When I bought my first house, it never occurred to me that just a few generations earlier I might have lost all claim to it when I got married. Women’s property rights in America went through a lot of changes between my great-grandmothers’ time and mine. The new United States of America largely adopted British common law. That system defined a married woman as chattel of her husband. He controlled her property, her earnings, and even her children. Once an American woman married, she ceased to be a separate legal entity. For instance, the Tennessee legislature in 1848 declared that married women lacked “independent souls” and thus should not be allowed to own property.
Out West, it was a different story. Under Spanish and later Mexican law, married women could own property. When Mexico surrendered California to the United States in 1848, the United States guaranteed the property rights of former Mexican citizens, including women. The California state constitution even went so far as to specifically protect a married woman’s right to own property. It would take the rest of the states more than fifty years to catch up.
Juana Briones de Miranda, a woman of Spanish and African descent, was one of many who benefited from Mexican, and later, California property law. In 1844, after separating from her abusive husband, she bought the 4,400 acre Rancho La Purísima Concepción near what would become Los Altos, California. Even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago technically guaranteed Mexican people their property rights, in practice the American government made it extremely difficult to claim those rights. Against these odds, Juana Briones succeeded in retaining her title. She litigated her case for two decades, eventually taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court where she received an American patent in 1871. She was one of twenty-four Mexican women “rancheras” who proved their land claims under United States law by 1886.
Juana Briones built a large adobe house on her rancho, planted apricot orchards and raised thousands of cattle. She passed enough of her land to her daughters to ensure their financial independence. Her house in Los Altos Hills survived more than 150 years before it was demolished in 2011.
Juana’s fight to retain title to Rancho La Purísima Concepción in her own name paved the way for future generations of women like me to own property and pass it on to our daughters. Juana’s original adobe may no longer be standing, but every married woman who owns a house is part of Juana’s house. Let us remember our intrepid foremother: pioneer, rancher, farmer, businesswoman, curandera, and force to be reckoned with. Thanks, Juana Briones, for having our backs.