Coverture and the Colonial Era: Women’s History Month, Part 2

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Episode Description:
A married woman living during the American colonial era would have lived under the legal doctrine called "coverture," where her legal identity was subsumed under that of her husband. William Blackstone wrote, "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 was governed by colonial law before independence and state law after independence. It would not change substantially after the Revolution in most states, but divorce and child custody laws would change.

Script for Coverture and the Colonial Era: Women’s History Month, Part 2


During the American colonial era, women remained legally dependent on men and were not allowed under the law to fully participate in political life.

Women were typically not allowed to vote in the colonies or hold political office.

Colonial laws limited women's right to own property and to manage their own legal and personal affairs. 

Laws varied among the colonies, but married women usually had the legal status of underage children. 

They lost most of their legal identity to their husbands under a legal doctrine called coverture. 

According to English law, "Husband and wife are one person ... the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage."

These policies were mostly continued after independence in 1776 and the American victory in the Revolutionary War, despite the appeal by the former colonists to natural rights philosophy to justify their cause.

However, natural rights philosophy and its commitment to human equality would ultimately be used successfully by women to justify their demands for voting rights and for equal treatment under the law.

This has been 60-Second Civics, a podcast of the Center for Civic Education.

I’m Mark Gage.


Copyright Center for Civic Education. 

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