Women in the Spanish colonies of the Americas had more economic and legal rights than their neighbors in the Dutch and English colonies. Unmarried Spanish women could own, inherit, and manage their personal property. If a woman married, she could protect her property by having a dowry and an arras included in her marriage contract. A dowry consisted of any property a woman brought with her to the marriage; an arras was a gift of property given to the woman by her new husband. It should be noted that, in this case, property could mean anything a woman owned: land, jewelry, money, businesses. The dowry and arras were legally hers—a husband could manage his wife’s property, but if the marriage ended or the husband mismanaged the accounts, he was legally bound to repay his wife the full value of her property from his own money. If a husband did not have the money to repay his wife, she was legally entitled to take whatever property he owned. The dowry and arras were included in the marriage contracts of women of all races and social classes in the Spanish colonies. Only women with no property of their own marrying equally poor men would waive the right to protect their economic interests.
This document demonstrates how the Spanish legal approach to the dowry and arras afforded women the ability to escape unhappy marriages. Doña María could leave her husband and still support herself and her daughters because she had a pre-existing and protected fortune. She is also able to counter her husband’s custody claim by arguing that any fortune he has left is legally hers to make up for the dowry he squandered. Without access to his own money, her husband would not be able to support his daughters, or even hire a good attorney to fight Doña María in court.