The doctrine of coverture inhibited married women’s ability to act as legal entities. Most legal arrangements, such as contracts, were considered to be the husband’s sole right and responsibility. The logic behind this concept was based in part on the legal assumption of a husband’s right to his wife’s company, labor, and body. If she were able to enter into contracts on her own, she could ultimately be held liable in ways that might deprive a husband of services to which he had first claim. In some colonies, laws were passed that enabled married women to act on their own in certain contexts, particularly with regard to some property transactions and commercial activities.
A married woman who conducted business in her own name was known as a “feme sole trader.” Such women participated in the market in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, as well as in America, and their situations drew the attention of commentators like William Blackstone. The only colonies to pass feme sole trader statutes were Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
In South Carolina, the title of the 1712 law suggests that it was designed to make married women traders more responsible for their own debts. While the 1744 law seems to continue this provision, it also protects such businesswomen from customers. This later law made it possible for women to sue debtors in their own names.
For more on this subject, see Sylvia R. Frey and Marian J. Morton, eds., New World, New Roles: A Documentary History of Women in Pre-Industrial America (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 97-99, and Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Pres, 1986), 44-46.
For definitions of unfamiliar terms please see our glossary.
Document excerpt #1:
Title of 1712 South Carolina statute, from South Carolina Statutes, 2:593, reprinted in Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Pres, 1986), n.26, 207.
Title: “An Act for the better securing the payment of debts due from any person inhabiting and residing beyond the sea or elsewhere without the limits of this Province of South Carolina, and to subject a Feme Covert that is a Sole Trader to be arrested and sued for any Debt contracted by her as a Sole Trader.”
Document excerpt #2:
1744 South Carolina statute, South Carolina Statutes, 3:616-61, reprinted in Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), n.27, 207.
Title: “An Act for the better securing the payment and more easy recovery of debts due from any person or persons inhabiting residing or being beyond the seas, or elsewhere without the limits of this Province, by attaching the moneys, goods, chattels, debts and books of account of such person or persons, if any he, she or they shall have within this Province; and to sue for and recover such debts as shall be contracted with her as a sole trader, and to subject such feme covert to be arrested and sued for any debt contracted by her as a sole trader.”
Excerpt from 1744 statute:
“Sole traders are often under difficulties in recovering payment of debts contracted with them, by reason of the absence of their husbands, in whose names they are obliged to sue for all debts due to them, sometimes not being able to produce any power or authority from their husbands.”