America’s sexist history of holding women accountable for their husbands

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For Hillary Clinton, being married to a former President no doubt comes with benefits, but it also comes with a mountain of baggage. Perhaps the worst of it being that, again and again, the Democratic nominee for the White House has been held accountable for her husband’s actions—as if the couple were not, in fact, two distinct human beings with their own beliefs and moral codes but the very same flesh.


In the first presidential debate, Donald Trump railed against the fact that Hillary’s husband promoted the trade agreement NAFTA, implying Hillary herself was responsible for the policy. (Bernie Sanders supporters did the same in the primaries.) And the Republican nominee has continually implied that Clinton is somehow responsible for her husband’s infidelity. Remind me how Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions are relevant to Hillary Clinton’s campaign?

But what’s happening to Clinton isn't new. America has a long history of forcing women to adopt their husband’s beliefs—and holding them accountable for them. In Colonial times, these expectations were codified into law with Puritan rules of feme covert, under which a woman's entire legal self was absorbed by her husband, and they’ve persisted into 2016, with the sins of Bill Clinton being visited upon his wife. To understand the present sexist insanity, it’s helpful to take a look back at how we got here.

The notion that wives are merely an extension of their husbands begins, as most things do, with the Bible. For centuries, Adam's declaration that woman is "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" has been taken to heart by Western laws governing marriage. The line is cited in traditional wedding homilies to this day. (Good luck, ladies.) And the implication in those lines is that married women are expected to completely disappear into their husbands, surrendering all opinions, freedom, and financial assets.

In early Puritan America, this Biblical proclamation was taken literally. Under the law of feme covert, inherited from English common law, upon marriage husbands took over his wife's entire property, leaving only her bedding and clothes to her name. And as the feminist author and historian Marilyn Yalom writes in her book A History of the Wife, "a wife's status was determined by her husband's occupation. She was known publicly as the blacksmith's wife, the governor's wife, the minister's wife, the merchant's wife, and not by any rank of her own."

While it might sound like, under these laws, a husband took on the mantle of responsibility for his wife, really, the opposite was true. After all, husbands did not take on their wife's identity—only the reverse. "With virtually no legal rights and with divorce very difficult to obtain, brides put themselves under the protection, or at the mercy, of their husbands," Yalom explains.

As such, the fates of women in early America rose and fell with their husbands. During the American Revolution, Grace Growden Galloway—the daughter of wealthy Philadelphia landowner Lawrence Gowden—sided with the rebels and stayed in Philadelphia, while her husband took their daughter to New York, which was occupied by the British. Galloway sought to legally separate herself and her property from the consequences of her husband's loyalties, but she ultimately lost it all because the deed to her inherited property was in her husband's tainted name.


Even after the American Revolution brought freedom for men, women were still trapped. During the Petticoat affair, an incident that tore apart Andrew Jackson’s presidency, high society warred over a wife’s “place.” For those who’ve forgotten this chapter in history, the Petticoat affair was essentially a battle among members of Jackson's cabinet over the “appropriateness” of the outspoken Peggy Eaton, the wife of United States Secretary of War John Eaton. While many Washington wives objected to Peggy Eaton, Jackson felt sympathy for her because his own wife, Rachel, too had been the target of cruel gossip and social blacklisting. Jackson blamed the criticism of Rachel for her death, which occurred only weeks after he was elected president.

In his 1997 book The Petticoat Affair, historian John F. Marszalek’s description of Peggy Eaton is cringe-worthy to feminist ears: "She did not know her place; she forthrightly spoke up about anything that came to her mind, even topics of which women were supposed to be ignorant…Accept this uncouth, impure, forward, worldly woman, and the wall of virtue and morality would be breached and society would have no further defenses against the forces of frightening change."


The implication was clear: Wives were to be one—in thought, word, and deed—with their husbands or suffer the consequences. And in Marszalek's words rings an echo of the criticism lobbied against Clinton today.

Even with the rise of the women's suffrage movement in the 20th century, the idea that women ought to act in lock-step with their husband's continued its stranglehold on matrimony. A pamphlet published by the women's group Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage begged men to stand against suffrage, arguing, "Women are free from the duty of fighting. Protect us in our right to be free from political duties." Implicit in this propaganda was the belief that a woman ought to be saved from the laborious task of having an opinion, by a man, who protected her with his superior knowledge. Another pamphlet published in 1910 argued that women voting promoted "competition of women with men instead of cooperation."


Eventually, as America grew, the laws of feme covert gradually became untangled from the American way of life. In 1848, New York had passed The Married Women's Property Act, allowing women to hold onto property, collect rent, enter into contracts on their own, and escape liability for their husband's debts. And for the next 50 years, states would pass their own version of the law. But it wasn't until the 1960s when American wives were allowed to take out bank accounts without their husband's approval. And up until 1974, with the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, banks required a husband's signature for a wife to acquire a credit card.

In this century, while the laws may have changed, the idea that a woman ought to remain under her husband's covering persists—both publicly and privately.


When my husband and I got married and moved to Iowa, I joined a Bible study to make friends while I looked for a job. At one of the weekly gatherings I joked about how my husband and I were politically divided. "Why don't you vote in line with your husband?" a woman asked me. I stumbled, struggling to understand the question. "Because I'm not a Republican."

"I just believe husbands and wives should be one flesh," she said.

It would be easy to believe this was just a problem with Middle America, but the lingering tentacles of feme covert have reached into the corners of progressive politics for the last several election cycles. During the presidential campaign of 2004, The New York Times and New Yorker both ran articles assessing Teresa Heinz Kerry as a possible political liability to her husband because she had been registered as a Republican and was outspoken about her opinions. The fault didn't lie with the publications, but on the responses of the American people, who judged Heinz Kerry’s acceptability based upon how well she aligned with her husband.


Which brings us back to today, when political rhetoric still holds Hillary Clinton accountable for the policies and practices of her husband. Several of the Republican attack points against Clinton are holdovers from her husband's administration—NAFTA, 1996’s welfare reform, the 1994 crime bill. In each of those cases, as First Lady, Clinton tepidly supported her husband, as is expected for a First Lady. Yet currently, in her own campaign, she's argued against them. Perhaps this shift is political flip-flopping, or perhaps it reveals the more complicated personal politics of wives in America.

After low approval ratings during her husband's presidency—in part because of the healthcare policy she championed—Clinton was forced to step out of the spotlight in her husband's second term. Shortly after, she saw her ratings rise when she had to play the part of the aggrieved yet loyal spouse in response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She is still, to an extent, feme covert, covered by the shroud of her husband. And so, the question now becomes: Come November 8, will her husband’s legacy doom her or help propel her into the most powerful job in the world?


Lyz Lenz's writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Marie Claire, Pacific Standard, Buzzfeed, and the LA Review of Books. She lives in Iowa.