I write a lot about the difficult circumstances faced by Native American women in the settlement period of California, but women in general faced significant challenges. I’ve recently learned about Coverture laws (with help from Wikipedia), which was “ a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband.”
This meant that a married woman couldn’t own property, enter or sign any legal contracts or agreements, or even keep her own wages if her husband demanded her earnings. A married woman also needed her husband’s permission to gain an education.
Single women, to a certain extent, maintained these rights, but the social stigma attached to unmarried women created huge pressure to avoid becoming an old maid.
Coverture was based on English law, described by William Blackstone (1723-1780), an English judge, professor and commentator, as follows:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in 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; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage