What is a Coverture?

Michelle Baugh
Michelle Baugh
Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Historically, coverture was a legal doctrine that dealt with women's property rights after marriage. Under coverture doctrine, women who were married were not entitled to own any type of property. Instead, any property owned or inherited by a single woman became the property of her husband after marriage.

As a practice, coverture became popular in England during the Middle Ages and spread to the various English colonies. Coverture remained the legal standard until the late nineteenth century when women's rights activists pushed for property rights reform. Among the reform measures gained during this time was the enforcement of privy examinations, where a married woman selling her own property was asked to come before a court to verify that her husband was not pressuring her into a sale against her will.

The etymology of coverture has its origins in French. English common law dictated that a single woman was to be known as feme sole, which was a rough translation of the French femme seule, or single woman. Upon marriage, a woman became known as a feme covert, from the French femme couverte, which literally meant "covered woman."

A feme sole was permitted to hold private property and make her own decisions regarding any held property. She could also inherit property in her own name and sign contracts. This enabled a single woman to get a job, earn wages and keep those wages as her own.

In contrast, a feme covert, under the laws of coverture, was not viewed as a separate person from her husband, making any property owned by one of them owned by both of them. Married women had to obtain permission from their husbands before signing any documents, including employment contracts. Women who were granted permission to work often had their wages handed directly to their husbands.

Women did hold some limited rights under the law, however. In the United States, a married woman was entitled to receive one-third of her husband's estate after his death, which was referred to her as her "dower." This law made it impossible for a husband to sell any of his own personal property without the consent of his wife. Should a husband have made a sale without the proper signatures, his wife could have declared it an illegal sale after his death and had the property returned.

Coverture also held other legal implications for women. As women were legally seen as little more than extensions of their husbands, they were not allowed to testify for or against them. In addition, if a married woman was found breaking the law, she held little to no personal responsibility, as it was usually assumed she was following her husband's orders. Any reparations were assigned to him on her behalf.

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