How Government Codified Patriarchy
For most of American history, women were systematically denied an independent economic or legal existence, the lasting impacts of which continue to influence women’s opportunities today. Patriarchy—the system of governance in which men hold majority power while women are largely barred from holding it—depends on women’s exclusion from markets, and the story of women’s liberation is in many ways a story about the ongoing fight for economic liberty.
Many libertarians harken back to the Revolutionary period as a golden era for human liberty, but their reverence is misplaced. The laws on the books classed most women and people of color as essentially non-persons.
The legal doctrine of “coverture”—adopted from English common law—formed the linchpin of this state-sanctioned oppression. Under coverture “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended…and consolidated into that of the husband.”
Upon marriage, a woman’s property rights and legal rights were transferred to her husband. She could not independently own property, earn a salary, enter into contracts, draft a will or claim an inheritance, bring a lawsuit to court, or participate in any other activity that required her to be legally recognized.
Though she could earn wages (with her husband’s permission), that money was considered the property of her husband to be spent as he wished. She didn’t even own the clothes on her own back, and if her husband got into debt, his creditors could demand from her everything but two dresses, some simple cooking utensils, and a bed.
A wife, in other words, was, for all intents and purposes, her husband’s property—or the property of those who held dominion over him. According to one 1664 law, a free Englishwoman who married a slave in the colony of Maryland would nonetheless become a slave to her husband’s master.
In March 1776, with the new American nation on the horizon, Abigail Adams wrote a now-famous letter to her husband, Revolutionary War hero and future President, John Adams, pleading with him to “remember the ladies“ and not “put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.”
Echoing the language of the American revolutionaries, Abigail argued that “all Men would be tyrants if they could,” entreating John to push for coverture’s repeal. “I cannot but laugh,” came his reply, and coverture was enshrined in the laws of the new country, just as it had been in the English colonies.
By legally limiting the ability of women to exist independently and making women dependent on men for basic necessities like food and shelter, coverture denied all women, regardless of marital status, essential human freedoms, rendering them less than full citizens of their own country, and greatly reducing the amount of control they had over their own lives and bodies.
For example, when Myra Colby Bradwell passed the Illinois Bar Exam with honors in 1869, the Illinois Supreme Court denied her admission to the bar on the basis that she was a married woman. Bradwell re-petitioned the court, which denied Bradwell’s application again, this time expanding their rationale beyond her marital status to the simple fact that Bradwell was a woman—a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873.
Though American men’s degree of control over their wives’ property and earnings began to erode as early as 1810, it wasn’t till 1920 that nearly all married women in the United States gained the legal right to own separate property and keep earnings acquired during marriage.
Even after it was overturned, however, the spectre of coverture has continued to haunt American women.
Women’s bodies were still legally considered the property of their husbands until relatively recently. Domestic violence was not fully outlawed till 1920 and rape within marriage—including by estranged spouses—was not recognized as a crime in all states until 1993.
It wasn’t until 1974 that women—whether single, widowed or divorced— were guaranteed the right to apply for credit without a male co-signer, and it took until 1981 for the Supreme Court to affirm that a husband no longer had the right to unilaterally take out a second mortgage on property co-owned by his wife, either against her wishes or without her knowledge.
Even today many supposedly gender neutral policies disproportionately negatively impact women.
The widely-used system of joint filing taxes was instituted in 1948 to incentivize women who had joined the workforce during World War II to relinquish their jobs to returning soldiers and go back to homemaking instead. Despite the normalization of dual income households over time, modern tax policy continues to push married women at virtually every income level to work fewer hours than they otherwise would, or to stay out of the labor force entirely—a major contributing factor to the gender pay gap.
The Social Security system is similarly structured to reward women who stay home rather than those who work, and working women who are married may find themselves paying the full 12.4% Social Security tax without collecting any more benefits than married women who don’t work.
Throughout American history, many of the major wins for feminism have involved women gaining access to markets and then using that access to push for further equality and acknowledgement of their individual and civil rights.
Women benefit—not just financially, but in all facets of their lives—from having the freedom to work, choose their professions, start businesses, own property, and the like with minimal state interference.
According to the Economic Freedom of the World report, co‐published annually by the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and more than 70 free market think tanks around the world, “the ability of individuals to make their own economic decisions is key to economic and social progress.” In 2017, when the report began accounting for disparities in economic liberty granted to men and to women, 20 countries fell notably in the rankings, indicating that in many countries, there’s still significant progress to be made.
The shameful legal and cultural history of patriarchal policies like coverture continue to reverberate in America today, and the more roadblocks to economic liberty are put in place, the more sexism women will continue to face.