Was coverture a woman’s refuge or a grand swindle?
In our modern time, coverture isn’t an everyday word. Its implications do still affect us but not nearly like they did in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Because it is important to understand what coverture meant to society in my story’s mid-19th century setting, I’ll attempt to give a quick overview of the concept, but I must say, I’m not a lawyer and my research into the ins and outs of coverture has been pretty basic – enough to make its use in my story credible. If you are really interested in understanding more, my resource was Women and the Law.
English colonists brought everything they had to North America including their common laws. Referred to as “coverture” these laws were the basis for marriage and property laws. Simply stated, these laws erased a woman’s legal existence once she married. In the eyes of the law, she became a dependent to her husband, like a slave or underage child. Except under very unique and specific circumstances, a married woman could not own property in her own name nor could she control her own earnings. She was unable to sue or sign legally binding documents and only before selling her inherited property did her husband have to get her consent.
If her husband died, there was no guarantee that the widow would become the underage children’s guardian. That duty fell to a male relative on the husband’s side regardless of what the woman wanted. The right to a dower, or the property she brought into the marriage and one-third of her husband’s estate for the rest of her life, were her only compensations upon his death.
I suppose there were more women who benefitted from the protections of coverture than didn’t, especially when family members were kind and good-hearted, willing to take on the extra financial burden of a woman and her children after their son, brother or uncle had passed. But, I would also wager that there were plenty of instances where the woman was robbed of everything because the law allowed it.
Coverture started to erode in the first half of the 19th century when wealthy fathers and husbands often left their daughters’ and wives’ estates in trusts. While a small and thoughtful victory, this action assumed the women would be better off with financial benefits afforded by the estate while the effort to manage the estate’s assets was more suited for a male trustee. There was also the consideration that a woman didn’t have the management skills of a male trustee and the estate would be shielded if the woman decided to get married again. Alas, none of this mattered at all if there were surviving sons old enough to take charge of the estate. Instead the mother would then have to answer to her son on all legal matters.
Women without the legitimizing context of property ownership or family identity were effectively rendered nonpersons. Outside of marriage, women had few choices before being forced to become wards of the state or town. But, by the 19th century, poverty was seen as a personal flaw – although poor women were less stigmatized than poor men and once poor women crossed the threshold of the poorhouse, they were subject to impressment and complete loss of control in their decision-making.
When a woman left or divorced her husband, he would have advertised in the local newspaper that he was no longer responsible for any debts accrued by her after a certain date. Generally, she was on her own without the benefit of any property or assets she brought to the marriage.
Women’s role in society has certainly changed in the 21st century but the shift started in the mid-19th century with the Declaration of Sentiments created at the Seneca Falls Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY in July of 1848. I will have more to share about what went on at the Seneca Falls Convention in a later blog but for now, it is important to know that women were beginning to chafe at the legal injustices they had been forced to accept as normal for so many centuries.