The doctrine of coverture deprived married women of legal status, merging her legal personhood with her husband’s. Today we’ll get into the complex ways that the doctrine of coverture shaped the lives of married women in the British Isles from the 11th to the 19th centuries.

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Transcript of Coverture: Married Women and Identity

Researched and Written by Marissa Rhodes

Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins

Marissa: On the last day of a hot and incredibly dry June, 4 criminals appeared, bound, before the bench of London’s primary criminal court, the Old Bailey. The year was 1714. Robert and Margate Cook, Thomas Davis, and Deborah Stent were facing burglary charges. The team allegedly pulled off a pewter heist in the house of Mary Mellers the month before. Robert Cook made the mistake of bragging about the crime while Margate and Deborah were caught selling off the pewterware for cash. The stakes were high. The punishment for burglary in early modern London was death.

Sarah: Without much fanfare, Robert Cook and his sidekick Thomas Davis were found guilty and sentenced to death. But Cook’s wife, Margate and her friend Deborah Stent were acquitted. Not because of insufficient evidence, or because of mitigating circumstances. But by “reason of their coverture.” The doctrine of coverture deprived married women of legal status, merging her legal personhood with her husband’s. This magical, get-out-of-jail-free-card (or judicial prejudice as legal scholars  would say) preserved thousands of English women from the gallows ever since the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century. But this loophole in the patriarchy wasn’t all fun and games. Today we’ll get into the complex ways that the doctrine of coverture shaped the lives of married women in the British Isles from the 11th to the 19th centuries.

I’m Sarah.

And I’m Marissa.

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: Coverture was one of many legal concepts that made up English Common Law. People throw that concept around sometimes but few people know exactly what it means. We often call couples common-law husband and wife. Common Law in general, and English Common Law in particular is a customary body of laws. That is, law that is a widespread, traditional practice but not necessarily written as statute or codified into civil law. So basically… It’s law because people “think” it’s law.

Marissa: I feel like there are plenty of analogies we can use here. For example, our paper money in the US is not backed by precious metals. It only has worth because we invest it with value simply by all agreeing that it’s valuable. Coverture was much like this. Seventeenth-century jurists liked to use the analogy of a stream. In the 1632 juridical text The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights, or the Lawes Provision for Woemen:

“When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with [the Rhone]… or the Thames, the poore rivulte loseth her name, it is carried and recarrried with the new associate, it beareth no sway, it possesseth nothing during coverture. A woman as soone as she is married is called covert, in Latine nupta, that is vailed, as it were clouded and overshadowed she hath lost her streame.”

Sarah: Yes, common law made sharp distinctions between married women or feme covert [femm coo-vair] (meaning covered women) AND unmarried women or feme-sole (meaning single woman). Feme sole was almost always used to describe widows. Single women who were never married were just called virgins or maidens. (Regardless of whether they were actually virgins or not). Married status was the legal and cultural norm. One Stuart-era jurist referred to all women as either “married or to bee[sic] married.” In theory, feme-soles were temporary and almost aberrant but in practice they were common enough.

Marissa: These French epithets used by medieval and early modern Brits (feme-covert and feme-sole) suggest that coverture has Norman origins. Just as a quick refresher for those of you whose medieval history is rusty : the French Normans (as in from Normandy) invaded England under WIlliam the Conqueror in 1066. Norman culture quickly blended with the Germanic culture of the Anglo people living in England to create a cultural hybrid. This hybrid culture still operates today (to the dismay of Brits who like to think they never had anything to do with the French).

Sarah: Under the doctrine of coverture, a wife’s legal and commercial identity was subsumed under her husband’s. He was the primary individual in the relationship and she was the subordinate. A concurrent and competing interpretation of coverture is that under the law, husband and wife are one legal entity. In some cases these two interpretations worked against each other. In other cases, they operated harmoniously alongside each other.

