|Marriage and similar status|
|Dissolution of marriage|
|Conflict of laws|
Coverture (sometimes spelled couverture) was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman's legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband. Coverture was enshrined in the common law of England and the United States throughout most of the 19th century. The idea was described in William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England in the late 18th century.
Under traditional English common law an adult unmarried woman was considered to have the legal status of feme sole, while a married woman had the status of feme covert. These are English spellings of medieval Anglo-Norman phrases (the modern standard French spellings would be femme seule "single woman" and femme couverte, literally "covered woman").
A feme sole had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. A feme covert was not recognized as having legal rights and obligations distinct from those of her husband in most respects. Instead, through marriage a woman's existence was incorporated into that of her husband, so that she had very few recognized individual rights of her own.
As it has been pithily expressed, husband and wife were one person as far as the law was concerned, and that person was the husband. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband's wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If a wife was permitted to work, under the laws of coverture she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. In certain cases, a woman did not have individual legal liability for her misdeeds, since it was legally assumed that she was acting under the orders of her husband, and generally a husband and wife were not allowed to testify either for or against each other. Judges and lawyers referred to the overall principle as "coverture".
The system of feme sole and feme covert developed in England in the High and Late Middle Ages as part of the common law system, which had its origins in the legal reforms of Henry II and other medieval English kings. It also held sway in English-speaking colonies because of the influence of the English common law there. This situation persisted until the mid-to-late 19th century, when married women's property acts started to be passed in many English-speaking legal jurisdictions, setting the stage for further reforms.
In the United States, many states passed Married Women's Property Acts to eliminate or reduce the effects of coverture. Nineteenth-century courts in the United States also enforced state privy examination laws. A privy examination was an American legal practice in which a married woman who wished to sell her property had to be separately examined by a judge or justice of the peace outside of the presence of her husband and asked if her husband was pressuring her into signing the document. This paternalistic practice was seen as a means to protect married women's property from overbearing husbands.
As recently as 1972, two US states allowed a wife accused in criminal court to offer as a legal defense that she was obeying her husband's orders.
Early feminist historian Mary Beard held the view that much of the severity of the doctrine of coverture was actually due to Blackstone and other late systematizers, rather than due to a genuine old common-law tradition.
Outside the legal realm
The doctrine of coverture carried over into heraldry, in which there were established traditional methods of displaying the coat of arms of an unmarried woman, displaying the coat of arms of a widow, or displaying the combined coat of arms of a couple jointly, but no accepted method of displaying the coat of arms of a married woman separately as an individual.
The practice by which a woman relinquishes her name and adopts her husband's name (e.g., "Mrs. John Smith") is similarly a representation of coverture, although usually symbolic rather than legal in form.
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 therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or 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 a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage.
The phrase "the law is an ass" was popularized by Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, when the character Mr. Bumble is informed that "the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction". Mr. Bumble replies "If the law supposes that ... the law is a [sic] ass—a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience."
- Married Women's Property Acts (United States ) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
- Project MUSE - Married Women's Property and Male Coercion: United States Courts and the Privy Examination, 1864-1887
- The Law: Up from Coverture Time Magazine, published Monday, March 20, 1972. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,942533,00.html .
- Beard, Mary R. (1946), Woman as Force in History
- Arthur Charles Fox-Davies A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909), p. 573. Online texts at http://www.archive.org/details/completeguidetoh00foxduoft or http://www7b.biglobe.ne.jp/~bprince/hr/foxdavies/index.htm .
- Blackstone, Sir William (1769). "Of Husband and Wife". Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). Lonang Institute. Retrieved 2009-09-14.
- Fred R. Shapiro (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. Yale University Press. pp. 197–198 (item 20). ISBN 978-0-300-10798-2.