This is the year our nation celebrates the centennial of women achieving the vote, and much ado is being made about this, as it should be. There was another equally important change in women’s status to be remarked upon during the same time period: the legal emancipation of married women from the restrictions of couverture. It occurred state by state, starting in the mid-nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. If I made this story into a movie, I would call it, “The Overthrow of Couverture.”
Couverture was a doctrine of law that migrated to the British colonies in North American from British Common Law dating back to the early Middle Ages. In a nutshell, upon marriage, a woman was legally subsumed under her husband. This has been likened to a large umbrella that the man of the family carried over the entire family, a protection of coverage for his wife and children. Any property the wife owned became her husband’s upon marriage. Women could not inherit property. Her wages belonged to her husband. She could not sign contracts, sue or be sued. She had no rights in the custody of children, they were his by law no matter what the circumstances.
A married woman was legally a femme covert. A single woman without husband was femme sole under the law and she had none of the restrictions of the femme covert. Why French terms were used in British Common Law is not fully explained. I like to think somewhere there was a cross-English Channel convention of Patriarchal Best Practices, between the French and the British several hundred years ago and over brandy and cigars, the British spotted this handy practice that essentially allowed men to marry women and take their property. “Merci, Pierre, Bonne idée!” the British lawmaker would say after his fifth Courvoisier brandy.
In male fantasies, the patriarch was benevolent, kind and protective of his family. But if he was less than upright and kindly, all those umbrellas could quickly turn into weapons and hurt the women and children underneath his “protective” cover.
After a couple of centuries of this aristocracy of sex, a few women in upstate New York, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her reformer friends, began to object. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 is historically hailed as the start of the women’s rights movement in the United States, and indeed the world, but gaining the right to vote was almost an afterthought. The real pain for women in 1848 was that married women had no rights to property or wages, there was no legal way out of marriage to an abusive husband, the children were his property, and he was free to administer “chastisement,” which is a dainty way to say beatings and rape. In fact, the ‘rule of thumb’ expression comes out of another kindly English law that allowed a husband to beat his wife as long as the stick he used was not thicker than his thumb. Thank goodness for their benevolence. Those two by fours could really hurt.
When the U. S. state lawmakers of the mid-nineteenth century began to take up remedies to these problems, the Married Women’s Property Acts were proposed to allow married women to own and sell property, keep her wages and other matters. Many men protested, saying “this is against natural law!”, or “this is upsetting the social order as ordained by God!” Their plaintive cries could be heard echoing through many a legislative chamber opposing any reform. When you have had such good gig for so long, it is hard to give it up. The only reason these laws giving women property rights, wage rights and more were even considered is that rich men had discovered that their daughters might marry men that turned profligate, and they wanted the property they would bequeath to their grandchildren to be protected. Women’s rights really had nothing to do with it. Bad sons-in-law were the real impetus.
It took well into the 20th century to eradicate these laws. Most of the property ownership laws were changed state by state by the end of the 19th century. In 1993 marital rape was criminalized in all 50 states, and it was not until 1969 for the no-fault divorce law was federal law.
In my movie version of “The Overthrow of Couverture,” the dramatic ending, with the soundtrack music swelling with triumph, would reveal women marching all those old laws out of the courthouses and law libraries and put them on a guillotine (in homage to their French origin). Think of it like a 19th century paper shredder borrowed from the French revolution. In the final scene of my film, all of these shredded laws would be burned, and the ghosts of French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges, Americans Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth and thousands more would fill the screen. And I’d like to buy each one of them a glass of brandy as we salute and celebrate the end of one battle won in the demise of the patriarchy on the road to gender equality. Onward!