Coverture and English Law: Legal Status of English and American Women: Prior 1900’s


The doctrine of coverture meant that the husband was responsible for the property within the marriage. The wife’s property became her husband’s, or he held it in trust.

Single women who were considered adults, even widows could own property and engage in some business, as well as probate transactions. They could take care of themselves, as long as the “careers” they pursued did not infringe upon those held by men.

Marriage and Loss of Rights

Any property a woman held upon entering into the marriage became her husband’s property, or he could hold it in trust for her. In America, there were some instances when a woman could request that a trusted male who was not her husband hold her property, such as her father or brother, if imposed within a pre-marriage agreement.

Upon marriage, however, a woman lost almost all of her rights. About the only right she possessed was the right to be taken care of by her husband. However, if the husband was not of a generous nature, or kind/compassionate, a woman could suffer severely by his hand. In early America, if a woman was treated brutally, she could bring her husband to court, and the court might intervene in some fashion.


“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.” This is basically the doctrine of coverture.

Sir William Blackstone, English lawyer and judge (18th century), penned the Common Laws of England which explained various legal concepts, including those relevant to marriage and the relationship between husband and wife. Blackstone’s commentaries were extensively responsible for the legal status of women in both England and the U.S. for generations.

Blackstone’s commentaries, coupled with poor, scriptural interpretations, transferred from century to century, rigidly confined the arenas women could navigate in without male, patriarchal supervision or “cover”.

St. Jerome: “Woman is the gate of the devil, the path of wickedness, the sting of the serpent, in a word a perilous object.”

Impact of the New World

Because of the survival needs of the newly forming New World, the necessity for the male leash to lengthen gave American women slightly more freedom than their English sisters. Women, in colonial America, within particular circumstances, could act as agents of their husbands. For instance, as in the case of Deborah Franklin (wife of Benjamin Franklin), she managed all of her husband’s businesses while he lived in London for years on end.

Eliza Pinckney, a plucky teenager, managed her father’s three plantations. She created a business dynasty producing indigo while her father was engaged in the military. The indigo plant she developed revitalized the trade industry in colonial S. Carolina. Franklin and Pinckney, were not the norm, but representatives of a growing number of women who tested the boundaries.

Some Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

Caution must yet be considered. Women were still expected to tend hearth and home. They were not permitted free rein. The expanding needs of the New World allowed old concepts to be tested and held up for scrutiny.

Some women were tutored, such as Mercy Warren and Eliza Pinckney with the full support of the males within their families. Consequently, these women were able to fan out their gifts in uncharted waters to aid the developing needs of the colonies, not to mention the aspiring, fledgling nation.