Coverture is a legal principle 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.
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.
For more about the legal and social customs regulating women’s behavior, check out Could and Should: Laws and Rules Affecting Women, 1765-1860.