Coverture is a legal doctrine that was prevalent in English common law and subsequently in areas directly influenced by it, such as the United States, during the late medieval period up until the late 19th century. According to this principle, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed under her husband’s authority upon marriage.
What was the legal term “coverture” which applied to English women?
Under the doctrine of coverture, a woman became a feme covert after marriage, meaning she was “covered” by her husband and could no longer maintain a separate legal identity. Her rights to own property, sign legal documents, enter into a contract, or keep her own wages were forfeited to her husband. Even a woman’s legal existence was suspended during the marriage, consolidating the husband and wife into a single legal entity represented by the husband.
This principle also gave the husband responsibility for his wife’s actions. If a wife incurred debts, her husband was responsible for them. If she committed a crime in her husband’s presence, the law often viewed her as acting under the husband’s coercion or influence, and he could be held accountable.
Coverture began to be dismantled in the 19th century, first with the Married Women’s Property Acts passed in the United Kingdom and the United States, which allowed women to own property separately from their husbands. Gradually, other laws were passed that provided women with greater legal autonomy and equality in marriage.
It is important to note that coverture was a legal doctrine specific to certain societies at specific times in history, and it does not represent the legal status of women in all societies or historical periods.