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Where are the Women: Examples from the LVA Collections
Abuse and Independence


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Where are the Women:
Examples from the LVA Collections



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The Great Catastrophe of My Life: Divorce in the Old Dominion. Thomas E. Buckley, S. J. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Bound volume. Library of Virginia.

In her 1816 petition to the General Assembly, Ann Pierce Parker Cowper detailed the physical abuse and other misbehavior of her husband, William Cowper, from whom she requested a bill of divorce. He had squandered and attempted fraudulently to obtain control over her inheritance and the property that their son had inherited from his maternal grandfather; and he beat and abused her during several years in incidents that sank to the depths of attempted murder and an attempt to induce a miscarriage during her fourth pregnancy. (That child, Leopold Copeland Parker Cowper, survived and was lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1863 to 1869.)

Ann Cowper's long but successful struggle for legal independence reveals how difficult it was under the law for wives to protect the interests of their children and themselves from abusive or irresponsible husbands. In order to make her case persuasively to the assembly, she began her petition with the distinguished career of her father in the Continental army and in the House of Representatives and included appeals to the sympathy and sense of justice of the legislators. In the third-person language of formal petitions, Cowper wrote, "Her wish is to support and educate her children, to resque them from vice and ignorance (to which they are now exposed under their father) and bring them up in piety and virtue."

Such language reveals much about the fundamental values of the society and the responsibilities that women and mothers were expected to exercise, as well as the limitations on their freedom of independent action.

Petition of Ann P. P. Cowper for divorce from William Cowper. 20 November 1816. Manuscript. RG 78, Legislative Petitions, Isle of Wight County. Library of Virginia