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A Woman's Kingdom: Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia, 1700-1861.

A Woman's Kingdom: Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia, 1700-1861. By Michelle Lamarche Marrese (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. xiv plus 276 pp. $42.50).

Michelle Marrese has written the definitive study of one of the most intriguing paradoxes in Russian history. In the 1813 painting that serves as her book's striking dust jacket, an elegant D. A. Derzhavina, tiny lapdog on her arm, gestures proudly to a magnificent estate standing in the distance across a lush green landscape. Although Russia's patriarchal family law imposed severe restrictions on women's autonomy, its property and inheritance law protected the rights of women like Derzhavina to inherit, acquire, and alienate property in their own names, in marked contrast to the United States and Europe. What explains the expansion of Russian noblewomen's property rights in the 18th century? Did those rights exist only on paper, as some historians have maintained, or did women like Derzhavina control and administer their estates themselves? How did noblewomen use their property? As Marrese methodically explores different aspects of noblewomen's property ownership in law and practice, the confident expression on Derzhavina's handsome face becomes entirely justified.

Meticulously researched and tightly argued, this first book shows how property and inheritance rights gave Russian noblewomen unequalled control over landed wealth, an active role in the economy, and significant authority over family and society. Marrese's comparative context, informed by extensive knowledge of women's property ownership in Europe and America, highlights Russian women's unique status, whose explanation she finds not in gender ideologies but in the distinctive evolution of property and noble status in Russia. Law and property, she maintains, play central roles in shaping gender identities--not vice versa.

The first two chapters document legal changes that regularized, expanded and protected women's inheritance and property rights. During the eighteenth century widows and daughters became entitled to a statutory share of their husbands' and fathers' estates, while a decree in 1753 "liberated" married women from "gender tutelage" and gave them independent control over property both brought to the marriage and acquired during it. The presence of four empresses on the Russian throne in the eighteenth century had nothing to do with these advances; nor, in fact, did women's interests per se. Russian lawmakers almost completely disregarded gender in their decrees and rulings on property.

The elevation of women's inheritance and property rights, Marrese argues, were the unintended consequences of efforts to protect the property rights of all nobles against encroachment by family members and the state. She emphasizes the psychology of an insecure nobility "traumatized" by long experience of arbitrary state action, and links noblewomen's legal gains to the nobility's wider struggle for corporate privileges and greater security. At the same time, Marrese credits individual noblewomen who petitioned and sued for greater control over their property. She may overstate the argument for noble agency behind these legal changes; it was primarily the Senate, courts and other government bodies who acted to expand noblewomen's property rights, while the nobility itself seems mainly to have reacted by either evading or acquiescing to laws depending on their interests. Chapter 3, however, demonstrates that noblewomen used the courts successfully to defend their property against encroachment or misuse by their husbands. Although formal divorce was almost impossible to obtain until the late nineteenth century, the law of separate property facilitated informal separations from abusive or spendthrift husbands, and ameliorated women's subordination in the family.

The remaining four chapters illuminate how noblewomen used their property rights. Given their subjugation in family law and custom, how much property did women actually possess, and how much control did they exercise over it? Marrese's answers derive largely from the extraordinary database she constructed from the notarial records of eight thousand property transactions in four provincial districts and Moscow between 1715 and 1860. She demonstrates impressive linguistic, quantitative, and analytical skills in her use of this challenging evidence, and by analyzing transactions by both men and women, she is able to identify similarities and differences in the economic behavior of noblewomen and men.

In Chapter 4, the fulcrum of the book, Marrese estimates that noblewomen owned as much as one third of all privately held land and serfs in the decades before emancipation in 1861, and therefore "played a vital role in the family economy and [provincial] economic life" (145). Her statistical analysis of notarial data reveals that noblewomen's participation in the real estate and serf markets rose dramatically in the eighteenth century as a result of the 1753 law of separate property, far surpassing merchant women. In patterns of landholding, serf ownership, and use of property, Marrese also finds more similarities than differences between noblewomen and men. Using a sample of 133 wills, chapter 5 compares how noblewomen and men disposed of their property. While noblewomen were more likely to make charitable bequests, in other respects their testamentary behavior resembled men's. Equally influenced by the nobility's strong tradition of partible inheritance, noblewomen shared men's overwhelming preference for naming immediate family members as heirs. Marrese finds no evidence of the kind of personalized, sentimental culture of giving detected by historians in the wills of American and European women.

Marrese pursues the subject of gender roles and ideologies in chapter 6, which uses rich anecdotal evidence from memoirs, letters, and estate records to conclude that estate management was not gendered masculine in Russia. Disputing historians who have argued that noblewomen were confined to the domestic sphere, she finds that their experience as estate owners varied widely, from active participation in all aspects of management to neglect or willing delegation of those onerous tasks to husbands, stewards, or others. Russia's traditions of female estate ownership and management limited the influence of European ideas of femininity and domesticity. Finally, chapter 7 finds high levels of literacy and legal knowledge among noblewomen, and extensive evidence of their active participation in Russia's extremely litigious judicial culture and patronage networks. She finds strong similarities in both the behavior of noblewomen and men, and the ways they were treated as landowners and serfowners by government authorities, courts, and noble corporate bodies.

A glossary, appendices, and background explanations of various aspects of Russian history make A Woman's Kingdom accessible to non-specialists. Social and women's historians in all fields should read it for both its exemplary use of evidence and its major contributions to understanding the status of women in imperial Russia and historical interrelationships among gender, law, and property.

Adele Lindenmeyr

Villanova University
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History
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Author:Lindenmeyr, Adele
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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