Marissa: A small subset of crimes, known as male in se, were exempt from the strictures of coverture. That is, women were held accountable to them. The most common male in se crimes were treason, brothel-keeping, and murder. In all other crimes, married women were categorized as unaccountable just like children, wards, “lunatics” (the mentally-ill), and “idiots” (the intellectually challenged or developmentally delayed). So most of the time, husbands, as the primary and superior member of the marriage, were legally responsible for the crimes of their wives. This can be compared to how supervisors are often held accountable for the mistakes of their employees in the work place. Margate Cook and Deborah Stent, whose story we told at the top of the show, benefitted from this aspect of coverture. But the benefits of coverture were unquestionably outweighed by its disadvantages.

Sarah: For example, coverture condemned many women to painful burning deaths under the charge of petty treason. When Femes Coverts killed their husbands, they faced not only  murder and hanging but the aggravated charge of petty treason and the sentence of death by burning. In 1688, Mary Aubry allegedly murdered her husband with the help of three men. It appears that her husband might have died by accidental suffocation after a night at the pub but Mary made the mistake of dismembering him and disposing of his limbs around London (bad call, Mary).

Marissa: At trial, the three men were acquitted for lack of evidence but Mary Aubry was not so lucky. Her punishment summary reads: “The Sentence against Mary Aubry was, That she should be carried from thence to the Place from whence she came, and thence be drawn to the Place of Execution, and there be burnt with Fire till she is dead.” As far as we know, Mary was burnt to death that day while the men who helped her went home free. Women were therefore legally vulnerable to suspicion, wrongful convictions and brutal executions when crimes were perpetrated against their husbands.

The doctrine of coverture deprived married women of legal status, merging her legal personhood with her husband’s. Today we’ll get into the complex ways that the doctrine of coverture shaped the lives of married women in the British Isles from the 11th to the 19th centuries. An etched politcal cartoon of a judge in robe and wig

Judge Thumb | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Feme-covert were also incredibly vulnerable to spousal abuse. Marital rape, a concept that is unfortunately debated even today, could not be prosecuted. Sexual violence within marriage was perfectly legal. Husbands were encouraged to employ “lawful and reasonable correction”, meaning beatings to a “reasonable” degree. In 1782, an English judge incorporated the common law idea of the “rule of thumb” into civic law. The rule of thumb allowed for English men to beat their wives with implements no wider than a thumb. The rule also prohibited men from beating their wives to the point of drawing blood, but protected all other forms of corporal punishment husbands inflicted on their spouses. Women were able to sue for restraining orders against husbands who were known to be excessively cruel but she was unable to punish him in any way for her bodily harm once it actually happened.

Marissa: And as Mary Aubry’s case illustrated, wives who were suspected of injury or murder to their husbands were often charged not only with the violent crime but also the capital crime of treason. How did it even make sense for husbands to be charged with murder for killing their spouses while wives were charged with murder AND treason? The answer can be found in the systematic patriarchal organization of the state and family in early modern Europe. In the late 16th century and early 17th century, European states began regulating family matters that had traditionally been handled socially or by ecclesiastical courts.

Sarah: States began to collect vital statistics and to regulate marriage and reproduction. Some examples include the outlawing of clandestine marriage, the strengthening of a father’s legal rights over his children, and laws forbidding clandestine pregnancies and growing concerns with infanticide. Growing nation-states took an active interest in social engineering, presumably as a means to increase their authority and presence in every-day lives. Fir example, in 1666, viewing reproduction as a subject’s obligation to his nation, France encouraged marriage and reproduction by offering tax cuts to growing families.   

Marissa:  The state’s seizure of control of the family from ecclesiastical courts gave them increasing authority over the every-day lives of their citizens. National paternalistic rhetoric portrayed the nation-state as a benevolent father to its citizens. This organization was mirrored in the formation of real families who built their authority upon a patriarchal frame using male alliances. The concept of bon mésnagement (devised by fabulous historian of France Julie Hardwicke) tied the management of the French household by its patriarch to the management of the French state by its monarch.

An etching of a man wearing black robes with a white collar. The doctrine of coverture deprived married women of legal status, merging her legal personhood with her husband’s. Today we’ll get into the complex ways that the doctrine of coverture shaped the lives of married women in the British Isles from the 11th to the 19th centuries.

