases do not always provide clear evidence as to whether a woman acted as an agent for her husband or as a sole trader. In 1823 legislation was enacted to “regulate the mode in which married women shall become Sole Traders or Dealers.” Women with husbands were thereafter required to give monthly public notice of their intentions to conduct business on their own behalf.
Although South Carolina’s feme sole trader statutes (which differed from those of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) were enacted primarily to protect the traders’ creditors, Carolinians recognized that feme sole trading contributed to the growth of commerce, fostered greater financial security for families, and lessened the likelihood that public assistance would be needed in cases of profligacy, insolvency, desertion, or extended absences by husbands. A feme sole trader could provide an alternative or second income for the family and protect property and income from her husband’s creditors. Conversely, his resources were immune from her creditors. Primarily an urban and laboring class phenomenon, feme sole trading was a conscious family strategy employed to prevent or mitigate real and potential financial hardships.
Parramore, Mary Roberts. “‘For Her Sole and Separate Use’: Feme Sole Trader Status in Early South Carolina.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1991.
Salmon, Marylynn. Women and the Law of Property in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.