This is a fictional piece of social history for a fictional version of our world. Nothing in this should be taken as reflecting actual practice in either modern or historical Italy.
This is the second background piece arising out of the March Prompt Request.
The legal and social construct of women as a medium of financial exchange in the Italian States, and their successor the Italian Union, developed from a number of roots.
Firstly, there is the concept of a woman as a ‘natural legal minor’ under the authority of the head of her family, later specifically her father or husband, unable to hold property in her own right. As a minor her person could be legally transferred to the control of another without her consent or knowledge. Thus she could be married, ‘adopted’ into another family or placed in a religious order without being consulted. The writer Salvetus, however, observed in 1608 that, “The man who marries off or otherwise disposes of his womenfolk without their consent deserves everything that happens to him as a consequence.”
Secondly, it became the custom in families with property, money and other assets to settle a portion of their assets on a daughter to provide for her upkeep either after her marriage, when control of that property passed to her husband, or in the event of her father’s death before she married, in which case it passed to the control of the head of the household into which she then moved. This began among the nobility whose women were not expected, indeed were discouraged, from earning an income but subsequently spread to the wealthy merchant families and thence into the ranks of guild masters and successful tradesmen. Religious houses, finding that families with many daughters were placing them undowered into holy orders in order to preserve family assets in a block for their sons, began to refuse admission to their novitiates without the dowry being transferred to the institution concerned. In 1497 Emmanuel II of Napoli ruled that a woman’s dowry or settlement could not be used to pay off her guardian’s debts unless she married the person to whom the debt was owed and such a marriage would be legal “in the eyes of man and God.”
Over the following centuries various states and popes enacted regulatory and sumptuary laws that sought to control the expectations of a large dowry being received with any bride and to set the value of a woman’s work when calculating a dowry in which it was a component. This patchwork of regulations across the States had to be resolved when the unification process began in the late 1700s. Clarity came in 1846 when the Legislative Council passed the Monetary Reform Act, 1846 which set the value of a woman, based on the value of her labour and her child bearing capacity, for the purposes of settling debts by marriage. This now made the practice legal throughout the entire Italian Union and not just those states where it had previously applied. It was followed by taxation law amendments that permitted unmarried daughters to be listed as assets on their father’s tax return and provided tax relief as they if were ‘underproductive and illiquid assets.’
Once women had a set financial value it was a short step to some individuals trying to use them as payment in transactions. This was outlawed in the Hire, Labour and Slavery Act, 1869 but this Act specifically allowed women to be used in the place of promissory notes and other legislation permitted the transfer of promissory notes as if they were legal tender between consenting parties.
The push to cut the link between physical person of a woman and payment or any innate financial value grew out of the movement that resulted in adult women being recognized as legal adults in 1902 and gaining the vote with universal adult suffrage in 1906. The financial laws have gradually been amended but it is the view of activists such as Luciana Zanetti that there is still much to be achieved.