The True Portrait of the Earl of Castlehaven | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Conditions were much the same in England. Take, for example, the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven in the 1630s. Castlehaven was convicted of rape and sodomy and executed in 1631. Historian of legal culture Cynthia Herrup has argued that his trial records indicate that he was condemned not for evidence of sexual deviance or the breaking of the law, but because of the disorderliness of his household. English monarch Charles I, like other monarchs in Europe at the time, was deeply invested in the orderliness in the household as a means of ordering the state. He was father to a large family, and ruler of populous country. And he expected this familial hierarchy to be duplicated in every household in England.

Marissa: So… Castlehaven’s peers were less concerned with his alleged sexual preferences for boys than they were for his favoring of young male servants over his son and his inability to properly control his wife and servants. Rather than focusing on his crimes, Castlehaven’s trial revolved around the running of his household which was judged to be disorderly. Castlehaven was executed because he failed to fulfill his duty as a patriarch.

Sarah: Both the patriarch and the monarch had absolute authority over their subjects but in return they were expected to manage their realms well. So the early modern nation-state was regarded as the European family writ large. As the Earl of Castlehaven’s trial demonstrates, the state took its patriarchal philosophy very seriously. It was a way of life. And this way of life influenced every legal opinion that was delivered during this time.

Marissa: Coverture was one of the tools that the British state used to reinforce this patriarchal structure. This is why (since 1351) when a feme-covert killed her husband, she was guilty of treason as well as murder, because she was disrupting not only the patriarchal organization of her household, but by extension, the patriarchal organization of the state. She had basically murdered the “king of her household.” Thus… treason.

But at the same time, coverture created a venue for criticism of the patriarch (in the case of Castlehaven) or the Crown (in the case of Charles I who was dethroned and beheaded in 1649 in the course of the English Civil War) based on their paternal responsibilities. This is where the doctrine of coverture was unable to accommodate real life. Sometimes patriarchs, like the Earl of Castlehaven, were not holding up their end of the deal. Occasionally husbands were wastrels, or criminals or poor providers. Sometimes they were effeminate men or (god forbid), “sexual deviants”. These situations occasioned debate about whether wives should be feme-coverts when the entire purpose of her coverture (the patriarchal orderliness of society) was being undermined by her husband, who was supposed to be the last word.

Sarah: In 16th and 17th century England, this question was debated hotly because of the tensions resulting from the English Reformation. Good Protestant Englishwomen sued for divorce or feme-sole status on the grounds that their husbands were “recusants” which is what they called Catholics who refused to submit to Henry VIII’s Church of England. English jurists argued over whether women in these situations should be able to separate their legal identities from those of their husbands. Ultimately, wives of recusants usually remained feme-coverts but in practice, they were likely allowed much more leeway than ordinary married women. On the bright side, recusants who were married women were generally ineligible for legal penalties, unlike their husbands. So women with Protestant husbands could practice “illegal” religions openly and face no legal repercussions.

Marissa: So coverture prevented married women from having recourse over rape and bodily harm, but feme-coverts also suffered extensively at the hands of property law. Wives could not own property. Even if they came to a marriage with considerable wealth, that wealth belonged to her husband after their vows. This is the way in which a woman was covered, or veiled, by her husband. Her small stream of resources joined his big manly river. Her husband could legally sell or dispose of all of her belongings without her consent. Because nothing was actually hers.

Sarah: Several 13th-century English lawyers argued that since wives did not legally own anything, they could not make a valid will. Acts of parliament under Henry VIII revised this legal issue in 1542. From that point forward, English wives were entitled to make a will but only with the express permission of their husbands. According to a comprehensive study performed by historian Mary Prior, English married women became increasingly likely to compose wills between 1558 and 1700.

Marissa: We suspect that during this time, married women were using will-writing as a way to assert their rights despite the hindrance of coverture. In fact, we have evidence that Englishwomen were sometimes quite savvy in navigating restrictive property laws. Some women got around this aspect of coverture by transferring property to feme-soles within their family. 17th century autobiographer Alice Thornton wrote of transferring her property to her mother (a feme-sole) prior to her marriage so that her assets would not be swallowed up by her husband. But in most cases, married women lost every claim to property that they had to their husbands.

