Coverture

This is a legal term that crops up with reference to women’s marital rights. Most people claim it was a draconian piece of law, but it is far more than this. Like wife selling, lots of people opposed it, and just as lots wanted wife selling made illegal, a lot of people wanted the law of coverture abolished.

Coverture meant that when a woman married, her husband got everything: all her money, property, and anything that she may earn or inherit. It was allegedly a law to ensure couples became close, that they worked together to make the marriage work, and in small communities it may have worked well, where couples and their families knew each other, so there would be a lot of pressure on a man if he abused his rights. This law still echoes in the fact that a woman cannot give evidence against her partner, because legally they are the same person; a woman became legally invisible on her marriage. This comes from Jessica L. Malay’s book The case of Mistress Mary Hampson Her story of marital abuse and defiance in 17th century England:

“Despite its harshness, legal and moral commentary in the 16th and 17th centuries justified the English practice of coverture by insisting that only through coverture could a healthy marital partnership be maintained. They argued that coverture ensure couples worked together for the common good of their household, rather than for their own, possibly competing, financial and personal interests. the sacrifice of the wife’s autonomy was seen as justified for the good of the entire household and ultimately  the woman’s best interest. Moralists especially excused the “covering” of the wife by the husband, by insisting this was akin to God’s protective coverture that, according to Robert Bruce, “covereth our wickednesse [that] we may stand in his presence, & be defended from the divil and all enemies.”  Edward Reyner further explains this functioning of coverture, iviting the reader to associate a husband with Christ:

[A husband’s ] Duty is protection of his wife from wrongs and dangers, to rescue her, if in jeopardy (as David did his wives) and to right her… Boaz was to take Ruth into his protection as the hen her chickens under her wings, signified by spreading his skirt over her, that she might be safe under the wings of her husband. A man giveth Coverture.”

All well and good, but why was this only practiced in England? did English women need more protection, or were English men more power junkies? Because at this time women in Europe and Scotland kept their names and often property at marriage. By comparison, single women in England had far more independence, and some writers claim that something like half the women in England were single. I assume this includes widows, who were also notoriously independent and were often successful business people, because if not, that means only a tiny fraction of women were married, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe there were lots of men being wiped out by an early strain of man-flu so there were lots of single girls around.

Back to Malay. she claims that “By the 19th century, marriage reformers called the legal practice of coverture civil death. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 provided some relief from coverture’s worst aspects, though even this legislation was flawed, and many women continued to suffer under restrictions of coverture well into the 20th century.

The more I think about coverture, it was a truly nasty piece of work. At marriage a man owned everything; even the clothes the woman wore, hence sometimes a woman’s dress was included in her husband’s will for her. It was a licence to assault, starve and imprison women. If they left he could claim she had gone without his permission, and get her arrested and again lose everything. There is no way of knowing how much domestic abuse and even murder was allowed by this law.

Though the law was not changed, people learned to get around it. Parents drew up documents such as jointures, and legacies to ensure the woman had money of her own, and kept it when her husband died. Women often left legacies in their wills for other women, so there was a certain amount of flying beneath the radar.

But it still begs the question, why was it only in England? The more I look at it, it seems to be war related. It suggests to me that it was for husbands who were trying to amass property and give nothing back. I am thinking that it was to help ex soldiers settle in England, and gain legal rights to the land. It has aspects of ethnic cleansing, of forcibly marrying women and depriving them of everything. My guess is that it helped the Normans settle England.

But it still begs the question why it lasted so long.

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