In Defense of Coverture – Guest Post by Jesse Powell
Coverture was the legal system of marriage in England from 1188 to 1870; from the Tractatus of Glanvill to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. The Tractatus of Glanvill was the first effort to systemize and make more formal English Common Law, it was the beginning of the common law system in England. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 was the beginning of the modern day feminist revolution; so basically the era of coverture goes from the beginning of common law to the beginning of modern feminism in England. Early America as an English colony originally also adopted coverture regarding the laws of marriage up until American Married Women’s Property Acts started to be enacted state by state from 1839 to 1865. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is what set the stage for the later emergence of common law in England and coverture as part of common law.
It should be pointed out however that coverture which was part of common law or secular law was not the only legal authority affecting the lives of married women; equity courts, ecclesiastical law (from the church), and customary law were alternative sources of legal authority that women could appeal to. These alternative jurisdictions were not bound by the coverture principle that wives were “covered” by their husbands; wives often acted on their own as plaintiffs and defendants in the proceedings of these alternative jurisdictions, these alternative jurisdictions giving women including married women certain individual rights and opportunities for redress and litigation outside of the system of coverture.
The idea behind coverture was that the wife and the husband were one legal entity; in practice this meant that the husband was always the one either suing or being sued and that the husband was the only one who could enter into contracts, that the wife could only enter into a contract including employment contracts with her husband’s consent, and that the husband was legally in control of all marital property and income including property brought into the marriage by the wife and including income earned by the wife.
An interesting aspect of coverture that is often overlooked is that the wife could act on behalf of her husband unilaterally with the husband’s presumed consent to purchase household goods or “necessaries” according to the husband’s economic status. This meant that the wife unilaterally acting on her own initiative was automatically assumed under the law to be acting as an agent of her husband when purchasing ordinary household goods. In other words the husband was automatically legally liable to pay for any debts his wife incurred “acting on his behalf” in the purchase of “necessaries” such as clothing, food, lodgings, and medicines for domestic use. A husband could take steps to try to control his wife’s spending by contacting specific traders and retailers telling them to no longer accept credit from his wife or by general announcements such as paying the town crier to announce to everyone that retailers should no longer accept credit from his wife or taking out advertisements in the newspaper telling retailers to no longer accept credit from his wife.
As the paper “Favored or oppressed? Married women, property, and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660-1800”
“A married woman could not contract debts in her own name. Instead, the common-law device of the law of agency provided her with the right to purchase necessaries in her husband’s name, according to his rank and wealth. A husband’s consent to his wife’s pledging his credit was assumed from the couple’s cohabitation. As The laws respecting women stated in 1772, ‘the husband shall answer all contracts of hers for necessaries, for his assent shall be presumed to all necessary contracts, upon the account of cohabiting ’. This implied authority meant that retailers and traders could deal confidently with a wife without checking whether she had her husband’s permission to act as his agent. A wife therefore had the right to make purchases using her husband’s credit while they cohabited, even if she was known to be adulterous. The right still applied if her husband turned her out or if she was forced to leave her husband to escape his violence. Wives were not entitled to use it, however, if they ran away from their husbands for any reason, or if the couple entered into a mutually agreed separation and the husband paid a fixed maintenance.”
This power of unilateral spending by the wife could sometimes have serious negative consequences for the husband. As related in the “Favored or oppressed?” paper about coverture:
“Furthermore, 10 per cent of the secondary complaints in the records of marital difficulties were made by husbands accusing their wives of extravagance and financial mismanagement. In response to his wife’s suit for restitution of conjugal rights in 1708, Thomas Wood, a sea-faring man of Whitburn, explained that he had separated from her because she had lived extravagantly, contracting debts during his time at sea that reduced him to poverty.
