Laws, Definitions, and Critics of Coverture

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What is Coverture?

What is Coverture?

The legal status of married woman in the past is known as “coverture.” A wife in a coverture has no authority over real property, is her husband’s property, is not allowed to enter into contracts, and has no rights over her children.Put another way, a married woman would have many of her husband’s legal rights and obligations. Instead of being regarded as a separate legal entity, the married woman would be “covered” by her husband and protected by him. The term “femme couverte” or “feme covert” denoted married women who were bound by the coverture concept.

Originating in Old French, the word coverture meant “a covering.” The American colonies embraced the legal theory of coverture, which was developed in England in the Middle Ages. This theory forbade women from entering into contracts, acquiring property, or bringing legal action without their husbands’ consent. Understanding the notion of chattel is a prerequisite to comprehending coverture.

What is Chattel?

Chattel refers to movable personal property, excluding real estate. It includes items like furniture, livestock, and vehicles. Chattel can be bought, sold, and transferred, but it’s distinct from real property, which encompasses land and anything affixed to it. Understanding chattel is crucial in legal contexts, especially in property law and discussions surrounding coverture, a historical legal doctrine that affected married women’s rights and property ownership.

Laws of Coverture

Coverture, also known as marital unity or coverture laws, was a legal doctrine in English common law and subsequently in some American jurisdictions. It originated from the idea that a married woman’s legal existence was “covered” or absorbed by her husband’s. Under coverture, a married woman’s legal rights and obligations were largely subsumed by her husband’s. She typically could not own property, enter into contracts, or sue or be sued independently.

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Women’s social mobility was severely restricted by the early coverture regulations in England. According to these guidelines, a married woman could not:

Own land, sign contracts, bring legal action or defenses, testify in court, and create a will

Because it was believed that the spouse would handle these duties on her behalf, these regulations were placed in place. State-by-state variations existed in coverture laws in the United States. Still, the overall concept remained the same. Many of the liberties that males enjoyed were denied to women. For instance, they were unable to:

own property, participate in jury duty, and hold public office

In the event of a separation, the spouse also gained a great deal of authority because to coverture. In the United States in the 1700s, for instance, if a woman decided to file for divorce, her husband would automatically be granted legal custody of the kids.

When and why was it abolished?

Coverture laws began to be gradually reformed and eventually abolished in various jurisdictions starting in the 19th and early 20th century. In some cases, it happened state by state. For example, In 1848, New York state passed the Married Women’s Property Act. The process varied by region and occurred over several decades.

The primary reasons for abolishing coverture laws were rooted in movements for women’s rights and gender equality. Advocates argued that coverture deprived married women of basic legal rights and autonomy, relegating them to a subordinate status within marriage. Additionally, as societies evolved and attitudes towards gender roles changed, there was a growing recognition of the need to grant married women greater legal and economic independence.

Reforms to coverture laws were often part of broader legal and social changes aimed at advancing women’s rights, including movements for suffrage, property rights, and legal equality. These reforms aimed to dismantle legal barriers that constrained married women’s ability to own property, enter into contracts, and participate fully in civic life.

Specific dates for the abolition of coverture laws varied by jurisdiction. In the United States, for example, coverture laws were gradually abolished through state-level legislative reforms and court decisions throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The passage of married women’s property acts and other legal reforms played a significant role in dismantling coverture.

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Overall, the abolition of coverture reflected broader shifts in societal attitudes towards gender roles and equality, as well as efforts to ensure that married women enjoyed the same legal rights and protections as men.

Critics of Coverture

The doctrine of coverture has been fiercely criticized by numerous people throughout history. Myra Bradwell, John Neal, and Mary Ritter Beard were three well-known instances of this. Historian Beard was a vocal opponent of the coverture theory. Coverture turned women into legal non-persons, according to Beard’s claim in her book Woman as Force in History. Beard contended that women were oppressed and controlled by the notion of coverture.

Neal was an author, lawyer, and pioneering abolitionist who also opposed coverture. In several of his writings, Neal argued that the coverture doctrine violated the natural rights of women. He maintained that the coverture theory should be rejected because it viewed women more as objects than as fellow human beings.

Bradwell was a lawyer who supported women’s rights in the early years. In 1869, she assisted in setting up the first women’s rights convention in Chicago. Bradwell tried to become an Illinois licensed lawyer that same year, but her application was turned down because she was a woman. Bradwell responded by suing, claiming that her 14th Amendment rights had been infringed by the rejection of her application.

Coverture and Slaves

Similar like coverture, slavery was a part of American history from the very beginning. Slave women were equally susceptible to coverture as were white women. The distinction was that, whereas slave women were often treated like animals, white women were not. African American women in these states had some of the same freedoms as white women because the North had abolished slavery. In the South, women who were still considered slaves were handled like animals. Indeed, a large number of them were made to procreate with other slaves. It was not until after the Civil War that African American women in the South saw changes.

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In conclusion, coverture, or marital unity laws, was a legal doctrine in English common law and some American jurisdictions that subsumed a married woman’s legal identity under her husband’s. This meant she lacked autonomy in property ownership, contracts, and legal actions. Abolishing coverture began in the 19th century and continued through various legal reforms, driven by movements for women’s rights and changing societal attitudes towards gender equality. Ultimately, the abolition of coverture was a significant step towards granting married women greater legal autonomy and recognizing their rights as independent individuals within marriage and society.

Frequently Asked Questions About Coverture

1. What is coverture?

Coverture, also known as marital unity or coverture laws, was a legal doctrine in English common law and some American jurisdictions that essentially merged a married woman’s legal identity with that of her husband.

2.How did coverture affect married women’s rights?

Under coverture, a married woman’s legal rights and obligations were largely subsumed by her husband’s. She typically could not own property, enter into contracts, or sue or be sued independently.

3. When and why was coverture abolished?

Coverture began to be gradually reformed and eventually abolished in various jurisdictions starting in the 19th century. The primary reasons for abolishing coverture were rooted in movements for women’s rights and gender equality, aiming to grant married women greater legal and economic independence.

4. What were some of the legal reforms that led to the abolition of coverture?

Reforms to coverture laws included the passage of married women’s property acts, which granted married women the ability to own and control property separately from their husbands. Other legal reforms aimed to dismantle barriers that constrained married women’s ability to enter into contracts and participate fully in civic life.

5. How did the abolition of coverture impact society?

The abolition of coverture was a significant step towards recognizing married women as independent individuals with legal rights and protections equal to men. It contributed to broader shifts in societal attitudes towards gender roles and equality.

6. Did coverture laws exist in all jurisdictions?

Coverture laws were primarily part of English common law and subsequently influenced some American jurisdictions. However, the specifics of coverture laws varied by region and evolved over time through legal reforms and court decisions.

7. What are some examples of legal cases or historical events related to coverture?

Various legal cases and historical events demonstrate the impact of coverture laws on married women’s rights and the gradual reforms that led to their abolition. Examples include landmark court decisions, legislative acts, and movements for women’s suffrage and legal equality.

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