Ever wondered why a married woman can be addressed by her husband’s name? Why is it “Mr. and Mrs. Husband’s Name” and never the other way around?
The tradition of calling a woman by her husband’s name comes from an old legal practice that erased a woman’s identity, called “coverture.”
The law of coverture is no longer around, but we can still see its effects today.
What Is Coverture?
Coverture was a set of laws that said that a married woman’s identity was “covered” by her husband’s.
Under coverture laws, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by her husband’s when she got marriage.
Legally, a husband and wife became one person: the husband. Upon marriage, the wife gave up her separate identity under the law, and her husband in effect had complete legal and economic control over her.Under the law of "coverture", a husband and wife became one person: the husband. The wife's identity was erased. #womenshistory Click To Tweet
When did the doctrine of coverture originate?
It all started in the Middle Ages.
England in the Middle Ages used a system of “common law.” The law wasn’t all written down in one place. Instead, laws were developed over time through the court decisions of judges.
It was under this system that the doctrine of coverture developed between the years 1000 to 1500, and was eventually brought to the English colonies, including the United States. An English judge named William Blackstone wrote an overview of English law called “Commentaries on the Laws of England” in the 18th century, which gave the first complete written description of the system of coverture.
How did coverture affect married women’s rights?
Under coverture, the status of married women was called “feme covert,” which literally meant “covered woman.” Her legal identity and rights were covered by her husband’s, and her own legal identity was nonexistent.
Because she was not a person legally, she could not…
- own any property (including the clothes on her back)
- own or control her own body
- make decisions for her children against her husband’s wishes
- sign legal documents or enter into contracts
- keep her own salary
- get any education against her husband’s wishes
A “feme covert” also had no legal rights over her own body or her children. In practice, a married woman might run a business with her husband, or have to take over running the household while her husband was away.
However, everything she did legally had to be in her husband’s name, since she was a non-person under the law.
Were single women affected by the doctrine of coverture?
Under the doctrine of coverture, an unmarried adult woman’s status was called “feme sole.” She would be recognized as an individual person under the law, and would be able to own property and sign contracts in her own name.
When did coverture end?
There was no official end to the doctrine of coverture; instead, the laws were slowly eroded away by the passing of women’s property acts beginning in the mid-19th century.
In the United States, many laws were enacted gradually by the different states that enabled women to own and control property, sign contracts, inherit separately from their husbands, keep their own salaries, and write their own wills. These laws were motivated not by any feminist movement, but by the economic needs of men. Under the new laws, a husband would be able to move money and property into his wife’s name, protecting his assets from debt collectors and bankruptcy.
Though the doctrine of coverture that was practiced for centuries no longer exists today, its effects can still be seen on some of our modern laws and culture.
For example, it was due to the influence of coverture that marital rape wasn’t a crime until the 1970s. After how, how could it be rape if your wife is basically your property?
Women also couldn’t get their own mortgages or open bank accounts without the bank asking their husband for permission until very recently.
“Mrs. John Smith” is called by her husband’s name because her legal identity was literally subsumed by her husband’s upon marriage. It’s important to understand where these traditions come from so that we can continue to move towards treating women and men equally under the law.