Coverture: An Inhibitor of Married Women’s Rights

My last post focused on American women’s political rights with a brief mention of a few economic rights developments that helped pave the way for the 19th amendment.  Some of those economic rights victories were due to a series of changes in US law that gradually phased out coverture, which had been brought over from England and had governed American marriages since the days of British colonialism. A more detailed look below:

Coverture and Moral Hazard

Coverture was the legal norm for American women in the early 19th century.  Legally, the married couple was viewed as one person – the husband. Women were ‘covered’ by their husbands, and were subject to “complete economic dependence and legal invisibility” (Basch, 1979). The husband controlled everything: property, business, finances, his wife’s wages should she be lucky enough to have any, children in the case of divorce.

While giving the husband all the power in the relationship would seem a great victory for him, in reality coverture could lead to moral hazard. Geddes and Lueck (2002) argue that, under coverture, marriage becomes an example of the principal-agent problem, where it is hard to motivate the agent (wife) to act in the best interests of the principal (her husband).

Perhaps this is why this couple* looks so glum:

1930 Grant Wood (1891 - 1942). American Gothic. The Art Institute of Chicago.
American Gothic: the avatar of the principal-agent problem.

A husband could not perfectly control what his wife did in his absence. An unmotivated wife could slack on her wifely duties of managing the household and rearing the children. As Geddes and Lueck say, she could “shirk into leisure,” and reduce the overall value of the marriage.

1840 Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Mother & Son. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shirking into Leisure?

A key argument against coverture from Geddes and Lueck cites the need for optimal output from both the husband and the wife. And, perhaps if women could have control over their choices this can be obtained. Removing coverture would mean that the husband and wife, as a team, would own their final market goods, and they would each own half of the shared property income. Women would also be free to allocate their time however they choose. Since married women would have access to the labor market and human capital investment, they would no longer shirk their responsibilities.

Acting in her own interest would be a key motivator for the wife to optimize her activities. Furthermore, the potential moral hazards in the marriage is now equally split between husband and wife.  In turn, the couple is more likely to combine forces to figure out the optimal allocations for their marriage and improve the union’s economic value.

Romantic, I know.

A Shift away from Coverture

Slowly but surely, over 60 years, this scenario played out across America:

In 1840, no US state allowed married women to both own property and have independent control over their earnings. In 1880, 30 out of the 38 US states allowed married women separate ownership of their estates and earnings. By 1920, the year the 19th amendment passed, all but three of the (then 48) states allowed married women to have control over both their estates and earnings.

Geddes and Lueck point out that these numbers correlate with rises in per capita wealth: in 1840 per capita wealth stood at $5,108 (in 1982 dollars). By 1920 this figure stood at $22, 449. Could this be just a coincidence? Unlikely. Once married women had the legal backing to freely participate in the work force, own their own property, run their own businesses, and keep their own wages, they were more willing to invest in education and human capital. This in turn led to a more prosperous society. Of course, there were other factors in play, but the legal shift away from coverture positively impacted economic growth.

Interestingly, wealthy couples were already working around coverture by creating separate, private contracts between husband and wife. Geddes and Lueck argue that these couples realized the inefficiency of the law, and saw that it was in their best interest to increase the wife’s rights. For instance, if a woman had considerable wealth coming into the marriage, the couple may have wanted that wealth to be protected from the husband’s creditors, and thus they would arrange to keep it under her name. With the upper echelons of society contracting their way around the law, it became clear that coverture was limiting economic growth. It took several decades and many, many piecemeal law adjustments but coverture was eventually phased out in the United States.

Basch (1979) writes that “coverture, after all, was designed to meet the needs of a medieval agricultural monarchy…its emphasis was on the rights and duties associated with real property.” By the 19th century, the limiting structure of the law was inefficient and outdated, especially as land became less important that personal wealth.

What about widows and unmarried women? Stay tuned for a discussion of the economic benefits and disadvantages for single women in the late 19th century.

*American Gothic is actually meant to depict a farmer and his spinster daughter, but their facial expressions are so perfect I couldn’t resist.

Further Reading

Basch, Norma. “Invisible Women: The Legal Fiction of Marital Unity in Nineteenth Century America.Feminist Studies. Vol. 5, No. 2. Summer, 1979. pp. 346-366.

Erickson, Amy Louis. “Coverture and Capitalism.”  History Workshop Journal. No. 59. Spring, 2005. pp. 1 -16.

Geddes, R. Richard and Dean Lueck. “The Gains from Self-Ownership and the Expansion of Women’s Rights.The American Economic Review. Vol 92, No. 4. September, 2002. pp. 1079-1092.


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