Coverture — it’s a word. Really. Despite the fact that the built-in spell check on my computer thinks it isn’t. But I’d bet that most twenty-first century feminists don’t know it.
Just as ignorance of the law often leads to an increase in illegal activity, ignorance of oppression leads to a decreased ability to fight back. If you think that you haven’t encountered coverture, or that it doesn’t affect your life, you’d be wrong. If you know someone who has gotten married, chances are, you’ve encountered coverture.
For if there’s one vestige of coverture that our society has refused to let go of, it’s the practice of women changing their names at marriage. Although it’s hard to find any concrete statistics on the rate of name-changes, a quick search determines that it’s definitely over half. And there’s a growing majority, up from the 1990s, who view the act of a woman keeping her own last name as being an indication that she is less committed to the marriage, though that’s been statistically proven otherwise. Now, to be clear, though I do not plan to change my name upon marriage, I have no objections to those women who do choose to do so–but I very much hope that those who make that choice understand the history and the context of their decision. Without further ado, let me elaborate on that context.
So, what is it? Coverture is the legal foundation upon which the oppression of women rests. It is the legal foundation upon which women do not exist. It is the law that supports patriarchy.
The American form of coverture was, like much of early American law, heavily borrowed from the British common law system. Under coverture, women had no legal standing. As children, girls belonged to their fathers. At marriage, they were “made one with,” ie, owned by their husbands. They could not own property, make contracts, or be sued. They could not borrow money, or be in business. They could not own anything. Not their clothes, not their bodies. Not even their own labor–be it the products of labor on a farm or the labor to bring children into the world. They were “covered women”–covered under the law by their husbands, that is.
By this point, you might be nodding your head, or rolling your eyes. You know all this. Women were oppressed. Always have been. Old story, right?
But it’s not an old story. It’s a new story, too. It’s the reason many newly wedded women still call themselves Mrs. John Smith. It’s the reason husbands’ names almost always appear first on joint applications for mortgages. It’s the reason women forfeited their citizenship if they married a non-citizen before 1922. It’s the reason women still weren’t allowed to serve on juries as late as 1975. It’s the reason the women’s bathroom off the Senate is only now expanding.
Coverture is the reason there is a wage gap. Though there is much written on unequal pay for equal work, there is much less attention paid to the fact that the industries and professions traditionally filled by women pay much less than those dominated by men, even if similar levels of training and education are required. Why? Women’s work was and is simply not valued as highly as men’s work.
Coverture is part of the reason that rape culture is so prevalent. Marital and intimate partner rape is far more common than stranger rape, and yet vastly underreported. Only since 1993 have all 50 states had laws against it. A woman’s body was long considered a husband’s perogative, domain, and right. His wife’s duty was to submit. She owed him a debt.
Coverture was the real context of the too-often-quoted “Remember the ladies” letter written by Abigail Adams to her husband. She asked him to end it. He laughed at her, then ignored her. He and the other Founders chose to ignore the contradiction of having women virtually represented in government, the very thing they had been fighting the British to destroy. Why did they continue to exclude women from civil society? They were afraid of what women–and maybe their own wives–might do, when given real power.
Women were never included in the United States’ vision of government. They were never part of the Founders’ ideal of the social contract of government. They weren’t free to make choices, let alone contracts, because men feared what they would do if they had such power. And technically, we’re still not part of government. Without an amendment to ensure our equality, there is no guarantee that men won’t roll back the gains that have been made against coverture.
The issues may change–from representation, to voting, to abortion–but the struggle continues. And the fear–a fear of women, of women’s bodies, and of women with power–endures.
So remember that word. Practice saying it in front of a mirror (it’s a tricky one). And the next time someone tells you that you don’t have rights to do something, ask them if they intend to keep practicing coverture.
Many thanks to Dr. Catherine Allgor, who reintroduced me to the topic, and inspired me to keep spreading the word.