Change for Noblewomen in the Eighteenth Century
Dashkova’s accomplishments reflected developments in elite women’s lives that spread outward from St. Petersburg during the eighteenth century. By Catherine’s reign, the gender segregation of the Muscovite era lingered on only in provincial areas far from the major cities. Nearly everywhere, girls from noble families were being educated, mostly by tutors hired by their parents. Women in families attuned to the new arts and ideas read for pleasure, played musical instruments, attended plays, and drew sketches of the countryside.15 While these pleasant additions to daily life spread through the provinces, noblewomen were also expanding their property rights.
Women’s property rights were defined in various government statutes and debated in Russian law courts throughout the eighteenth century. Revisions of inheritance law remained true to the provisions of the Ulozhenie of 1649: widows were entitled to one‑seventh of their husband’s real property and one‑fourth of moveables. A daughter whose parents died intestate could claim one‑fourteenth of her parents’ real property and one‑eighth of the moveables; parents could choose to make more generous bequests in wills. The law did not address the question of whether daughters’ dowries should be considered part of their inheritances. That issue was contentious, because counting dowries as inheritances meant that women would receive less when their parents died. The courts usually ruled that dowry property should not be subtracted from inheritance shares.16
Russian judges in the eighteenth century also repeatedly reaffirmed the long‑standing principle that women, regardless of their marital status, could control their property. In 1753 the imperial Senate, Russia’s highest court, ruled in a landmark case that a woman did not need her husband’s consent to sell an estate that belonged to her. In effect, the senators were stating that women had the same ownership rights as men. Although consistent with Russian tradition, this ruling was remarkable in the context of eighteenth‑century Europe. In most countries, particularly the larger ones, medieval customs that had granted women considerable control over their dowries and inheritances had given way in the early modern period to law codes that gave husbands control of, and often ownership of, their wives’ property. In Britain, for example, the legal principle of couverture decreed that in marriage, “the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.”17 Because of couverture, an English wife required her husband’s agreement to sign a contract, file a civil suit, or execute a will, and she had little recourse should a profligate spouse gamble away all her property. By comparison, a Russian wife was practically a free agent.
The property rights of Russian noblewomen were also strengthened in the eighteenth century by a redefinition of the landholding rights of their class. In the aftermath of Peter I’s abolition of pomeste and votchina, nobles argued successfully in court cases and petitions to the government that an individual landowner possessed full title to an estate. The government could not confiscate land if an owner defaulted on his obligation to serve the state. Nor could the government require an owner to obtain the consent of his or her extended family before selling land. It was significant that Russian jurists and litigants made no gender distinctions in these new arguments, and they also appear to have been quite blind to the attractions of couverture, eschewing its importation into Russian law.
Perhaps noblewomen themselves pressured the lawmakers to preserve their rights, for even as the jurists drafted the laws and the judges interpreted them, noblewomen were exercising those rights more energetically than ever before. Widows had long been involved in the real estate market; now married women became more engaged as well. Michelle Marrese has found that 20 percent of the female sellers of land in the 1710s were married women. By mid‑century, that figure had more than doubled, to 46 percent. One hundred years later, married women were 63 percent of the female buyers of land and serfs. Marrese has estimated that by 1860 women comprised a third or more of the buyers and sellers.18
In the eighteenth century, women also participated more directly and more often in other legal transactions. They attended sessions of the courts and signed their own names to sales contracts, rather than sending male representatives to perform such tasks, as they had done in the past. Some women sued estranged husbands or other family members over property disputes. Foreign observers were astonished by the autonomy of propertied women. Martha Wilmot, Dashkova’s friend, wrote in her journal in 1806, “The full and entire dominion which Russian women have over their own fortunes gives them a remarkable degree of liberty and a degree of independence of their Husbands unknown in England.”19 The persistence of women’s property and legal rights in Russia was one important instance in which the preservation, and indeed expansion, of traditional principles worked to women’s benefit.
Notions about family life were more affected by ideas flowing in from Western Europe in the eighteenth century. We have already seen that Peter I endorsed the principle that spouses should share emotional intimacy as well as household management. This principle gained widespread acceptance in the eighteenth century. In 1767, Natalia Dolgorukaia (1714–71), who belonged to the top ranks of the nobility, summed up the new stress on conjugal love in her description of her marriage. “It seemed to me that he had been born for me and I for him,” she wrote of her husband Ivan, years after his death, “and it was impossible for us to live without one another.” Theirs was an alliance of soulmates; “I was a comrade to my husband,” she fondly recalled.20
Similar sentiments appear in the correspondence of other noblewomen. Olga Glagoleva has analyzed the way eighteenth‑century wives addressed their husbands in letters. Early in Peter’s reign, women writing to their spouses emphasized their subordination. “To my sovereign Ivan Ivanovich,” wrote Maria Kireevskaia in 1716, “be healthy my sovereign Ivan Ivanovich for many years, please my sovereign have a letter written to me about your perennial health.” Glagoleva and Mary Cavender have found that by the end of the century, the tender terms “friend” and “angel” had replaced “sovereign.”21
Older patriarchal ideas persisted. Dolgorukaia saw herself as her husband’s comrade, not his equal: she believed that it was her duty to devote herself completely to him, while his was to serve as her lover, protector, and moral instructor. “I had everything in him,” she wrote many years after his death, “a gracious husband, and father, and teacher and seeker after my salvation.”22 Dolgorukaia proved her devotion to Ivan by following him into Siberian exile after he ran afoul of Empress Anna’s favorites.
If a wife did not have such a loving marriage, she owed it to God and her family to make the best of things. A widow named Iakovleva, who headed her household and managed a small estate, made this clear to her thirteen‑year‑old daughter Anna in 1769, shortly before she arranged Anna’s marriage to a much older man. “And when God blesses you with a husband,” the widow declared, “then respect your husband as your master, obey him, and love him with all your heart, even if he acts badly toward you. Know too that he was given to you by the Lord: the good for making you happy, and the bad to test your tolerance. If you bear all of this with humility, then you will have submitted to the will of God and not humanity.”23
Noblewomen were also expected to be lovingly submissive to older family members, both before and after they married. In their memoirs, Dolgorukaia and Anna Labzina, Iakovleva’s daughter, profess deep affection for their marital families, especially their mothers‑in‑law. Each portrays herself as an innocent young bride afraid to leave her mother and go to live with people whom, as Dolgorukaia put it, she was “not accustomed to.” Both women came to love some of their new kin. Labzina, whose marriage to her first husband was desperately unhappy, threw herself on the mercy of her in‑laws, and they responded with kindness. “I will never forget their love and affection, “ she wrote, “especially that of my brother‑in‑law, who, upon seeing my youth and simple nature, endeavored to treat me warmly.” Labzina also relied heavily upon her mother‑in‑law, whom she remembered as “my… consolation and solace.”24 This latter comment may be particularly instructive. Eighteenth‑century court cases suggest fairly regular friction among sisters‑in‑law and brothers‑in‑law but rather less between parents and children. Perhaps the long‑standing Russian belief in the importance of respect for elders limited the conflict between generations.
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