Sarah: This transfer of property to men made women vulnerable to rape and violence because predatory men saw marriage as a way to get rich quick. The best example of this is the story of a 15th-century Norwich widow named Alice Crome. (I should mention that I plucked this story from the book of an excellent historian named Sara Butler). The death of Alice’s husband left her in command of valuable property. This attracted many ambitious male suitors. (Her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard)

Marissa: John Williamson, for example, proposed marriage several times and Alice continually declined. He couldn’t take no for an answer (unheard of right?) so he abducted her and held her as prisoner for five weeks. During this time he beat her and threatened to murder her if she didn’t agree to the marriage. For some reason, she still didn’t want to marry him so she continued to decline his proposal (Queen!) He eventually gave up trying to marry her and tried to coerce her into revealing the whereabouts of the deeds to her land. She held fast. He moved her to a more secure location and imprisoned her for a further 18 weeks. He chained her to the wall and administered regular beatings. Alice stubbornly resisted his coercion.

Sarah: After months, Williamson hatched a different plan. He approached Alice’s mother, claiming to be her new husband. He said that he and Alice wished to sell off the lands in her possession. Alice’s mother smelled something fishy (no, duh?) so she deposited the land deeds with the Mayor of Norwich for safekeeping and freed Alice from her prison. After the ordeal, Williamson moved to confiscate Alice’s land under the pretense of a legal marriage. Alice hired a shrewd attorney who coached her in marital law so she got this “marriage” annulled by the church and petitioned the court to halt Williamsons’s actions. Her petition argued that if they HAD BEEN married (which was evidenced by her annulment), she would not have been able to gift Williamson land because husband and wife are “all one person in law” so “a wife may not give her husband during the coverture neither land nor good.”

Marissa: So basically, Alice was made particularly vulnerable by the concept of coverture because it turned her into a commodity. Men were falling all over themselves trying to make a legal union with her so they could take over ownership of not only her but her land. But in court, Alice, who is obviously one badass, woke woman, used the second interpretation of coverture (that husband and wife are one legal entity) to destroy Williamsons’s claim to her land (which was ALSO based on the doctrine of coverture). Are we confused yet?

Sarah: The key is to understand that interpretation of laws change over time. Medieval coverture usually defaulted to the interpretation of coverture which rendered husband as superior and wife as subordinate. So Williamson’s actions were motivated by his correct understanding of hundreds of years of marital common law. However, unfortunately for him, the 1400s was a time when medieval English attorneys and judges were increasingly likely to interpret coverture as the legal unity of personhood between husband and wife.  But both interpretations continued to shape marriage law for the following centuries.

Marissa: Before we talk more about interpretation and enforcement of coverture, I wanted to note that Alice Crome was lucky. She had incredibly learned and affective counsel. Most women would not have had these resources.

So… At the risk of muddying the waters, I want to explain a few caveats here. Yes, coverture was extremely powerful resulted in abuse and loss and grief for women who chose to marry. BUT not all courts enforced common law. (We won’t bore you with a run down of the different English courts and their jurisdictions. Let’s suffice it to say that there are a lot, and it’s complicated). But the Court of Chancery, for example, mostly ruled in favor of wealthy married women who were seeking to limit their husbands’ claims on their wealth.

Sarah: Not to mention, common law ran on precedent but there were so many conflicting precedents throughout various courts and counties that some lawyers and judges (especially those in rural areas where word of new verdicts was slow to arrive) were ignorant of the specificities of coverture so they kind of made it up as they went along. So you can see, in English court cases involving coverture, this sort of telephone game going on, where the exact meaning of the law changes over time and space.

