What are the most important changes to the family law in the 19th century and 20th century up to today, and why?
In my opinion (and in no particular order):
- No-fault divorce
- Abolition of the doctrine of coverture (femme couvert)
- Tender Years doctrine (and the abrogation of the Tender Years doctrine)
- Statutory child support
- Same sex marriage
We need to get one misconception out of the way immediately, and that is that wives were treated as the husband’s property in the past. They were not.
This does not mean that women were treated differently than men and husbands under the law, but women were not treated as their husbands’ property and unmarried women could own property and enter into contracts. See Husband and Wife Are One–Him: Bennis v. Michigan as the Resurrection of Coverture (4 MIJGL 129, Amy D. Ronner Michigan Journal of Gender & Law)
At common law, an adult single woman could own, manage and transfer property. She could sue and be sued. She could likewise earn money and enjoy it as her own. Once that same woman married, however, her status changed radically; coverture subsumed her legal identity into her husband’s.
Blackstone described coverture status as follows:
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 husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme covert, foemina viro co-operta; 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 an [sic] union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. The coverture doctrine prevented a man from granting anything to his wife or from entering into a contract with her. Such actions would be futile because they would “suppose her separate existence . . . and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself.”
The coverture merger was not mere metaphysics, but imposed real disabilities on the married woman. For example, a wife relinquished the control of her real property to her “baron” and although he could not alienate the rents and profits, he was not obligated to account for them to her. Moreover, her husband enjoyed complete control of his wife’s interests, which meant that he could alienate them and unilaterally pocket the proceeds. All chattels that a woman owned at the time of marriage and those she acquired thereafter belonged to her husband. The suspension of a wife’s legal identity also meant that she could not sue or be sued at law unless her husband had joined in the action or “ha[d] abjured the realm, or is banished.”
Coverture prohibited husband and wife from testifying for or against each other in trials “principally because of the union of person.” That is, such testimony would be irrebuttably presumptively self-serving or self-incriminating. In criminal law, a husband and wife could not comprise a conspiracy because one person could not conspire with himself. They also could not steal from one another because the property belonged essentially to only one–him. In other situations the wife was utterly divested of free will and viewed as “inferior to him, and acting by his compulsion.” For example, because certain criminal acts on her part, short of treason or murder, were viewed as if done under his “command,” coverture bestowed upon the married woman a specie of immunity.
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