From “Legal” Coverture to “Visionary” Coverture

You remember that piece I wrote a while ago about a World Magazine writer explaining why she changed her name when getting married? Well, her husband has commented on that piece arguing that I misunderstood what was said in the essay, so I made added a correction to the end of my post. But doing so made me think again about the whole name changing thing – and about why it was seen as completely natural, obvious, and mandatory in the conservative evangelical community in which I was raised. And then I realized something. The woman changing her name to her husband’s is related to the idea of “coverture.” And while “legal” coverture” has been overturned, it has been replaced among evangelicals and fundamentalists with “visionary” coverture.

Let me start by explaining the law of coverture:

Coverture was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband. Coverture was enshrined in the common law of England and the United States throughout most of the 19th century.

As it has been pithily expressed, husband and wife were one person as far as the law was concerned, and that person was the husband. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband’s wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If a wife was permitted to work, under the laws of coverture she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. In certain cases, a woman did not have individual legal liability for her misdeeds, since it was legally assumed that she was acting under the orders of her husband, and generally a husband and wife were not allowed to testify either for or against each other. Judges and lawyers referred to the overall principle as “coverture”.

In other words, when women got married they legally ceased to exist. They were subsumed into their husbands. It was only natural, then, that women automatically took their husbands’ last names when getting married.

Today the laws that legally enshrined the principle of “coverture” have been removed. Today, men and women in a marriage relationship are legal equals. And beyond that, the entire way we view marriage has changed. Rather than viewing marriage as a relationship in which the man is the interface with the public world and the woman keeps and cares for the home and children*, we view marriage as a loving partnership between two equals. It’s not surprising, then, that name changing has become a tricky question every bride has to face. Women are no longer subsumed into the legal identities of the men they marry, so a woman changing her name to that of her husband is no longer the default.

But the conservative evangelical community in which I grew up does not see marriage as simply a loving partnership between two equals. In varying degrees – whether using words like “complementarianism” or “Biblical patriarchy” – they argue that the husband is to be the head of the family, the spiritual leader, the final decision maker, the CEO, and that the wife is to be the heart of the family, the nurturer, the keeper of the home, the family secretary and administrative manager (this is all language my family used). The husband’s “vision” is emphasized while the wife is urged to “support” her husband’s vision.** While this understanding of marriage no longer includes legal coverture, it embraces a sort of “visionary coverture” that still makes the wife changing her name to that of her husband seem, well, natural.

I’ve highlighted this in several posts. In this post, I quote and respond to Debi Pearl:

The whole premise of Debi’s article is that women must shape themselves to their man and his needs – and she makes it clear that this is a one way process.

God did not create women as he did men, strongly fixed in one type or another. Being created in the image of man, we are more muted and flexible in our types.

You see? Man is fixed and set. Woman is muted and flexible, waiting for a man about whom to shape herself. What? This is like saying that men have characters and personalities, but that women are born empty, like clay to be shaped at the whims of men. Which is, by the way, exactly what Debi says next:

The woman was called to be her man’s helper, to fashion herself to be what he needs her to be.

Somehow, I’m not seeing a lot of equality going on here… There is man, and then there is woman. Man is what really matters, and the woman lives only for the man. This is actually what Debi says outright in the introduction of her book – that woman was created solely for man, and that serving and helping him is her purpose in life. Debi continues:

When a girl marries a man she becomes a new person. She becomes his bride, his woman, his helper. It is God’s will that her life be fashioned to help him. If a girl comes into marriage knowing that she is equipped and appointed to be this one new person, then she can adapt and find fulfillment in her new self expression.

Again, man is fixed. Woman, in contrast, is but a possession of man. The woman’s own character and personality do not matter; all that matters is that she fashion her life to help her man. Is the man called on to fashion his life to help his wife? NO. Man was created for God, and woman was created for man. Woman matters not, except to serve man. Finally, Debi’s advice for young unmarried women:

Practice being flexible in your likes and dislikes, how you feel about things, and what you hope to accomplish. Start striving to shape your life to help others, and hide God’s Words in your heart concerning becoming a wife. Lastly, make a written committment to honor the man God provides for you.

