New Jersey repeals antiquarian sexist laws: Marriage no longer a cure for rape

If a man and woman wished to get married in New Jersey, they had to wait for a minimum period of 72 hours. Unless, of course, the man had been – and I quote – arrested for “bastardy, rape, fornication or of having had carnal knowledge of an unmarried female, and the accused person consents to marry such female.” In such circumstances, “any licensing officer is authorised to immediately issue a marriage license”. So stated the law since the 1900s until this week. That’s one hell of a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card (at the expense of women’s rights).

State Sens. Jennifer Beck and Loretta Weinberg challenged the archaic language of this state law that, among other things, allowed a rapist to get off the hook if he married the woman immediately. They introduced a bill to rid the law of the sexism and offensive language that has survived, somehow, for more than 100 years. This is not the only sexist provision that Beck and Weinberg have been working to get rid of. Another says that a woman has to forfeit her property to her husband if she has an affair. Not to worry, though; she can reclaim her property if her husband forgives her and gives her permission to dwell with him again. On this, Weinberg said:

“That almost sounds like a paragraph out of Jane Eyre.”

What is particularly alarming about this law is that it required a woman to give up her property rights if she has been “ravished, consent to the ravisher”. Consent to the rapist? Talk about contradiction. And to think that, up to this week, women could be submitted to such law.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (left) and Sen. Jennifer Beck led the charge to strike sexist language out of laws dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Some of the laws that Beck and Weinberg’s bill repealed might have had good intentions in the 19th century but they are not relevant today. The Married Women’s Property Acts, enacted during the 19th century, gave married women legal and property rights that they had previously been denied. Laws like these are no longer necessary, however, since state constitution and anti-discrimination laws guarantee women equal protection.

Many ridiculous laws go unenforced, but laws like these can be dangerous. Take, for example, the 1924 law which stipulates that county jails are not supposed to spend more than 50 cents a day to feed prisoners. If all of New Jersey laws were enforced, the state would surely be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel punishment. State laws need to relate to the times, current beliefs and values. The sexist laws that Weinberg and Beck’s bill (S2665) call into question certainly do not. Recognising that the law has not caught up with the times, the bill strikes archaic language from the law books. Beck has commented:

“Having these antiquated laws on the books is not a positive. We should update them to reflect current society.”

Likewise, Vito Gagliardi, chairman of the commission states:

“Some of these laws sound silly and antiquated, but they can lead to real problems if they’re not solved.”

Take one case as an example. In 1992, state authorities were depending on the co-operation of Irene Seale to testify against her husband for a kidnapping and murder charge. Prosecutors realised that Arthur Seale could prevent his wife from testifying – even though she wished to – under the state’s outdated spousal privilege law. While Seale pleaded guilty in the end, lawmakers recognized the problem and changed the law.

In response to Beck and Weinberg’s bill, New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie has got rid of the discriminatory laws. New Jersey’s lawmakers have finally come to terms with the fact that marriage is not the cure for rape. Weinberg, responding to the success of the bill, commented:

“It’s pretty obvious that a lot of this should have been removed from our statutes, and now officially they are.”

Beck said that the old statutes serve as a reminder of progress made on behalf of women’s rights:

“The repeal of this language signals how far we have come, considering some of these laws were originally put in place to serve as protection for women concerning property rights. Of course some of these statutes can be viewed as absurd now, and in any century.”

Finally, the law books of New Jersey have caught up with society.

Related Articles and Image Sources

http://jezebel.com/5833632/new-jersey-repeals-laws-governing-ravishment?popular=true

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/02/your_comments_state_senators_i.html

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Categories: Crime, People, Politics, Law

Author:Mary-Ellen L

Lives at www.animadvert.co.uk. Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy, Poet and Professional Cynic.

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