Saturday, October 6, 2012

6. Aunt Eliza's Star: Child Custody

Aunt Eliza's Star
by Becky Brown

When Eliza Custis married at the age of 19 her step-grandfather George Washington wrote a letter giving her permission to "taste the sweets of Matrimony...If Mr. [Thomas] Law is the man of your choice...[and] after a careful examination of your heart you cannot be happy without him...." Washington sent fervent wishes that she'd be as happy as she could ever imagine.

Eliza's portrait by Gilbert Stuart
 the year she married, 1796
As Martha Washington's eldest granddaughter, Eliza was an American princess, heir to a fortune, bride of the richest man in Washington. Law, about 40, was a recent English immigrant with a mysterious past in India. He also brought two boys to the marriage, illegitimate sons whose mother(s) were never identified. Eliza soon gave birth to their half-sister, another Eliza.

The Law House still stands in Washington

Visitors to Washington City often described visiting the Laws in their new mansion, one of the most impressive buildings in the capitol city. Law was what we'd call a real estate developer. Some of us might also call him obsessive and a bit manic as we read about his leaping from project to project.

Thomas Law as a young man
In 1802 Eliza lost her grandmother Martha Washington. That year her husband sailed for England to secure investors for a new enthusiasm, a canal system. He was gone for over a year. Rosalie Calvert noted, "I am quite intime with Mrs. Law, truly a woman who has no equal. Her husband still has not returned."

In late 1803 Law was back in Washington with another boy in tow. In 1804 Eliza moved out and went to stay with Rosalie, who gossiped about her, "Since childhood Mrs. L demonstrated a violent and romantic disposition....After rejecting some brilliant offers, she married Mr. L...against the wishes of all her relatives. Never were two people less suited to live together, but during the life of her grandmother Mrs. Washington, to whom she was most attached, they restrained themselves in order to spare her pain."

All Washington discussed the Law's marriage. In her new biography Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte author Charlene M. Boyer Lewis quotes a letter from Catherine Harper who wrote her husband that "the cause of Mrs Laws separation from her husband was owing to him keeping publickly a mistress & still does so."

The Laws remain together on the sign
 describing their historic home

Eliza knew that she could not take her 7-year-old daughter with her. Children, like a woman's inheritance, remained with the man after a separation or divorce. She wrote a friend ten years later, "You saw the misery I endured when she was taken from me. I fear'd then it was separation forever. Mr. L. never intended to restore her [to me] & I have suffered more than I can express from his enmity, to gratify which he has prevented my staying near her."

Eliza lost her fortune too. Five years later friend Rosalie wrote, "She should have received a considerable sum which General Washington left her [but] still hasn't been paid." Her grandfather, who worried more about Law than he admitted, secured a prenuptial agreement that Law pay her an annual annuity if the marriage broke down. Law rarely paid.

In punishing his wife by forbidding her to see her daughter Law was following social and legal tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. His brother Lord Ellenborough, chief justice of the King's Bench, set British precedent for the male's sole right to custody in an 1804 case, returning a child to a violent man because the father "is entitled by law to the custody of his child."

Eliza managed to visit her daughter while she was at boarding school and was lucky enough to establish a relationship with her as an adult for a few years before the younger Eliza died in childbirth at 25.
Child custody rights were a basic demand in women's rights platforms but progress was slow. Divorce and custody rights were a state-by-state issue. In 1818 a New Yorker obtained custody of her three children but only because her ex-husband wanted to place them in a Shaker religious community. In 1839 English law permitted women to obtain custody of young children and in 1873 the right was extended to children of all ages. A New York law passed in 1860 gave women joint custody over children, a first step in rights that were not obtained until the 20th century.

Aunt Eliza's Star
by Georgann Eglinksi

 Aunt Eliza's Star
 BlockBase # 2830

The Ladies Art Company gave this classic pattern the name about 1890. It's a block that goes back to Eliza Custis's grandmother's time. We can use it to recall the rights of child custody and to remember so many women like Eliza Custis who had to choose between their children and their right to be free of a failed marriage.