Ah, so the woman’s own likes and dislikes and feelings about issues or goals for the future do not matter. The woman is to adjust to the likes and dislikes and feelings about issues or goals for the future of her man. Also, don’t be fooled. In Debi-speak, “honor” means “obey.” And what’s with the “written commitment” here? It sounds like a slavery contract to me.

Now obviously, Debi Pearl is at one end of the extreme. There are lots of fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals who might take issue with some of what she says, but will still endorse the idea that the husband forms the vision for the, and the wife supports that vision. And even when they add that the husband should include the wife in forming that vision, they insist that it is the husband, first and foremost, who sets it. You can see echoes of the law of coverture in this, echoes that are very loud in Debi Pearl’s writing but nevertheless still in existence in the writing and preaching of less extreme authors and teachers. But instead of “legal” coverture, it’s a sort of “visionary” coverture.

I have also written about how this visionary coverture influences the whole courting/dating process to begin with.

My parents’ belief that it is the husband’s job to lead and the wife’s job to follow affects how they view their adult children’s romantic relationships. It’s pretty simple really. As my parents see it, my brothers are looking for women to follow them, to echo their views and their vision, but my sisters are looking for men to follow, men whose views and vision they will echo.

It’s almost like a wife is to become her husband’s shadow, to cling to her husband and lose herself in him completely. She becomes her husband’s echo, her husband’s helper, her husband’s reflection.

When one of my brothers brings a girl home, my parents look at that girl as a prospective shadow of my brother, as someone who will follow my brother and do as he does, say what he says, and live as he lives. Who that girl is in and of herself becomes less important, for first and foremost she is to become a shadow, and echo, and a reflection.

When one of my sisters expresses interest in a young man, it’s completely different. My parents look at that young man as the person my sister will become the shadow, echo, and reflection of. That young man must therefore be perfect, completely ideologically pure and economically prepared. As my parents look at that young man, they ask themselves whether they want their daughter to become this man’s shadow, echo, and reflection, losing herself completely in him and in his vision.

Once again, this idea manifests itself to varying degrees among fundamentalists and evangelicals. In some instances it’s more overt and in other cases it’s less so. But anytime someone uses words like “male headship” or “complementarianism,” it’s there. “Legal” coverture has been replaced by “visionary” coverture.

A couple of weeks ago, Duggar followers everywhere were fixated on Jinger Duggar’s announced in a recent TLC clip that she wants to live in a city (start at the 55 second point). No one seemed to see any significance in the fact that this comment was made in a conversation about what kind of guys the older Duggar girls hope to marry. Jinger has been taught that she must support her husband’s vision, so she wants a husband whose vision includes living in the city. She doesn’t even seem to consider the fact that she could, you know, just move to the city. Or, you know, that once she marries her desire to live a city matters too, and the default shouldn’t be simply what her husband wants.

One thing I love about being in an egalitarian marriage Is that I don’t have to give up my own unique desires and goals. My husband and I may be best friends and may share some core values, but we’re also still individuals. I love that that I can have my own dreams, my own things, my own ideas. I love that my husband and I are partners. Not me subsuming myself or my vision into his, not me being the administrative assistant and him being the CEO. Partners.

* This description of marriage, in which the man is the interface with the public world and the woman keeps and cares for the home and children, was the ideal of the nineteenth century but was generally something only middle and upper class families, in a time when most families were working class, could afford. Beyond that, even in middle and upper class families women’s activities extended beyond the home, whether by taking boarders, participating in a husband’s business, writing advice manuals or female novels, or participating in reform campaigns. Scholars today see the notion of “separate spheres” as more important for its rhetorical understanding and division of the world than in its actual concrete realization.

** When fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals use the word “vision” in this sense, they’re not referring to the sort of vision where you see things that aren’t there but rather simply to a set of goals or objectives, sort of like a company might have a “vision statement” or “mission statement.” I’m actually not sure how common this usage is outside of evangelical/fundamentalist circles, but it’s a term I grew up hearing all the time.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://valuesfromscratch.blogspot.com Marian

    Yes! I got married at 18, still firmly ensconced in this bull****. (My husband, not so much. He was pretty frightened at some of the typical submission language that I aped.) At the time, I didn’t really yet know what my vision for my life was, but that didn’t matter to me so much. Now, five years later, we’re coming to realize that our visions are slightly incompatible. Of course, that just means we have to work to find way to make our visions work together, but it would have been nice to start work on it five years ago… or to be encouraged to start work on it five years ago!

