The legal status of women was not addressed in the U.S. Constitution. This meant that in the early years of the country, it was up to the states and the courts to determine women’s rights. The 1805 case of Martin v. Massachusetts was a pivotal moment in this history.
The story behind the case goes back to the final days of the American Revolution. In 1783, William Martin and his wife, Anne Gordon Martin, moved to England, along with many other Loyalists who had no interest in living in the newly formed United States. The Massachusetts state government labeled them traitors and took all the property they left behind.
In 1801, William and Anne’s son James filed a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Supreme Court to get his family’s property back. He claimed that the property never belonged to his father because his grandfather had specifically left it to Anne. He then argued that it was illegal to take the property from Anne because as a woman she did not have the political freedom to be a traitor to her country. The courts agreed, and the property was returned to James, cementing the idea that women did not have their own rights and identities in the new nation.
This quote is from the 1805 Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision for the case of Martin v. Massachusetts. The author states that married American women, called femes-covert, are subordinate to their husbands and can have no free will. This idea, commonly called coverture, had existed in the United States since the colonial era. While coverture was not officially written into the Constitution, this court case set a legal precedent for coverture that would last for over a century.