Marissa: We see this with coverture’s relationship to business. Under coverture, women were unable to make legal contracts (except for clothing or food because men EVEN THEN didn’t feel like doing the grocery shopping or clothes shopping). But when feme-covert did do business, it was in their husband’s name so he, rather than she, was liable for debts and broken contracts. Husbands could be committed to debtor’s prison for debts they didn’t even know they’d incurred. But it was just as common for husbands to coerce their wives into transacting shady business deals, knowing they’d get acquitted on account of their coverture. So the law could work both ways, in women’s favor and against them.

Sarah: In the city of London, custom allowed for married women to be declared “feme-sole” for commercial purposes. Many London merchants’ wives ran their businesses while their husbands traveled and brokered deals abroad. The rules of coverture made commercial growth difficult for these families, who were particularly important to the British economy during the early modern period. So London wives were sometimes exempt from the commercial restrictions of coverture– they could negotiate their own contracts, make purchases on credit, and act as legal owner of goods for sale. But all other aspects of coverture still applied to them.

Marissa: Even if married women were able to obtain feme-sole status so they could transact business in their own names, this was not always an advantage. It increased the risk and liability for them, risk and liability that rarely paid off because they were constantly at a disadvantage. They often had fewer business contacts, more household responsibilities and inferior positions to men when they were negotiating business deals.

Sarah: By the 1690s, married women all over England were beginning to wise up. Educated, elite women realized quickly that John Locke’s theories of citizenship were not commensurate with the doctrine of coverture. Feme-coverts were comparing their plight to that of slaves. The Ladies Dictionary  of 1694 reads: “No Woman ever gave her plight in Marriage with an intent to be a Slave.” This discontent with the legal ramifications of marriage coincided with a sharp rise in marriage age. It’s unlikely that one caused the other but at a time when marriage was legally restrictive for women, this rise in marriage age afforded women some extra precious years of legal personhood.

Marissa: We’ve talked about this in several other episodes, most recently in the episode about Elizabeth Brownrigg. So loyal listeners, please forgive me but it’s worth repeating. The European Marriage Pattern is integral to understanding the lifecycles of early modern women. The European Marriage Pattern (discovered by statistician John Hajnal) shows that NW European men and women were marrying much later than they had prior to 1600 and much later than men and women in southern and eastern Europe. The difference is that in NW Europe, families tended to be nuclear so couples tended to marry later because of the financial burden of having to establish their own household rather than sharing one with extended family.

Sarah: Though the European Marriage Pattern has not been definitively explained, most historians acknowledge that economic hardship and vast population growth in the 16th century led to a much later age at first marriage for women in early modern Britain, and a greater likelihood that they would not marry at all. This resulted in a stretch of time when most families were unable to care for their growing daughters yet these women were unable to marry and establish their own households due to a lack of resources.

Marissa: The solution for most was going into service. It would be a mistake to refer to domestic service as an exclusively female institution. Most ordinary men as well as women experienced a period of service in their young adulthood. But its meaning is gendered. For men, this was another step in the “ages of man,” one when their involvement in the workplace was just beginning. For women, a period of service offered life experience unattached by male relatives, one of both mobility and vulnerability that they may not experience again until widowhood. (A little taste of that feme-sole life).

Sarah: Women usually signed annual contracts at most but stayed in service for many years, obliging them to move from one household/position to another. This increased mobility and autonomy can be interpreted as positive attributes of this life stage. While in service, women had relative freedom to socialize and use public spaces such as markets. They were able to temporarily escape the surveillance of parents and siblings and to experience financial freedom from their families as their room and board tended to rely on their work rather than on their family relationships. One can easily overstate the extent of these freedoms, however. Some masters fostered paternal relationships with their female servants, taking it upon themselves to police their servants ensuring their acceptable dress, behavior and socialization.

Marissa: Many masters exploited the power imbalance between themselves and their plebeian female servants. The more pessimistic view of this time in an early modern woman’s life stresses the vulnerability of an unattached woman in a patriarchal society. Think about her susceptibility to male advances while in service, and the dangers of illegitimate birth. In early modern England, rape was legally undifferentiated from seduction, so real female sexual agency was impossible even at this stage of increased autonomy. The possibility of illegitimate pregnancy was a considerable danger. The historical record is full of anecdotes about masters begetting children on their female servants, the futures of whom depended on his good will.