  • machintelligence

    I truly admire your ability to turn almost anything (even the blogging of a correction) into a springboard for an informative post. I had never encountered the term coverture before (and neither has spell check) even though I was aware of the concept. It explains why some early feminist authors of the Victorian era would liken marriage to slavery. A vestige of it still exists in the US tax code, when filing a joint return (married filing jointly):

    Innocent spouse issues arise when married couples file a joint return. This type of filing makes both individuals jointly and individually responsible for all the taxes owed, even if one spouse made the majority or the entire amount of taxable income. If the IRS determines several years after the joint return was filed that there was a deficiency in tax, the IRS is authorized to go after each spouse individually for the full amount of taxes penalties and interest.

    The innocent spouse defense frequently involves tax fraud (usually by the husband) and an attempt by the IRS to go after the (by then) ex wife for some or all of the taxes due. It is sometimes possible, with the help of a tax attorney, to get them to grudgingly give up on this.

    Parenthetically, if you are willing to overlook my excessive use of parentheses, I will forgive the extra “made” in the second sentence of your OP. It is in the link. :-)

    • Rosa

      the one and only woman I’ve ever known to file/plead innocent spouse was a fundie – she WAS considering divorce when her future-felon husband’s issues started being obvious, but of course her pastor talked her out of it, so “innocent spouse” was her only defense. I assume it used to be more common.

    • Rosie

      Which is why my marriage proposal to my husband sounded a whole lot like, “ok, we need to get copies of both our credit reports, and go over them together, before we get any deeper into this relationship.” And that was before everyone was entitled to a free credit report every year.

  • Niemand

    I have to say, David Peterson’s defense of himself made him seem even more of a passive aggressive sexist than the original article. Partly because I don’t for a minute believe his flimsy excuse for using passive aggressive language. Certainly, Seu didn’t understand it that way given how she wrote the essay. Also all that crap about “correcting” her out of a “self-pitying funk” like she was a moody teenager. Sorry, David, but you’ve only made yourself look worse. With some luck Seu will see what’s going on and divorce the jerk.

    As far as coverture, a lot of the assumptions and some of the laws are still in place. For example, while forcible rape is illegal in most (maybe all) states in the US. coercive rape within marriage is still legal. Things like this shaped my and my partner’s decision to not marry, despite our long term relationship. Maybe if gay marriage truly egalitarian then it might be possible. But now, no. For the reasons you have outlined and David Peterson has provided an example of.

  • Anat

    Once I found and tried to decipher my mother’s ketubah (Jewish marriage contract, traditionally written mostly in Aramaic). It explicitly stated that all her earnings belong to her husband. Her property is limited to her dowry and a sum specified therein which her husband must give her if they divorce. A generation later my ketubah said nothing about my earnings so I guess Jewish marriage is changing with the times, ever so slowly. I’m not sure how secular courts treat these agreements when handling divorces – they are legal documents, but they are signed only by the husband and witnesses.

    • machintelligence

      @ Anat
      Ed Brayton at FTB had a post on a similar case involving a contract made in Farsi and signed in Iran. Because of numerous problems, the court refused to enforce it.
      http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2012/09/13/court-refuses-to-enforce-muslim-prenup/
      You probably will want to read the comments as well.

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      They had to change the language. Nowadays, because of the prevalence of the “learning husband,” *coughparasitecough* it cannot be assumed in the most fundamentalist definition of Judaism (Orthodoxy) that a man will be the primary breadwinner. And few non-Orthodox women would stand for that sort of verbiage.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    I think the idea that a romantice relationship isn’t authentic unless it involves a legal contract is a type of coverture.

  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

    Yay for talking about coverture. We joke about women not having ‘personhood’ now, but women effectively weren’t considered persons, in a legal sense, until the past century. I think people need to be reminded of this on occasion.

    Also, the thing that bugs me about name changing is that people seem to assume that women never actually have ownership of their own names. I once saw a comment that it was ‘creepy’ (as in, incestuous) for a woman to keep her ‘father’s’ name. I share a name with my father, but it’s not exclusively his. It is MY legal name. He didn’t loan it to me temporarily, as a placeholder for another man. I consider it a family name that’s available for my use. It’s tough to escape the patriarchal aspects of naming (unless you make up an original name, of course), but I happen to like my surname a lot, and I’m keeping it. Because it’s mine. I don’t have to give it back to my dad when I marry.

