"These kind of flesh-flies shall not suck up or devour their husbands' estates:" married women's separate property rights in England, 1630-1835




Mercier, Courtenay

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During the long eighteenth century, married women in England were subject to the rules of coverture, which denied them a legal identity independent of their husbands and severely curtailed their acquisition, possession and disposition of property. There is a consensus among historians that married women circumvented the restrictions of coverture both in their daily lives and by use of the legal mechanism of the separate estate. This study reviews contemporary legal and social attitudes towards women’s property rights in marriage to examine the extent to which married women had economic agency under coverture. Through a review of reported cases, treatises on the law of property, and a contemporary fictional representation of pin-money, I assess the foundations justifying the law of coverture, and the challenges presented to coverture by the separate estate. I argue that there is a distinction between the theory and practice of the separate estate; the separate estate must be understood as a type of property set aside for a special purpose rather than a type of property separated from a husband’s control. More precisely, the existence of the separate estate generally, and pin-money in particular, did little to advance married women’s economic agency.



legal history, women's history, marriage, matrimonial law, coverture, social history, feme covert, courts of equity, gender, property law, marital property, property rights, pin money, separate estate, economic agency, long eighteenth century