Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sarah Palin and Women's Rights: Wake Up and Smell the Fire

So. I awoke this morning thinking of Sarah Palin. And coverture.

A nightmare, you ask? Well, come to think of it, yes—a bit of one.

Coverture may have been on my mind because of what I wrote yesterday about my grandmother and Southern women. Few women voters in the South today seem to spend much time thinking about the situation of legal enslavement to men that bound women until, well, fairly recently. Or about how Sarah Palin’s election as vice-president and the victory of a theocratic polity could quickly return women to that status of legal enslavement.

Is this what women voting for Palin want?

A Wikipedia article about coverture notes that it “is the legal concept that a woman's legal rights were merged with those of her husband, part of the common law of England and the United States throughout most of the 1800s” ( The article notes that William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England defined this longstanding common-law practice of female subordination to women in the late 1700s.

The article appends Blackstone’s definition of coverture:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage (emphasis added).

So. Under English common law, which is the basis of American common law, the concept of coverture “suspended” the “very being or legal existence” of a woman as long as she was married: her “very being or legal existence” was “incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband.”

Lest we think this was some bizarre practice of female subordination that obtained, say, in the Dark Ages, the Wikipedia article notes that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld coverture as legally binding for American women as late as 1873, in the case of Bradwell vs. State of Illinois. When I click on the wiki link to that case, I learn that it involved an application of an Illinois woman, Myra Bradwell, to be admitted to the Illinois bar (

In upholding the state’s denial of her request, the U.S. Supreme Court stated,

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.

As the Wikipedia article on Bradwell notes, it took another hundred years (after 1873, that is) for the U.S. Supreme Court to begin upholding the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in a way that overturned the legal subordination of women to their husbands.

As I’ve said, I may have awoken thinking of coverture because of what I wrote on this blog yesterday about Southern women. In the American South, the system of coverture was ironclad. It was the only way in which men permitted women to live and move and have their being, legally. As Thomas E. Buckely notes in an article entitled "‘Placed in the Power of Violence’: The Divorce Petition of Evelina Gregory Roane, 1824," "Once married, a woman was ‘under coverture’—her husband controlled her person, property, and children" (VA Mag. Hist. and Biog. 100-1 [Jan. 1992], 32).

“Her husband controlled her person, property, and children”: that was how Southern men wanted it. And that was how they got it—for generations, from the colonial period up to the latter half of the twentieth century. Moreover, there is strong evidence that, until fairly recently, not only married women were expected to live under coverture in the American South: single women were required to submit to that same coverture, to the control of their fathers or brothers up to the time they married, and to the continued control of those same men if they never married.

That Simpson family I mentioned in my blog yesterday: the gentleman sitting beside his wife Hattie is my grandfather Wm. Z. Simpson. When his grandparents Zachariah Simms Simpson and Elizabeth Pryor died in Alabama in 1869, Wm. Z. Simpson’s father Mannen Clements Simpson was the administrator of his parents’ estate.

At the estate sale, Mannen’s sister Mary L.—his unmarried sister, whose beau disappeared in the Civil War and who never married after this happened—bought the family’s house and home tract of 289 acres. In response, Mannen had the sale declared invalid, and re-sold the land. A single woman, acting independently of her father or brothers, could not own land in the South of this period—not if the men of her family had any say in the matter, and they almost always did. Mary’s independence was so problematic to her brother that, in a tradition handed down in my family, he declared she had to be insane: no sane single woman would want to act independently of those who knew how to do business and manage property better than any woman could.

Mannen was simply carrying on tradition, long tradition enshrined in the law of the land, in insisting that his unmarried sister defer to his wishes about the disposition of property. In his 1851 will, Mannen’s grandfather Joseph Pryor explicitly states that his second wife Catherine Hughes was to inherit precisely half of the quilts and coverlets she had made while married to him. Catherine made the bedclothing. But they belonged to Joseph, to dispose of as he wished.

Is this what women supporting Sarah Palin want to go back to? Is this what the abundance of Southern women, good God-fearing white evangelical women, who support Palin want to go back to?

'Fraid so. What else do they think the female subordination doctrine of the religious right is all about? Do they think subordinating women to men is some kind of nifty little religious game that has no implications for what women do with their lives, their property, their bodies: with women’s rights to make decisions about their future, to dispose of their property as they wish, to decide whether or not they want to bear children?

A few days ago, an Alaska citizen AKMuckraker published an article on Huffington Post recounting what happened when he mounted a one-man protest against Palin’s candidacy in Juneau. During the day in which he stood with an anti-Palin sign on the Juneau docks, a crew of sweet, drawling 60-something Southern women came up to chastise him (

They shook their fingers at him, telling him Obama is a socialist, insisting that healthcare “for all” is impossible, that Obama would return us to the days of Jimmy Carter. Their husbands joined them to echo the chastisement.

I know those women. I know what makes them tick. I know their propensity to drawl sweetly to your face and knife you in the back, smiling sweetly all the time.

I also know what drove them into the Republican fold, and what keeps them there: race, pure and simple. White Southerners left the Democratic party in droves after the Civil Rights act of the 1960s, and have stayed in the Republican party, which enticed them with racist promises. Racism is the dirty little secret at the heart of Republican domination of the political life of the U.S. for several decades now.

Religion is merely the icing on the racist cake, for the Southern women who chastised Palin's detractor. Don’t get me wrong: they do believe (or they think they believe) in the subordination of women to men. And they even practice it, if by practicing, we mean that these cooing and drawling women always find methods to get their way while pretending to defer to blustering macho males who only think they are the lords of creation.

But in promoting Palin, they’re playing with fire. This is a woman who, I’m afraid, actually believes in that theocratic platform that many evangelical Southern women only like to toy with.

Elect her, and women may find themselves headed back—say a few hundred years or so? Back to a legal situation in which their “very being or legal existence” is “suspended” and “incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.”

Back to a legal situation, that is, in which a woman does not even exist apart from a man: in which she exists only in and through the man who “covers” her.

Not what you want? Then you’d better start thinking about the consequences—the real, legal consequences—of theocracy. With Sarah Palin in the White House it won’t just be playing anymore. It will be for real. And it may turn out to be fire we’ve been playing with all along.