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Coverture – Could History Repeat?

BY MIKE MAGEE

All eyes were on Wisconsin – not last week, but in 1847. That’s when Wisconsin newspaperman and editor of the Racine Argus, Marshall Mason Strong, let loose in a speech on the disturbing trend to allow women the right to buy and sell property. It seems the state had caught the bug from their neighbor, Michigan, which was considering loosening coverture laws.

“Coverture”  is a word you may not know, but should. It was a series of laws derived from British Common Law that “held that no female person had a legal identity.” As legal historian Lawrence Friedman explained, “Essentially husband and wife were one flesh; but the man was the owner of that flesh.” From birth to death, women were held in check economically. A female child was linked by law to father’s entitlements. If she was lucky enough to be married, she lived off the legal largesse of her husband. They were one by virtue of marriage, but that one was the husband, as signified by taking his last name.

The practice derived from British law. Women were held in matrimonial bondage in England with the aid of ecclesiastical courts and the officiating presence and oversight of an Episcopalian clergyman. This meant control over getting married as well as well as the capacity to escape a marriage marred by abuse or desertion. Not that there was much call for divorce. Britain was a divorceless society. The richy rich occasionally could be freed by a special act of Parliament. But this was exceedingly rare. Between 1800 and 1836, there were less than 10 divorces granted per year in England. For the unhappy rest, it was adultery or desertion.

The divorceless society held for the first half of the 19th century in most of the states below the Mason-Dixon line, with South Carolina being the most restrictive. But every New England state had a general divorce law before 1800, as did New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. “Grounds” (which varied from state to state) were presented in an ordinary lawsuit by the innocent party.

Demand for divorce grew as America grew in the first half of the 19th century. With mobility came hardship and “odious abuse’, and increasing recognition that “a divorceless state is not necessarily a state without adultery, prostitution and fornication. It is certainly not a place where there are no drunken, abusive husbands.” And then there was the issue of property rights and its ties to economic growth in this still young nation.

America was rich in land, which rapidly translated into a fast-expanding smallholder middle-class. Relationships could shift on a dime, resulting in property disputes and threats to the legitimacy of children and one’s heirs. The numbers of land owners, fueled by westward expansion were enormous, and each had a stake in society. When push came to shove, economics won out over Puritan instincts – but not without a fight.

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