Law and History Review

Articles

Wronged in Her Dearest Rights: Plaintiff Wives and the Transformation of Marital Consortium, 1870–1920

Kimberley A. Reilly 

In 1871, Mary Ann Harlan brought an unprecedented suit against her neighbors, Elliot and Mary Clark, before the Superior Court of Cincinnati. She alleged that they had “wrongfully and maliciously enticed away” her husband, Robert Harlan, from their home, thus depriving her of Robert's “society, protection, and support.” The common law had long given husbands the right of action to sue third parties who enticed away, harbored, alienated the affections of, or seduced their wives. In these types of marital torts, a husband sought damages for the loss of his wife's “consortium,” a term that expressed his property in her services and society. At the time of Mary Ann's suit, however, wives had no such reciprocal right. In part, this was an outcome of the common law doctrine of marital unity, or coverture, under which a wife's legal identity was merged into that of her husband upon marriage. Unable to sue or be sued, she had to be joined by him in a legal action. Courts were hardly amenable to the idea of allowing husbands to join in suits involving their own marital transgressions, where they would stand to profit from their misdeeds if any damages were awarded. More fundamentally, however, the limitation of wives' access to legal remedies was an expression of the hierarchical nature of marital unity. No less an authority than eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone, the most influential expositor of the common law, put the reason plainly: “the inferior hath no kind of property in the company, care, or assistance of the superior, as the superior is held to have in those of the inferior; and therefore the inferior can suffer no loss or injury.” According to this theory, a wife was not barred from bringing such a suit simply because of her legal disabilities under coverture; as a subordinate in the marriage relation, she lacked any reciprocal claim to her husband's society. Mary Ann's case, then, hinged on whether she had the right to bring her suit.

Correspondence:

kim.reilly@gmail.com

Kimberley A. Reilly is a research fellow at the Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law <kreilly@ubalt.edu>. She thanks Matthew Lindsay, Amy Dru Stanley, Christine Stansell, Kathleen Conzen, Aaron Lecklider, Ann Holder, David Tanenhaus, and the anonymous readers of Law and History Review for their suggestions and critiques of various drafts of this article.

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