Adam Smith, the founding father of economics, inherited two-thirds of his family estate as a baby when his father passed away. Margaret Douglas, his mother, only received a third of the estate and so essentially became her child’s ward. She lived with her son for the rest of her life, providing the unpaid labor—cooking, cleaning, and otherwise caring for the bachelor economist—that most economists still pay no attention to when they discuss the wealth of nations.

In English common law, even this third-part to the widow was abandoned by 1700 under the common law system known as coverture. Historian Amy Louise Erickson explains that in this era women who married were legally “covered” by their husbands. That is, a husband and wife were considered to be one person, the woman no longer a legal individual in and of herself. Coverture essentially meant women and their property were owned by their husbands. This is why the tradition of woman taking her husband’s name in marriage was almost exclusively English (and English colonial) for some 400 years before 1800. After that, taking the male’s family name became a more standard European practice.

Outside of coverture, an unmarried adult English women was considered a legal individual. This was different from the rest of Europe, where the unmarried/widowed female was supposed to have a male guardian, a tradition enforced to varying degrees across the continent. Since the English sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the highest number of non-married women before the 1990s, this meant that approximately half of all English women controlled their own wealth in those years. What that meant, Erickson writes, is that “at least in theory, the market for financial investment was up to fifty percent higher in England” than in other European countries.

While acknowledging the need for more research across Europe, Erickson argues that marital property law in England played an important role in economic development and the rise of capitalism. Histories of the “financial revolution” of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries have rarely considered the “role of gender in the creation of a widespread capitalist economy in the first place.”

In the nineteenth century, campaigners against coverture started calling it a “civil death,” since a widow could be left without anything, and a woman whose husband had separated from her could return and claim any money she had earned in the interim. But coverture held on until 1870, Erickson explains, mostly because “many, perhaps most, English families” found perfectly legal ways to get around it.

But, by detailing these unique British characteristics, Erickson suggests “that the reason that England developed an extensive capitalist economy earlier than elsewhere in Europe was due at least in part to the fact that the English laws distinguishing women’s use of property from men’s use of property differed significantly from those in the rest of Europe.” Unmarried women, if they had money to spend, loan, and/or invest, could, and that seems to have made quite a difference.

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History Workshop Journal, No. 59 (Spring, 2005), pp. 1-16
Oxford University Press