Feme Sole and Women's Rights

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Bettmann / Getty Images

A woman with the status of feme sole was thus able to make legal contracts and sign legal documents in her own name. She could own property and dispose of it in her own name. She also had the right to make her own decisions about her education and could make decisions about how to dispose of her own wages. What made this status special, and what did it mean?

Feme sole literally means "a woman alone." In law, an adult woman who is not married, or one who is acting on her own regarding her estate and property, acting on her own rather than as a feme covert. The plural is femes sole. The phrase is also spelled femme sole in French.

Illustrative Example

In the last half of the 19th century, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony headed the National Woman's Suffrage Association which also published a newspaper, Anthony had to sign contracts for the organization and paper, and Stanton could not. Stanton, a married woman, was a feme covert. and Anthony, mature and single, was a feme sole, so under law, Anthony was able to sign contracts, and Stanton was not. Stanton's husband would have had to sign in Stanton's stead.

Historical Context

Under common British law, an adult single woman (never married, widowed or divorced) was independent of a husband, and therefore not "covered" by him in the law, becoming one person with him.

Blackstone does not consider it a violation of the principle of feme covert for a wife to act as an attorney for her husband, as when he was out of town, "for that implies no separation from, but is rather a representation of, her lord...."

Under certain legal conditions, a married woman could act on her own behalf regarding property and estate. Blackstone mentions, for instance, that if the husband is banished legally, he is "dead in law," and thus the wife would have no legal defense if she were sued.

In civil law, the husband and wife were considered separate persons. In criminal prosecutions, a husband and wife could be sued and punished separately, but could not be witnesses for one another. The exception to the witness rule was, according to Blackstone, would be if the husband forced her to marry him.

Symbolically, the tradition of feme sole vs. feme covert continues when women choose marriage to keep their names or adopt the husband's name.

The concept of feme sole evolved in England during feudal medieval times. The position of a wife to a husband was considered somewhat parallel to that of a man to his baron (the power of a man over his wife continued to be called coverte de baron. As the concept of feme sole evolved in the 11th through 14th century, any woman who worked independently at a craft or a trade, rather than working with a husband, was considered a feme sole. But this status, if held by a married woman, conflicted with ideas about debt being a family debt, and eventually, the common law evolved so that married women could not conduct business on their own without the permission of their husbands.

Changes Over Time

Coverture, and thus the need for a category of feme sole, began to change in the 19th century, including in the various Married Women's Property Acts passed by states. Some version of coverture survived in United States Law into the last half of the 20th century, protecting husbands from responsibility for major financial obligations incurred by their wives, and permitting women to use as a defense in court that her husband had ordered her to take an action.

Religious Roots

In medieval Europe, canon law also was important. Under canon law, by the 14th century, a married woman could not make a will (testament) deciding how any real estate she had inherited could be distributed since she could not own real estate in her own name. She could, however, decide on how her personal goods would be distributed. If she was a widow, she was bound by certain rules of dower

Such civil and religious laws were influenced by a key letter from Paul to the Corinthians in the Christian Scriptures, 1 Corinthians 7:3-6, here rendered in the King James Version:

Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.
The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.
Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.
But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.

Current Law

Today, a woman is considered to retain her feme sole status even after marriage. An example of the current law is Section 451.290, from the Revised Statutes of the state of Missouri, as the statute existed in 1997:

"A married woman shall be deemed a femme sole so far as to enable her to carry on and transact business on her own account, to contract and be contracted with, to sue and be sued, and to enforce and have enforced against her property such judgments as may be rendered for or against her, and may sue and be sued at law or in equity, with or without her husband being joined as a party."
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Feme Sole and Women's Rights." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/feme-sole-3529190. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, September 3). Feme Sole and Women's Rights. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/feme-sole-3529190 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Feme Sole and Women's Rights." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/feme-sole-3529190 (accessed June 11, 2023).