Coverture is the legal concept that a woman's legal rights were merged with those of her husband, part of the common law of England and the United States throughout most of the 1800s. The idea was described in William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England in the late 1700s.
Under traditional English common law an adult unmarried woman was a 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 United States Supreme Court upheld the idea of coverture in the case of Bradwell v. Illinois, 1873. Even before that time, though, many states had begun reforming marriage laws to eliminate or reduce the effects of coverture.
The system of feme sole and feme covert existed through much of early history in parts of Europe and the European colonies. This situation persisted until the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when married women's property acts started to be passed in many English-speaking legal jurisdictions, setting the stage for further reforms.
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.
The phrase "The law is an ass" originates in 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 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."
The Blackstone Text
- 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.
- Woman as Force in History by Mary R. Beard (1946).