Sarah: The 1563 Statute of Artificiers gave local officials the right to order unmarried women from the ages of 12-40 into domestic service. This policy made sense to a patriarchal society with a growing population of unmarried women. Somewhat ominously, this Act of Parliament specified an age range that coincides with a woman’s most fertile years. So most historians regard this policy as an indirect attempt to control the reproduction of single women.

Marissa: Lifecycles for women were more likely to be determined by their sexuality than by their professional and public lives (as they were for men). The milestones of courtship, marriage and motherhood follow the period of service in an early modern woman’s life while marriage and parenthood do not feature as milestones in an early modern man’s life. Women started out as daughters in their father’s household (virgins), then moved onto a period of service where they were supervised by their masters (and were still theoretically virgins but with new fathers). After the period of service, the vast majority of early modern women then opted for marriage, they became feme-coverts.

The doctrine of coverture deprived married women of legal status, merging her legal personhood with her husband’s. Today we’ll get into the complex ways that the doctrine of coverture shaped the lives of married women in the British Isles from the 11th to the 19th centuries. An illustration depicting the life of a woman from cradle to grave, with the highest point being middle-aged motherhood

A 19th century illustration of the lifecycle of a woman | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The potential for conflict became even more acute in the world of married women. Marriage was more than just a ceremony between two partners. For women, marriage signaled their matriculation into a new caste—the theoretical (if not actual) transition from virginity to married womanhood. Sexual activity (within marriage) became expected and married women played distinct roles in society that were closed to their unmarried counterparts.

Marissa: Many married women fostered positive homosocial bonds. Examples include the friendly exchange of recipes, the positive female culture surrounding lying-in and childbirth, and the dominance of married female voices in local parish politics. For centuries historians scoffed at routine interactions like letter-writing, recipe-swapping and the exchange of small gifts but now we understand these as important bonds between a caste of married women.

Sarah: Married women had prescribed roles in early modern society. They played important roles in negotiating the marriages of others. It might be good to note here that plebeian daughters exercised more autonomy in choosing a partner than their elite counterparts. Elite marriages were always as much business transactions as they were family affairs so those women were often coerced into marriages that were good for business. The autonomy that women did have was often eclipsed by a vibrant female culture of interference. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, cousins and neighbors (all feme-coverts) regularly interceded in the courtship negotiations of their loved ones.

Marissa: These married women considered themselves to be expert mediators between their unmarried relatives and the male world. Their power was considerable as they were able to influence the outcome of courtship negotiations through direct interventions or indirect social sanctions in the case of their disapproval. This is another example of a separate female culture that ran parallel to and independently from the male culture of courtship. It’s tempting to see these interactions as some kind of secret sisterhood bubbling under the surface. It’s an example of how the potential for strong female alliances is actually created BY the patriarchal order.

Sarah: But it’s a mistake to see this “female culture” as a harmonious one, since women sometimes acted as agents against the wishes or best interests of their female relatives. The elevated status of married women could be coercive and injurious to others. Many relationships between married and unmarried women were exploitative. Married women often held their knowledge of sexuality over the heads of the unmarried relatives, and sometimes agreed to surveil the bodies of suspected fallen women, using their supposedly advanced sexual knowledge against single counterparts in defamation suits or infanticide cases.

Marissa: Gatherings around lying-in and childbirth are often described as positive female spaces. The birthing room offered opportunities for midwives to ply their trade and neighbors and relatives to support their loved ones physically and emotionally during lying-in and labor. Of course it sometimes was like this but only when the birthing woman was a feme-covert. When laboring women were unmarried (and therefore supposed to be virgins), midwives and other attendees at birth coerced laboring women into naming the fathers of their illegitimate children.

Sarah: Perhaps the birthing room can be both at the same time, a place of tender, neighborly homosociality, with the potential for conflict and coercion. The same can be said of city streets, which were also the domain of married women. It was on the doorstep in the streets that married women lived their lives, gathering to gossip, aid neighbors, and mediate conflict. Married women took the lead in policing their own communities based on agreed-upon social norms. This role had the potential to be divisive just as often as it was community-building.

