Coverture: Women's Nonexistence Under Law

Women Losing Their Legal Existence With Marriage

Sir William Blackstone (1723 - 1780)
Sir William Blackstone (1723 - 1780). Bettmann / Getty Images

In English and American law, coverture refers to women's legal status after marriage: legally, upon marriage, the husband and wife were treated as one entity. In essence, the wife's separate legal existence disappeared as far as property rights and certain other rights were concerned.

Under coverture, wives could not control their own property unless specific provisions were made before marriage. They could not file lawsuits or be sued separately, nor could they execute contracts.

The husband could use, sell or dispose of her property (again, unless prior provisions were made) without her permission.

A woman who was subject to coverture was called feme covert, and an unmarried woman or other woman able to own property and make contracts was called feme solo.  The terms come from medieval Norman terms.

In American legal history, changes in the late 18th and early 19th century began to extend women's property rights; these changes affected coverture laws. A widow was entitled, for instance, to a percentage of her husband's property after his death (dower), and some laws required a woman's consent to the selling of property if it could affect her dower.

Sir William Blackstone, in his 1765 authoritative legal text, Commentaries on the Laws of England, said this about coverture and the legal rights of married women:

"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 incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called ... a feme-covert...."

Blackstone went on to describe the status of a feme covert as "covert-baron" or under the influence and protection of her husband, in a relationship similar to that of a subject to a baron or lord.  He also noted that a husband could not grant to his wife anything such as property, and could not make legal agreements with her after marriage, because it would be like gifting something to one's self or making a contract with one's self.

 He also stated that contracts made between a future husband and wife were void upon marriage. 

United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black is quoted saying, in a thought expressed by others before him, that "the old common-law fiction that the husband and wife are one...has worked out in reality to mean...the one is the husband."

Name Change at Marriage and Coverture

The tradition of a woman taking her husband's name at marriage may be rooted in this idea of a woman becoming one with her husband and "the one is the husband." Despite this tradition, laws requiring a married woman to take her husband's name were not on the books in the United Kingdom or the United States until Hawaii was admitted to the US as a state in 1959.  Common law permitted any person to change their name through life as long as it was not for fraudulent purposes.

Nevertheless, in 1879, a judge in Massachusetts found that Lucy Stone could not vote under her maiden name and had to use her married name.  Lucy Stone had infamously kept her name upon her marriage in 1855, giving rise to the term "Stoners" for women who kept their names after marriage.  Lucy Stone had been among those who had won a limited right to vote, only for the school committee.

 She refused to comply, continuing to use "Lucy Stone," often amended by "married to Henry Blackwell" on legal documents and hotel registers.

Pronunciation: KUV-e-cher or KUV-e-choor

Also Known As: cover, feme-covert