Coverture2019-03-05T14:53:52-04:00

RESOURCE

Coverture

This resource has been adapted from the New-York Historical Society’s Saving Washington: The New Republic and Early Reformers curriculum.

Document Text

Document Summary

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the
very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the
marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the
husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every
thing; and is . . . under the protection and influence of her husband,
her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her
coverture. Upon this principle, of an union of person in husband and
wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either
of them acquire by the marriage. . . . 
Husbands and wives are one legal entity. A woman does not legally exist. She is “covered” by her husband, and before him her father.
[E]ven the disabilities which the
wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and
benefit. So great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England.
This law is to protect women.

Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: Chapter the Fifteenth: Of Husband and Wife. 4 vols. Oxford: Printed at the Clarendon Press, 1765–1769.

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Background

Coverture is a legal principal that dates back to the Middle Ages and comes from a French term meaning “covered.” Imported to the American colonies as part of English common law, coverture had a significant impact on women’s lives.

Under coverture, a married woman was included in her husband’s legal identity. In the eyes of the law she did not exist as an individual, but was instead “covered” by her husband. This meant that married women could not make a will or own property. They had no rights to wages they earned, and lost control of anything they owned before marriage. Coverture also meant that husbands had control over their wives’ bodies and over their families; if a husband chose to send his child away as an apprentice, his wife had no say in the matter.

The law affected unmarried women as well. Although they had more legal rights than their married counterparts, few unmarried women had opportunities. Before marriage women were considered “covered” by their fathers, and widows found it difficult to support themselves and any children they might have had. Most young women married, and most widows remarried.

Beyond its impact on women’s legal rights, coverture created attitudes that seemed like unbreakable truths: women were supposedly dependent, delicate, and dim-witted, while men were steady, tough, and rational. These attitudes, in turn, impacted women’s upbringing. Most girls received little or no education and most women lacked the preparation and therefore the confidence to pursue a profession. Yet many women had to work anyway, and their husbands controlled their wages.

Coverture affected the lives of all American women. It has been diminished over time, but vestiges of it remain even today.

About the Document

Common law was a set of legal principles based on court decisions and customs that developed slowly over time, but remained unwritten for centuries. William Blackstone, a judge and scholar, collected and published English common laws for the first time in the 1760s. He did not create the law of coverture, but when he committed it to paper in this document, he made it formal and concrete in a way it had not been before.

Ironically, William Blackstone committed coverture to the written record during the Enlightenment, just as philosophers developed the revolutionary concept of natural rights—universal rights that do not have to be granted by a governing body. After the American Revolution, the United States adopted much of the common law system that the colonies had been using for more than a century. While some common law language was filtered out of use, coverture was allowed to stand.

Vocabulary

  • common law: A set of legal principles developed from judicial decisions, customs, and precedent that were unwritten in statute or code.
  • consolidated: Joined together.
  • disabilities: A lack of legal qualification to do something.
  • Enlightenment: An 18th century philosophical movement that rejected traditional social, religious, and political ideas in favor of rationalism.
  • incorporated: United in one body.
  • suspended: To cause to stop temporarily.
  • vestige: A trace of something that is disappearing.

Discussion Questions

  • What does this document reveal about the legal status of women in the British colonies in the Americas?
  • Sir William Blackstone, when considering the coverture laws, states that the “disabilities” that women suffer under coverture are in fact to their benefit. What are these “disabilities”? What do you think of his assessment?
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