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Coverture

The Doctrine of Coverture (sometimes spelled Couverture) was for centuries a principle of the English Common Law. It was carried to the colonies and remained in American law following independence. The theory is that wife and husband are legally one person and that the wife’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by the husband’s starting at the point of marriage. It meant that a woman could not make contracts, and could not keep any money she might have made, and did not have any rights over property. Women who remained single were termed feme sole (unmarried) and married women feme covert (married). Unmarried women had the right to sign contracts and retained control over their property. The doctrine slowly began to unravel in the 1800s under the impact of activist women, particularly in the United States. The activism was rooted in the anti-slavery Abolitionist movement and also in the Temperance movement against alcohol. The connection was that women opposed to slavery saw elements of slavery in the doctrine, and that women in the Temperance movement saw that the doctrine allowed alcoholic husbands to literally consume their wives’ resources.