The title page of the legal treatise Baron and Feme, inscribed as a present from Gerard Banks Esq. to William Waller Hening.

Women’s Legal Rights in UVA’s First Law Library: Baron and Feme

In honor of Women’s History Month, this post by Kelly Fleming discusses the history of women’s legal rights as reflected in the 1828 Catalogue of the Library of the University of Virginia. Kelly is a PhD Candidate in the English Department at UVa, where her research focuses on women’s property rights and political participation in eighteenth-century British novels. She is assisting the Law Library with its 1828 Catalogue digitization project.

Of the 369 law titles in the 1828 Catalogue of the Library of the University of Virginia, only one was explicitly dedicated to the legal status of wives, Baron and Feme: A Treatise of Law and Equity, Concerning Husbands and Wives (U.K. .46 .B265 1738). In fact, it was the first known English legal treatise to focus solely on the laws concerning husbands and wives.[i] Penned by an anonymous author, Baron and Feme was first published in London in 1700 by John Walthoe. It was published again in 1719 by Walthoe and in 1738 by T. Waller, also in London. The university had acquired the 1738 edition for its first library. While the Catalogue entry for Baron and Feme dates the book to 1788, other nineteenth-century catalogues confirm that the original UVA library contained the 1738 edition.

Baron and Feme’s importance as a legal work stemmed from its discussion of the precedents that defined married women’s legal rights in the eighteenth century. In England, married women’s legal rights were defined in common law and equity courts, likely resulting in confusion about what women’s rights actually were. Books such as Baron and Feme consolidated such precedents and made them available for both men and women as a practical litigation guide. Since, like England, Virginia had both common law and chancery courts, Baron and Feme’s discussion of precedent would have informed the way UVA students and local lawyers understood marriage settlements and argued women’s property rights in court.[ii]

Baron and Feme took up the doctrine of coverture from the perspective of both men and women, but with substantially more attention to the legal ramifications of women marrying. A relic of the Norman Conquest, the legal fiction of coverture declared that, after marriage, man and wife were, legally, one person, with the husband acting as representative for both. After marriage, a woman became a feme covert, a “covered woman” wearing the shadow of her husband’s legal existence. Feme coverts were unable to convey property, sign a contract, or execute a will on their own. One of the first chapters describes the unique position feme coverts held in English (as well as early American) law by differentiating them from infants (women and men under the age of 21). Like feme coverts, infants were “disabled by the law,” meaning they were not recognized as persons under the law.[iii] The difference, the anonymous author argued, was as follows: infants were not yet considered persons under the law, but they could perform “any Act for [their] own Advantage,” including binding themselves in a contract.[iv] Feme coverts were not persons and could only legally bind themselves with their husband’s consent.

A vignette of a man and woman exchanging a glance beside a crib.
A depiction of family life from
Godey’s Lady’s Book (1851).

Complicating this comparison, the author did not distinguish between male and female infants despite the legal difficulties female infants would have encountered on account of their gender. While Sir William Blackstone may have famously called women the “favourites ”of the law, the privileges they received were restricted by their ability to negotiate patriarchal family dynamics.[v] In both England and colonial America, patriarchal hierarchies and codes of behavior structured family life. Female infants, despite their ability to contract, were likely to be controlled by a father or male family member who would frustrate any attempt to make legal decisions without his consent. In fact, even their ability to contract was up for question: English courts debated the legality of female infants consenting to a marriage settlement that barred dower in favor of a jointure.[vi] Moreover, daughters who became feme soles (unmarried women) and could own property when they came of age were unlikely to possess it because families typically planned on using the daughter’s inheritance as her marriage portion.[vii]

In the hopes of protecting women from cruel husbands, debauched husbands, and their husband’s creditors, English courts developed precedents over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to counteract the potentially harmful effects of coverture. These precedents specified property rights for married women and addressed questions about their ability to legally consent during marriage. Baron and Feme dedicated entire chapters to these rights in an effort to help readers negotiate the complex obstacles of coverture, such as dowers, jointures, separate estates, and separate maintenances in case of abuse or divorce. Most importantly, the author included a chapter that specified what wives got out of coverture, “What Contracts of the Wife Shall Bind the Husband,” which rehearsed the arguments for and against the law of necessaries (the right a wife has to charge things to her husband’s account or in her husband’s name) in exhaustive detail. Regardless of the author’s thoughts on the law of necessaries, there were documented cases of women charging extravagant items to their husband’s accounts and getting away with it in England.[viii] My own work, which examines women’s property rights and political participation in eighteenth-century British novels, hopes to show how coverture went both ways. The legal tools necessary to mitigate, if not negotiate, patriarchal family dynamics were already in women’s hands.

The Law Library’s copy of Baron and Feme was a gift Gerard Banks Esq. gave to William Waller Hening, as the handwritten note on the title page documents. Hening, a prominent Virginia jurist, may have read Baron and Feme as research for his legal handbook, The New Virginia Justice (1795). The handbook includes a conveyancing appendix with a sample marriage settlement that created a separate estate for the wife, one of the recommended methods for alleviating the legal austerity of coverture.


[i] Lynne Greenberg, ed. Baron and Feme: A Treatise of Equity, Concerning Husbands and Wives, The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library of Essential Works (New York: Routledge, 2005), 3:xlviii.

[ii] Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 82.

[iii] Baron and Feme, 8.

[iv] Baron and Feme, 8.

[v] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765), 1:433, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

[vi] Susan Staves, Married Women’s Separate Property in England, 1660–1833 (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1990), 119–126.

[vii] Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 1993), 83.

[viii] For a sampling of these cases, see Margot Finn, “Women, Consumption, and Coverture in England, c.1760–1860,” Historical Journal 39, no. 3 (September 1996): 703–722.

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Kelly Fleming

Kelly is a Curatorial Assistant at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library Special Collections. She is also a Lecturer in the English department at the University of Virginia, where she earned her PhD in 2019. Her research focuses on the relationship between eighteenth-century British literature, women's property rights, politics, and material culture.

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