Aunt Eliza's Star
By Dustin Cecil
Cutting an 8" Finished Block
Becky is an advocate of the 1/16" mark on the ruler. She is right---it makes the blocks more accurate-- so I am also going to set my BlockBase default to "Round to 1/16th inches" and add those measurements in red next to the 1/8" measurements. YOU CAN CHOOSE (That IS the theme here).
A - Cut 4 squares 3-1/8" (3-3/16")
B -  Cut 3 squares 3-7/8" (3-7/8")

Cut each with 2 diagonal cuts to make 4 triangles. You need 12 triangles.
C - Cut 1 square 4-1/4" (4-1/4")

Make 4 units of A's and B
Then add more triangles B to the sides of 2 units
Add square C between two of those units
Aunt Eliza's Star
By Becky Brown

Cutting a 12" block
A - Cut 4 squares 4-1/2"
B -  Cut 3 squares 5-1/4"

   Cut each with 2 diagonal cuts to make 4 triangles. You need 12 triangles.

C - Cut 1 square 6-1/8" 

See more about Eliza's bridal house here:

Read a preview of Rosalie Stier Calvert's letters and all the Washington gossip in Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert By Margaret Law Callcott
Her snipiest discussion of the Law divorce is on page 111.

And see a preview of Charlene M. Boyer Lewis's Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press), which discusses the Law's divorce and others on page 135.


  1. Thank you so much for highlighting this issue, so little known about today. In my family a pioneer mother attempted to flee her we-think- abusive marriage with her 4 children. Her husband hired men to track them down and take the children back. The pain of this was so severe for the children that today, even with the participatants long dead, their descendants are trying to find out what happened to their grandmother and to connect with any descendants of her second marriage. It was their father's last wish. Women had tough choices to make. This mother wanted to take her children with her and didn't want to bring more children into the bad situation. I think she did her best to do the right thing.

  2. I love this project and this history lesson in particular! I am so thankful to be living in a time and country where I can make my own choices!

  3. Love making these blocks and learning the history--and I'm delighted that this block is an easy one!
    Thanks for doing this and highlighting an important issue. Women's Rights seem to be threatened right now.....

  4. I am so enjoying this BOW and the history of Women's suffrage as well. I think Eliza's story has touched me the most! Your just awesome for doing all this work! Thank you!

  5. I am a County Extension Agent from Kansas. I am researching for a fall program on women suffrage and would like permission to use information from your blog and also photos in a power point presentation. What do I need to do to receive your permission? I am currently piecing the blocks from your blog for my own enjoyment; if they are good enough I will share in my presentation. From your blog I have discovered the book Kansas Angels at Sunset written by Tom Mach from Lawrence. Your blog is wonderful. I want to be a recipient of future blogs.

  6. Dear Extension Agent
    Because I do this for free I don't see why you can't use it in your educational program. I'm always glad to work with people advancing women's history. Do copy the information and stories and provide them a link so they can join the BOW. Happy 100th on Kansas Suffrage November 5.

  7. OK, I guess I'm not as experienced as I thought I was. I'm stuck on this block b/c of the small triangle background pieces on the ends of the outer two strips. I don't see them in the cutting directions or the piecing directions, but they are in the diagram of construction. Could someone clue me in as to the size of these? I can't make them like the star points or the points will be lost. They have to be background fabric. Please help me. I think I'm just overlooking it. TIA

  8. Well nevermind. I figured it out. One of the 1/4 sq. triangle blocks should be in backgrnd fabric. Got it. Thanks anyway.

  9. It's turning the other way round in a way now - Germany passed a law this week to grant joint custody for children born out of wedlock. It leaves the mothers 6 weeks to hand in a petition at court to withdraw custody from the father on the reasoning that he is not fit to care for a child ... up until now mothers had sole custody but could.

    I think it's fascinating, that now men are "fighting" for equal rights ...

  10. en me promenant sur la toile j'ai découvert toutes les merveilleuses pages d'explications de différents blocs; MERCI