Historical research and its impact!

This week I’m writing about social media and its uses for history. As part of this, I’ve been trying to establish how far my own work has been cited through social media. I’ve been trying to use impactstory as one tool for doing so.

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I am surprised, then, to find that a reference to one of my articles has turned up on a blog called ‘Secular Patriarchy’ whose stance is: Anti-Feminist, Anti-MRA, Pro-Traditional Women’s Rights Traditional Family Activist (TFA).  My article is on married women’s status under the legal doctrine of coverture. This post on the site links to it in order to explain coverture. The post’s overall argument is that marriage has lost its way since coverture has been undermined. It concludes that :

Marriage is masculinity, marriage is coverture, marriage is the man providing for the woman thereby enabling the woman’s feminine purpose and expression.  Marriage is a male institution; the means by which men provide to women the environment a woman needs to function best as a woman.

Ironically the link to my article no longer works, which is probably just as well, as I don’t agree with the blog’s views about marriage today or in the past.

Here is a quick explanation of coverture and the law of agency in the long eighteenth century (you can access my article here). At marriage women became feme coverts, which meant that they lost ownership of the movable goods that they brought to marriage and transferred the profits and management of any land they owned to their husbands during marriage. Coverture also removed married women’s legal identity by subsuming it under their husbands’ and therefore removed their right to enter any commercial contracts. The reality, however, was that women needed to purchase goods for the household and for family businesses in a world which relied heavily upon credit rather than cash.

The Common law recognised this need, through a technical device called the ‘law of agency’. The law of agency allowed women to purchase necessaries – that is food, medicine, clothing and lodgings – in their husbands’ name. (This is probably why wives took their husbands’ surname). Husbands could, however, deny them this right for a number of reasons including claiming that they had already supplied the household with necessaries, or paid the wife enough money to purchase goods without using credit, or by claiming that the goods purchased were far beyond the couple’s social status.

Husbands therefore made public announcements that they refused to pay the debts their wives had accumulated. In the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century we only have indirect references to this practice. So there are reports that husbands had their wives cried down by the town crier in the market place or on a Sunday after church. From the 1730s, however, these announcements were regularly placed in local provincial newspapers.

A number of the husbands complained about their wives’ extravagance and financial mismanagement. This complaint was mentioned in the adverts placed by husbands, as an explanation for their denial of their credit to their wives. William Sampson who was a tallow chandler and soap boiler in Pontefract, for example, advertised in 1756 in the York Courant that he would not pay his wife’s debts, because she ‘seems entirely bent to ruin her said Husband’.

Having analysed a large number of such advertisements I concluded that rather than displaying wives subordination under the law, they revealed that men’s economic autonomy was vulnerable. I used them to show that spouses did not necessarily see property that women brought to the union as shifting in ownership to the husband, but often continued to identify it as belonging to the wife, and more frequently simply pooled as family property. Moreover they demonstrated that women also felt that they provided for their families alongside their husbands and that while manhood was certainly about the ability to provide, this did not exclude wives/mothers from also feeling the same sense of obligation in terms of their womanly status. (See here and here for some excellent new research on coverture and here for women and the law)

For me, coverture at once implied a degree of female legal and economic ‘invisibility’ but enabled wives to carry out their necessary economic functions within marriage; activities that brought with them a sense of authority and identity, not subordination. There is no sense in which this evidence of economic activities under coverture supports the blog post’s claim that the function of marriage is:

The man takes control and the man then executes his plan and mission for the family.

All in all, I’m fascinated by the unpredictable uses to which historical research is being put. Is this evidence of impact? Hmm. Not the impact I’d expect, or want – but certainly proof that there is dissemination of my research!

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