    I know women (and some men) change their names for their own reasons, but I really hate the assumptions behind name changing and name ‘ownership’.

    • ArachneS

      I’m one who changed my name without even thinking about it, and wouldn’t if I was the person I am now. I did mainly because we got married pretty young and at that age and stage of life I was trying to keep up with doing everything “expected” of me. It didn’t occur to me to not change it because of the environment I grew up in (women who kept their names were looked down on).

      I know more about history, and feminism, and politics now, so that if I was getting married right now changing my name would mean something that I don’t agree with. So I feel ya there.

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      In that sense I really like that in Spain you keep your surnames when you get mrried (we have two surnames in Spain and middle names aren’t as usual here) and children get one from the father and one from the mother (you can even choose the two from one of the parents now or which ones and in which order although the common thing is to keep the first from the father and the second from the mother; for example if the parents are Raul Perez García and Rosa Ruíz Gomez, the kid would be called José Perez Ruíz).

      • Christine

        See, I like that. The main reason I wanted to change my name was because I wanted to have the same name as future children, and didn’t want to deprive my husband of that either. So far every other culture that I’ve heard about has a better way of managing this.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    There have been times I wondered if, according to the bible, women only have meaning if they’re in a relationship with a man. So much Christian teaching about purity and marriage and dating has that subtle undercurrent of “the women molds herself to fit the man”, but I hadn’t seen it as explicitly it is in those Debi Pearl quotes you included. Wow.

  • Christine

    Most of the women in my family assume their husband’s name (so not just changing it socially, but using it legally). The one exception was in the really odd branch of the family, so I fully acknowledge that I changed my name largely out of inertia. That and I don’t like the framework in our society for a woman keeping her own name – I like the traditional Chinese way, where after Jane Doe marries John Smith, she’s still Jane Doe, even though she’s Mrs. Smith as well.

    But, despite me being very used to women changing their name, and feeling quite strongly that it was the right thing for me to do, I cannot stand the traditional way of doing it. I was at an old church, and the windows had been donated by “Mr. and Mrs. [His name]“. Even the case where a married woman (presumably a widow) had donated one on her own, it was Mrs. [Man's name]. I suspect that this is part of both why people react so strongly against name changes, and why they’ve persisted so long. A woman changing her name when she got married use to much more completely erase her name (forget the “well I’m either going to use my father’s name or my husband’s one, it’s somewhat patriarchal either way, so why do I care?”). It seems a lot less troublesome to only change your last name. Whether or not women changing their names is a problem (and I have no desire to be part of the force to make a better framework in our society for dealing with families with different names), changing just a last name instead of giving your name up entirely is much less of a deal.

    • Steve

      Isn’t that very old-fashioned now? Style guides only mention that for very formal occasions and even then it’s not encouraged.

      • Christine

        It’s very old-fashioned, but I think that it was the norm even 60 years ago. My grandmother addresses letters to “Mr & Mrs [His initial] [Last name]“. I think that a lot of women growing up when that was the norm (I suspect my mom did – when she saw the church she said that the names really disturbed her, whereas I just saw it as “wow, this is old”), felt as if they weren’t losing their identity, because they were only changing their last name. Not only were they keeping part of their original name, but they weren’t being entirely absorbed into their husband’s identity. It’s taken until my generation that keeping your own name entirely is normal enough that you always ask when a woman gets married. A generation ago it was odd, and noticed, if a woman kept her own name.

      • AnotherOne

        It’s only “old-fashioned” in some contexts. My fundy alma mater sends mail to me addressed to “Mrs. [Husband's Name],” and so do many of my friends and relatives. I’m embarrassed to say that I capitulated and 1) changed my name even though I didn’t really want to, and 2) addressed my wedding invitations in this noxious way.

      • JennyE

        The church I grew up in, which was evangelical, but not really fundamentalist, put out a church directory in the early 90′s that listed each childs name individually, but the married couples as “Mr. and Mrs. His Name”. My mother made a comment about how irritating this was as new-ish members because you couldn’t go to the directory if you wanted to remember a woman’s name. My dad thought she was being silly.

