Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Woman's Compassion May Have Helped

"The grim expressions of the twelve men gave little doubt as to how the circumstantial evidence stacked up for them. Roth almost wished women were allowed to serve on juries, though he doubted even a feminine presence would have earned the boy much compassion."

This quote from my novel Something So Divine illustrates one of those injustices afflicting women throughout our history--they did not serve on juries in the 19th century in the United States. In fact, it wasn't until late in the 20th century they were finally accorded that right in all states of the union (And the rest of the world wasn't more advanced).

In my novel, Ned Gebhardt, a mentally challenged youth, has been accused in the murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1897. Though the evidence against him is circumstantial, only Ellen Kauffman, village storekeeper, and Iris, Ned's stepsister, believe him innocent. Influenced by them, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned benefit of the doubt, pending discovery of more evidence.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave states authority to set rules for jury service. As with suffrage, Wyoming was the first state to permit women to serve on juries in 1870. Eliza Stewart Boyd, a Pennsylvania native, was the first U.S. woman to serve when her name was drawn for that Wyoming  jury.  Unfortunately, objection by lawyers and the press put an end to the practice the following year.

Utah opened jury service to women in 1898 and more states followed in the first decades of the 20th century. Women in Pennsylvania--where my story takes place--didn't win the right to serve on juries until 1921.

Many reasons were espoused over the years for denying women this fundamental right. These included the old saws women lacked the mental and emotional capacities to render a just decision. Another standard argument was the belief  jury duty would take women away from their responsibilities as wives, mothers and homemakers--this opinion was particularly strong in agricultural communities. Even many women's organizations advocating female rights stood in the way of jury service, contending it would expose women to unseemly and disgusting situations.

By the 1960s most states permitted women to serve on juries, though some made it a voluntary and not a mandatory issue. A few states complied but with the added provision a judge could bar women from serving at his discretion.  It wasn't until 1975 when a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed that states must treat men and women equally with respect to jury service.


Of course, by then it was way too late for my character.

6 comments:

  1. Love learning stuff like this, John. Including your great details about which states were first, and which lagged the longest, and the reasons why woman were thought to be incapable of serving. Have fun doing research for your next book!

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    1. Thanks, Jan. I love research, but it can be distracting if you're not careful.

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  2. Very interesting and informative, John! I didn't realize it took as long as it did for women to have the right to serve on juries. Wishing you much success with the new book.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Jacqui. When I began the research, I was surprised, too. I thought it would have been in tandem with the right to vote.

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  3. Good information, John. I didn't know any of that, and had never really thought about it. Another little nugget of history to squirrel away in my memory banks. Thanks.

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