The complaint of financial mismanagement sometimes referred to business as well as household concerns, when men claimed that their business had been damaged by their wives’ actions. In 1723 one farmer declared that his stock was not worth £100, as his wife estimated, but no more than £40 because of her mismanagement. Similarly social criticism and advice to tradesmen commonly blamed wives for their husbands’ bankruptcy. Daniel Defoe, in The complete English tradesman noted, ‘ I know ’tis a common cry that is rais’d against the woman, when her husband miscarries, namely, that ’tis the wife has ruin’d him’, though he went on to observe that this was not generally true. This was not just a literary device. A number of husbands accused their wives of bankrupting them. In 1730 Henry Hendry, a wherryman, responded to his wife’s accusation of physical abuse with a petition that her ill-management and contracting of debts had impoverished him so that he was carried to Newcastle gaol.”
The “Favored or oppressed?” paper goes on to detail some of the ways women were privileged or protected under coverture:
“The so-called favouritisms that wives enjoyed also stemmed from their lack of legal identity. The privileges and rights described by the legal guides can be grouped into three general categories. Firstly, coverture imposed obligations upon husbands. A wife was entitled to be maintained and to make purchases of necessaries as her husband’s agent. Secondly, wives were afforded some protection against the unbridled power of their husbands. They could obtain ‘surety for the peace’ – a bond which obliged a husband to keep the peace towards his wife – against violent husbands, could retain property in marriage through ‘separate estate ’ – a means by which property could be protected for the sole use of the wife during matrimony – and could protect certain rights through equity courts. Finally, married women enjoyed the evasion or mitigation of punishment in certain types of offences. For example, a wife could not be punished for committing theft in the company of her husband, because the law supposed that she acted under his coercion. Wives’ inability to make financial transactions in their own name also prevented them from being sued and therefore imprisoned for debt.”
The important thing about coverture that needs to be remembered is that coverture was a system of male guardianship of women, specifically of husbands towards their wives. Male guardianship of women is a very important principle of traditional culture; to be a guardian means not only to control but also to “guard” and serve the interests of the other. In particular it needs to be kept in mind that the guardian has to control the person they are guarding and serving in order to guard and serve the person they are the guardian of. Male control is necessary for the man to be able to serve the interests of the woman he has been assigned to “watch over” and support; in particular male control is necessary for the man to be able to protect himself from the woman he is responsible for taking care of. People don’t understand that being responsible for the well being of another is a very vulnerable position to be in as the effort you expend for the well being of the other can easily be misused or turned into a mechanism of abuse against you. This is why the upholding of male authority has always been a fundamental part of every system of male guardianship of women that has been established in the past.
The end of coverture was the beginning of family breakdown and the beginning of men withdrawing their investment in women. Coverture was the last stable social system the English speaking world had; ever since the dismantling of coverture the family has done nothing but get worse and worse and worse. Family breakdown was slow in the decades immediately following the end of coverture with family breakdown accelerating as the time since the end of coverture lengthened; a very sharp acceleration of family breakdown starting after 1960 when the pernicious ideology of “gender equality” first started to gain in popularity. Also thankfully at least in the United States a backlash against the family breakdown wrought by feminism has slowed down the rate of deterioration in the family significantly since 1995. Historically speaking though the end of coverture was the beginning of the great self-destruction of family life and gender relations that took place from 1870 to 1995 before a significant backlash against this family destruction took hold starting in 1995 and continuing until today.
In order for family life to be returned to full strength and full functioning like it was before feminism started its work of undoing the social contract between men and women; that social contract being that I the man will take care of you the woman as long as you the woman obey me; coverture or something functionally similar to coverture has to be reinstituted. Men must be seen as the guardians of women and placed into a guardianship role in relation to women once again.
For more on coverture and the history of the breakdown of marriage in the United States including statistics and graphs to illustrate the massive withdrawal of male investment in women that has taken place since the end of coverture I recommend the following article at my website:
I am Jesse Powell. My website is Secular Patriarchy and my cause is the Traditional Family Activists or TFAs. On October 30, 2013 I split with the TWRAs (Traditional Women’s Rights Activists) to start my own group, the TFAs. I felt it was important to have my own group, to be able to play a leadership role as a man. I still support the cause and purpose of the TWRAs but am no longer organizationally connected to the TWRAs or represent the TWRAs.