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.

Jonathan and Alison Schumm Abuse Case Raises Questions
One Million Moms Declares War on Children of Gay Parents
A Fundamental Misunderstanding of Ex-Fundamentalists
Starbucks' Red Cup and the Evangelicals Who Cried Wolf
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.