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Baron and Feme. A Treatise of the Common Law Concerning Husbands and Wives. London, 1700, reproduced in Carol Berkin and Leslie Horowitz, eds., Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices: Documents in Early American History. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998, 54-55.

The phrase “baron and feme” served as the legal term in England for describing the relationship between a husband and a wife, underlining the dependency of women, subject to their husbands’ will. The doctrine of coverture assumed that a husband had nearly complete authority over his wife, acting as her lord and master, and that her legal identity was subsumed into his.

There were practical exceptions to the ideal of coverture, as explained in this tract, which pointed out that there were situations in which it made sense to treat women as individuals with free will.  In particular, the courts might seek a separate interview with a woman to determine her agreement with her husband’s decision to sell property; a married woman had a legal right to a portion of her husband’s estate if widowed. This dower right entitled her to the widow’s “thirds,” which courts tried to protect.

For definitions of unfamiliar terms please see our glossary.

Document excerpt:
“The law of nature has put her [a wife] under the obedience of her husband, and has submitted her will to his, ... and therefore will not bind her by acts joining with her husband, because they are judged his acts and not hers; she wants free will as minors want judgment, and yet the law of the land for necessity sake makes bold with this law of nature...because she is examined of her free will judicially by an authentical person trusted by the law...and so taken in a sort as a sole woman...."

"A feme covert in our books is often compared to an infant, both being persons disabled in the law...And yet a feme covert is a favorite of the law....”

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