Law of Coverture

This law existed in in England and North America for centuries, under which women became legally invisible when they married. Men claimed it was to ensure marital harmony, but as women became more independent, acquired skills and entered the work place, a law that gave all her money and property to her husband became increasingly oppressive. This was especially true when the couple fell out. The woman could leave, set up business on her own, but at any time the man could descend and take it all off her. He could throw her out of their shared house, even when her dowry had helped pay for it.

But the law was never repealed.  That was too complicated. Instead, campaigners, especially suffragists, chipped away at the law in a series of Married Women’s Property Acts.

The first was in 1868 which gave married women the same property rights as single women. This allowed then to keep any money they earned or inherited, so protected them from abusive or corrupt husbands, especially those who only married them for their wealth.

The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 gave women women wages and property they owned themselves, especially important if their marriage failed so the husband could not claim what was no longer his. This really was the breaking of coverture, allowing women to move away from their spouses and take their children with them. It also allowed them to rent property and sign contracts in their own names. But this did not affect property brought to the marriage, i.e. dowry and was not retrospective. It was also an important step on the way to women being given voting rights, as property was a major basis for the right to vote; it gave women responsibility for their children, and also went against a major excuse for them not voting, which still appears, that the woman would vote the same way as her husband.

The 1882 Act extended to all property regardless of source, and made the woman immune from responsibility for her husband’s debts.

These changes were not debated on the basis of female equality – more on the ownership and management of property, and how couples could collude in fraud.

Finally the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave votes to women over the age of 30 years.

As with so many laws, these acts were often not needed because couples were able to come to some form of agreement without them. These laws were for dealing with relationships that had broken down and/or when husbands insisted on keeping control of the woman for whatever reasons.

The British government had had similar arguments over the abolition of the slave trade, when arguments were based on whether slaves were capable of working without slave masters, or the dangers of rebellion. There was little chance that women would rebel, but the risk of females running their own businesses and lives were a real threat to men and their sense of how the world should be run. A century later, not a lot has really changed.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Law of Coverture

    • Yes, but it’s hard to know how much these laws were used. Men still had to live with these women, and coming home to find their dinner in the dog or whatever the equivalent was could not have been ideal. And I suspect women have always been good at getting their own back.

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