        I am the eldest of four daughters with no first cousins on my dad’s side. If none of us keeps our name, our branch will die out. I kept my name legally, but not socially, for the first six years of my marriage, because I just couldn’t quite bear to let it die out. I finally caved to family pressure after my first child was born and adopted my husband’s name legally so I would have the same last name as my children. I still have mixed feelings about it.

      • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

        JennyE, for what it’s worth, my mom and I have different surnames and it was really never an issue. People weren’t confused, and I didn’t get teased or anything, although I can see how it would raise ire in some circles. Also, if you want to preserve your family name, your kids could still use it. My mom’s family name is my middle name, and I could use it more frequently if I wanted, although I typically don’t.

  • Barbara Worden

    Like a lot of people in the Quaker tradition, my daugyhter in law chose to hyphenate the names when she married my son. In the case of a number of European countries, some in Scandanavia, I believe women do keep their names even after marriage. Changing the name is, I believe increasingly an American conservative idea which has become, falsely a religious principle. I changed my name and have no trouble with it. I believe it is a mistake to make a religious issue out of it. I believe people have a right to determine what they shall be called and how they shall be identified. That’s why we call our indigenous people Native American instead of Indian. They shouldn’t be stuck forever with Columbus’ mistaken idea he reached the East Indies.

  • Jaimie

    I took my husband’s name when we got married and didn’t think anything of it. Of course, I didn’t have that extreme “women are nothing” patriarchal experience.
    But just to make sure I asked my husband this morning if he thought my changing to his name played a role in my female oppression. He was drinking coffee at the time and nearly spit it out, laughing. He said, Oh yeah, this submission thing is really working! Then we both laughed.
    I guess it really depends on where you came from. I actually like my last name and wouldn’t switch it back for the world.
    Of course, coming from that world, I might have made a different decision.

    • Anat

      I grew up in a secular-Jewish family in Israel. I kept my name to make a point that the significance of our marriage was equal to me and my husband. The only options we were prepared to consider were either both of us keeping the names we were born under or both of us changing to a third, unrelated name. The former was the easiest (though we did play a bit with the idea of coming up with a new name, but there was nothing we obviously wanted so we let go of that idea).

  • smrnda

    I think the problem with the idea of the man supplying the ‘vision’ is that most people aren’t really living epic lives, so the term ‘vision’ just seems a bit overblown to me, which makes it seem a bit classist to me – the idea that a person has this individual vision of what they want to do in life is so typically middle class or upper class. Most people work because they need to and can’t be that picky about what they do. It seems to make the marriages of working class people sort of second-class.

  • stardreamer

    Sometimes there was more to it than family pressure. There was a legal case in Nashville back around 1975 in which a prominent female attorney got married, kept her birth name because that was her professional name, and the next time she went to vote, she was denied a ballot because she didn’t have her REAL name on her voter registration card. Her “real” name, of course, being her husband’s name. Boy, you never saw a case go thru the courts so fast — she was PISSED, and rightfully so.

    I leaped on the opportunity to change my last name when I got married, because my birth name was a bitch to spell and I was tired of dealing with it. When we got divorced, it wasn’t the sort of divorce where I felt compelled to completely excise every remnant of him from my life, so I didn’t bother changing back. If/when I marry my current partner, I don’t see any reason to change it again.

    Even though I grew up in the era when married women becoming “Mrs. Husbandsname” was the norm, I find that now it really bugs me to read historical documents in which that form is used for women who were prominent in their own persons. Eleanor Roosevelt got HER own name, forghodsake! It does feel as though they’re trying to erase the women and give all their credit to the husbands, and that’s just not right.

  • almost ambitious

    In UK trusts law if person A buys something and puts it in person B’s name, then it’s presumed that person B is holding the thing in a resulting trust for person A (i.e. A retains ‘real’ ownership even though B has legal ownership). This presumption of a trust doesn’t exist where person A is a husband and B is his wife or where A is a father and B is his child, but it does exist where A is the wife or mother and B is the husband or child (so apparently English law cannot conceive of women giving expensive gifts to the men in their families. Or using their families to dodge taxes).


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