Women and the Law

In 18th century English law, females were bound by the laws of coverture. Under coverture, the husband and wife were one person (the entirety) and that one person was the husband in the eyes of the common law. Therefore, as to her personal and property rights, the wife's legal existence was suspended during the marriage and merged into that of the husband. She lost the capacity to contract for herself, or to sue or be sued, without joining the husband as plaintiff or defendant. The husband was entitled to all of the wife's personal property and "choses in action" (lawsuits), and in turn, the husband became liable for all torts committed by the wife, whether before or after marriage [1].

The marriage relationship did (and does) impose certain legal duties on each of the spouses and gives to each rights arising out of marriage . At common law, those rights of the husband are described as "consortium", the rights of marital companionship, and include material services, felicity, comfort, aid, company, sexual intercourse and cooperation, all welded together into a conceptualistic unity [2]. Consortium is still recognized in American law, now belonging to both spouses, and is a common ground upon which damages are recovered in a civil action by a non-injured spouse when the other spouse is a victim of personal injury [3]. Thus, the husband could recover damages for loss of consortium from the rapist in a civil damage action (at common law for trespass on the case). It was necessary for the husband to make the initiating complaint, consistent with the "entirety" concept. Once begun, the proceedings could benefit from the sworn testimony of the married women, because married free women could take an oath and give testimony against persons other than their husbands [4].

If a husband killed the assailant while his wife was being "ravished," or raped, English law deemed the killing a justifiable homicide [5]. This law was meant to preserve the chastity of marriage. English law discriminated between adultery and rape, and only the killing of a rapist in action was deemed justifiable. The only type of adultery that was, and still is, punishable by death was the "violation" of a female member of the royal family, which legally qualified as treason. For this reason, many people expressed legitimate concern for the lover of Princess Diana of Wales during her marriage.