In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for Congress to pass a law guaranteeing that women are paid the same as men for doing the same work; adding, "Really. It's 2015. It's time." Yes, we are still talking about women receiving equal pay in 2015. While there are several factors that contribute to this discrimination, one that comes to mind is an old, but not fully abolished legal practice known as coverture, which held that no female held a legal identity. It's hard to believe, but remnants of this practice persist today. Noted historian and National Women's History Museum (NWHM) Board member, Dr. Catherine Allgor shares a story that, aside from being a favorite of her mother-in-law, serves as testament to coverture's lingering presence in society today. As she tells it...
A few years ago, my husband, Andrew, and I went to apply for a mortgage. As a candidate for a house mortgage-and this is the part my mother-in-law loves-I characterize myself as 'greater' than my husband. I am older, I have a longer work history, I am more senior in our common profession (we are both professors), I also make more money. I've got a longer credit history than he and have owned more houses. Finally (though this is a matter of dispute), I am even a teeny bit taller. But the only qualification that mattered in this transaction was my status as 'wife.' When our broker filled out our application, she listed Andrew first, as the "borrower" and me second, as 'co-borrower.' (Did I mention that my last name starts with 'A' and his with 'J'?). When I pointed this out, our broker, a woman of a certain age with long experience in her profession, sympathized, but stated that if she had made me the primary borrower, the lawyers would 'fuss' at her and just revert to the traditional categories. 'Honey,' she told me, a professor of women's history, 'it's a man's world.'
Chairwoman and President of McKissack & McKissack, Deryl McKissack recalled a similar story while participating as a panelist in NWHM's Making A Business of Change forum last year. She had started her business with $1,000 and tried for nearly three years to secure a line of credit. She estimates having gone to 10 banks before one finally provided her with a $10,000 line of credit. Her business grew and she returned to the bank to secure a larger credit line; certain she would qualify. (It should be noted that she had married since securing the initial credit.) The bank approved her application, but wanted her husband present when she returned to sign the papers. When she asked why, the bank officer replied, "We just want him to come sit with you." Ms. McKissack reminded the banker that the company was 100% hers and that her husband had absolutely no financial interest in it. She pointed out that he wouldn't be signing any of the documents and that he wasn't on the line for anything, while she was on the line for everything. The banker stared at her and simply asked "Do you want this money or not?" Deryl had no choice, but to bring her husband to the signing - just to sit with her.
What both women had encountered was clearly a vestige of coverture. While most Americans haven't heard the term, it has been a goal of Dr. Allgor's to ensure that all literate, well-educated Americans be as familiar with the idea of coverture as they are with other historical terms such as "liberty," "democracy," and "equal rights." Here's some of what she wrote about it for the NWHM blog...
Coverture is a long-standing legal practice based in English law, which held that no female person had a legal identity. At birth, a female baby was covered by her father's identity, and then, when she married, by her husband's. The husband and wife became one-and that one was the husband. As a symbol of this subsuming of identity, women took the last names of their husbands... Because they did not legally exist, married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses. Married women owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs. They had no rights to their children, so that if a wife divorced or left a husband, she would not see her children again.
Dr. Allgor stresses that there has been a discrepancy between how coverture was exercised and the written law. ". . . . the law doesn't always reflect real life, and in truth, practice ensured that coverture on the ground was not as restrictive as the black-letter law indicated." In discussing the remnants of coverture, Dr. Allgor points out that while it has eroded, it's clearly not gone. In addition she points out
The ghost of coverture has always haunted women's lives and continues to do so. Coverture is why women weren't regularly allowed on juries until the 1960s, and marital rape wasn't a crime until the 1980s. Women still experience coverture in real estate transactions, tax matters, and a variety of situations around employment and housing. These encounters can be serious, but often they're just puzzling annoyances, one more hoop to jump. Still, the remnants of coverture are holding us back in unsuspected ways.
Really. It's 2015. It's time!
I encourage you to read Dr. Allgor's complete post to learn more about coverture and to view Making A Business of Change for a fascinating discussion on women in business - then and now. Finally, I'd love to read about your own encounters with coverture in the comments section below.