Under the system of coverture, women were denied a political voice of their own, but as a nation we have come a long way since our founding. While we have moved beyond seeing women as perpetual dependents, we have not moved beyond the idea that women are not capable of making decisions regarding their own bodies.
Coverture came over to the American colonies as part of British common law. Women were considered either “feme soles,” single women, or “feme covert,” married women. These categories separated women by their legal status, giving single women, access to some of the same rights as men. However, with marriage, women’s civil identity became part of their husband’s. functioned as “virtual representation,” which according to Joan Gunderson, “assumed a community of interest so that those who could vote had identical interests to those who could not.” Women were denied suffrage, but it was assumed that their husbands and fathers represented their interests for them. The ideology of “virtual representation” was flawed, and was part of what lead to the American Revolution.
Women now have the right to vote, but white men like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are making it clear that they do not think women are capable of making their own decisions about their bodies. We may have moved passed the official structure of coverture, but the current debates on women’s access to healthcare suggests that women’s suffrage has not fully eliminated the idea that men can make decisions for women, and that these decisions are in the best interest of women. Mitt Romney has said that he would end funding for Planned Parenthood and eliminate contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act if he is elected. And when asked where women should go for healthcare instead, he casually answered that they can go anywhere they want.
Without access to Planned Parenthood, many women, especially low-income women, have no other options for healthcare access. Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians imply that women who choose abortion are not actually capable of making that decision without the guidance of male politicians who decide what circumstances are “legitimate” reasons for abortions. By focusing the discussion on women who choose abortion for medical reasons, rape, or incest, they marginalize all women’s choices. Women have had the right to vote for over 90 years, isn’t it time for men like Mitt Romney to realize that women are capable of making decisions about their own bodies?
For more information about the politicization of women in the Revolutionary period and Early Republic and coverture see: Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic and Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash.