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What is Coverture? - Definition & Laws

Instructor: Tisha Collins Batis

Tisha is a licensed real estate agent in Texas. She holds bachelor's in legal studies and a master's degree in criminal justice.

This lesson will define coverture and discuss the laws surrounding it. While this law seems archaic now, it was the reality years ago. Upon completion of this lesson, the reader should have a firm grasp of coverture.

What is Coverture?

Imagine being a woman in America two hundred years ago. You fall in love with a nice gentleman, and he courts you formally for several months. He asks your father for your hand in marriage, and your father agrees. Your life is a fairy tale until your mother reminds you of the changes that will occur as soon as you get married. She explains that, once you're married, you will cease being your own person. Your husband will become the one who has control over everything. For women across America, this was the reality when they got married.

Definition

Early on, American law was based on English common law. One law that was brought across the ocean was coverture, which gave a husband rights and obligations in a marriage that his wife did not have. She became his property when they married, lost her own identity (as they became one), and couldn't even enter into her own contracts anymore. Marriage stripped her of many rights that she had prior to becoming a married woman.

At the same time, coverture placed responsibility on a husband's shoulders. If his wife entered into debt, he was responsible for it. If he experienced financial problems and wanted to sell some property that she had prior to their marriage, he had to ask her permission first. If he died, she had a right to one-third of his property for the rest of her life.

Under the law of coverture, if a husband and wife were to divorce, she didn't have a right to her children. They were his property and went automatically to him. If she was lucky, she would get to see them. Essentially, a man's wife and children were his property (also known as chattel). To an extent, he could do with them as he pleased.

Example

Mr. Batiste courted a young lady from the South and her father granted her hand in marriage. It was 1780, and he had a home ready for his wife on a neighboring plantation. She didn't really want to get married, but Mr. Batiste assured her he would not abuse her. What he never told her was that he was an alcoholic. The marriage quickly turned into an unhappy one. He drank too much and beat his bride on a regular basis. Though they had three sons, and as the years wore on, he became even more abusive. He knew his wife could never leave him. She didn't have anywhere to go. Even if she did have resources, she wouldn't leave their children behind, and they were legally his property. The laws of coverture were on the husband's side.

Slaves and Coverture

Like coverture, slavery in America began from the birth of the country itself. While white women were subject to coverture, slave women were as well. The difference was that white women weren't typically treated as livestock, while slave women were. Due to the North's abolition of slavery, African American women in these states enjoyed some of the freedoms that white women did. The women that were still slaves in the South were treated as livestock. In fact, many of them were forced to breed with other slaves. Changes did not occur for African American women in the South until after the Civil War.

Laws Overturning Coverture

As stated previously, coverture laws were established early in the creation of the United States. In the 1800s, some things began to change. For example, in 1848, the New York's Married Women's Property Act extended women's rights to real property. A woman could actually own real property, and it wasn't available (if she later got married) for her husband to use to pay his debts. She could acquire property after a marriage, and even be gifted real property. Other states began to use this law as a model.

By the time the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed, it was becoming obvious that the roles of women were changing. This allowed anyone to be an owner of a homestead, including women.

Coverture, however, still played a role far into the 20th century. It is due to coverture that women were not typically allowed to serve on juries until the 1960s, and that marital rape was not a crime until the 1980s.

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