Wednesday, April 2, 2014

While conducting research for my paper, I found an article written by Karen Offen entitled A Brief History of Marriage Marriage Laws and Women's Financial Independence which can be accessed at the following web address.

I thought it was a wonderful article. At the end of the article are some reader comments. One in particular caught my eye and I thought I would share it with you. After reading the comment I was surprised someone would take this attitude about coverture. The commentor suggests that Offen's views are one sided in that they only see the situation of women under coverture as constricting. Well, weren't they? This commentor does not think so. My immediate reaction was "this has got to be a man." Maybe that is sexist in itself, and maybe we are not as enlightened as we think we are. What do you think about the comment? 

The comment:
A couple of points, regarding the framing of details:

1) "A series of other acts made it possible for mothers to obtain custody of their children in case of divorce; formerly the children "belonged" to the husband-fathers."

Actually, that's not quite true. It was perfectly possible for a mother to obtain custody of their children, providing they could demonstrate a superior ability to provide for them than their father. Since it was the 19th Century, this was almost never the case. What "belonged" to the father was not the child itself, but the de facto obligation to provide for it. 

Men did not 'own their wives', or their children, in the way you're framing it. Men were obligated to provide for them, instead, as executive of the family's communal wealth. They were his dependents, in much the same way as you register your dependents today on your tax return.

2) "Under Spanish law, married women could actively control their own property, and all of a married couple's assets acquired following marriage became community property. Ultimately in the West, this system triumphed over the retrograde English common law, though not without a struggle."

Yes, but what you're leaving out is that this was a triumph for women, and women alone. Men had no such liberation under the law as wives did.

See, the dissolution of personal property into communal property worked BOTH ways. Whatever wealth and property a man took into his marriage because the property of the marriage every bit as much as a woman's did; he had de jure (and yes, in some cases de facto) control over the use of such property, but it did not belong to HIM. It belonged to both of them. Of course, that's still an inequity, and still needed to be addressed, but the way in which it was addressed was not an elevation of women's rights to match men's right; in fact it elevated a woman's rights above that of her husband.

See, after the acts in question, husbands no longer had any claim upon the property of their wives, true enough, which was the purpose of the legislation. BUT. A wife STILL had claim upon her husband's property, as was her right as the wife of the household he was responsible for.

So, in other words, she could conduct private business to her heart's content, for herself only, whereas he was obligated to conduct business that provided for both himself, his wife, and any children they had. In fact, if his wife or his children ran up any debts, it was the wealth of the family that was legally demanded (y'know, 'his money') to pay for them, as he was obligated to such provision.

This has never, ever, been actually undone. This is why, when a woman divorces a man, unless there is a pre-nuptial agreement stating otherwise, she gets half of his wealth, WHETHER OR NOT IT WAS GARNERED DURING THEIR MARRIAGE.

If he divorces her, does he get the same deal? Not at all. Her wealth, is, after all, HER wealth, and no-one else's.

Kinda puts the whole 'equality' thing in a different light, no? ;)


  1. Well. I wouldn't have thought anyone would defend coverture today, but I was wrong. And it's incorrect to say men don't get a portion of their wife's wealth at divorce - that happens all the time. There might be gender bias in how we apply the law, but the law does not assume the man has to provide in a divorce - it presumes the person with an income, or a higher income, has some lingering obligation to spouse and children (often due to the unpaid labor of the spouse that led to higher wages for the other). And yes, men did lose some legal privileges when women gained communal property rights, but their loss was precisely because they were privileged *over* their wives in the earlier common law.

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  3. Thanks for sharing! I certainly tried to look at this from an objective perspective because I feel that most people's comments have a right to be heard, however misleading. Their intentions don't appear to be malicious, but they seem to be in possession of knowledge that is more third party, word-of-mouth information than from factual sources. You're right, I also see men and women today that, when they get divorced, the man gets a portion of the wife's money when she is the bread winner. It's a shame they didn't do any research! Also, women were often considered men's property so I'm not sure where they are getting the idea that they were not. They were not dependents in the same way that children are dependents on tax records today. My parents don't even have the same power of me as men had over their wives. Also, on the argument that women gained control over their own property under Spanish law back in the day, it's simply because they did not have very much nor could they make much money in a business because of the mere fact that they were a woman. I think it's commendable that they are trying to see the other side of things, if they happen to be a woman, but their arguments are simply not correct. It's a shame because there are likely people reading this that will believe them without questioning it themselves. So many things on the gender debate are tossed around in the media, and people rarely take the time to study it for themselves and form their own thoughts and opinions. I feel that we live in a world of misinformation just as much as we live in a word OF information - it's a double-edged sword.