Marissa: Though the homosocial bonds created in the birthing room on and the city streets were meant largely to be enjoyed by married women only, homosocial bonds were also common among unmarried women. Feme-soles, who enjoyed all the legal advantages that married women were deprived of, tended to stick together out of necessity. Single women often needed to live together to stave off insolvency. Widowhood was one avenue to this position, never marrying in the first place was also common in practice (even though all women were theoretically destined for marriage).

Sarah: Unmarried womanhood in modern America is often touted as a triumph of feminism over the patriarchal order. But early modern women were the OG feminists because as many as 25% of early modern Europeans never married. But ultimately, remaining unmarried in a patriarchal world left early modern women vulnerable to rape, poverty and accusations of deviance (witch-hunts anyone?). So despite the many disadvantages to life as a feme-covert, many of them were in good shape. Marriage was an exclusive club, one that offered the possibility of financial and social stability that was denied to many.

Marissa: Now this prologue of sorts is for Sarah because I can tell she’s just going to explode if she can’t talk about the 19th century US. As we described in this episode, coverture was interpreted and applied differently throughout time and space. But its existence remained unchallenged for centuries. The doctrine was imported wholesale to the American colonies and remained intact in the fledgling United States of America.

photograph of a gravestone with the words. The doctrine of coverture deprived married women of legal status, merging her legal personhood with her husband’s. Today we’ll get into the complex ways that the doctrine of coverture shaped the lives of married women in the British Isles from the 11th to the 19th centuries.

Betty Allen’s grave | M. Hilton / Find-A-Grave

Sarah:  That is until 1839 in Mississippi when the doctrine of coverture was systematically dismantled over the following 4 decades at the state legislative level because it became a key issue in American women’s fight for suffrage. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1839. As American history tends to be, this law’s history is fraught with race problems. But here’s a quick preview (maybe one day we’ll do an episode on this) Chickasaw Indian Betsy Love challenged the doctrine of coverture on the grounds that Amerindian women should not be subject to Anglo marriage laws. She won her suit and was able to keep her property despite marriage. It’s worth noting that the property she wanted to keep was an enslaved woman. Mississippi legislators and white women activists worked to pass the Married Women’s Property Act almost in retaliation. They argued that if Amerindian women were allowed to defend their property rights in court, white women should be able to also.

Marissa: This is one time in history when something actually happened in America first. Coverture was not challenged in courts in the United Kingdom until the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s with a series of Married Women Property Acts. I’m not exactly sure what this means but I find it interesting that coverture was dismantled by laws regarding property when coverture affected all aspects of women’s lives- not just property ownership. Part of the reason for this is by the late 19th century, only the parts of coverture that involved property ownership were being enforced anymore. So even though coverture still existed (well as much as it ever existed- which is debatable because it was common law) only the bits about property were singled out by women’s rights activists by the 19th century.

Further Reading:

Doggett, Maeve E. Coverture, the Fiction of Marital Unity and the Status of Wives: Legal Responses to Wife Assault in Nineteenth-Century England in Context. Ottawa: National Library of Canada, 1989.

Hardwick, Julie. The Practice of Patriarchy: Gender and the Politics of Household Authority in Early Modern France. University Park (PA): Pennsylvania University Press, 1998.

Herrup, Cynthia B. Crimes Most Dishonorable: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Margate Cook, Robert Cook, Thomas Davis, Deborah Stent, Theft > burglary, 30th June 1714

Mendelson, Sara Heller, and Patricia Crawford. Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

Old Bailey Proceedings punishment summary, 22nd February 1688.

Stretton, Tim, and K. J. Kesselring. Married Women and the Law: Coverture in England and the Common Law World. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Adrian. Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 2016.

The doctrine of coverture deprived married women of legal status, merging her legal personhood with her husband’s. Today we’ll get into the complex ways that the doctrine of coverture shaped the lives of married women in the British Isles from the 11th to the 19th centuries.


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