Hamilton‘s brief forays into the place of women in the Early Republic suggests that Americans do not fully understand, or have not come to terms with, the idea that our founding happened with an instrument of gender domination like coverture in place. Marriage under coverture was such an oppressive system that it can be hard for contemporary Americans to appreciate its scope and depth. While many of us are familiar with the phrase “second-class citizenship” to describe women’s place in the polity, the contrast in liberties for men and those for women was so great, and eighteenth-century make control over female bodies so absolute, that women’s legal status did, in fact, more closely resemble that of slaves than free citizens.
Of course, white women enjoyed some rights not available to enslaved people, women or men. While enslaved people could never legally own property, some single women and widows of means could enjoy the protection of their property by law. Wives had legal rights in extremis–a wife could divorce her husband or swear out a warrant against him if he committed a crime against her. Slaves could not “divorce” their masters and the law provided no refuge for them against excessive physical force. But when it came to their rights as specifically women and as wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife nor could he prostitute her out, and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.
Catherine Allgor, “‘Remember…I’m Your Man’: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton,” in Renee Romano and Claire Potter, Historians on Hamilton, 106.