Under traditional English common law an adult unmarried woman was considered to have the legal status of feme sole, while a married woman had the status of feme covert. These are English spellings of medieval Anglo-Norman phrases (the modern standard French spellings would be femme seule "single woman" and femme couverte, literally "covered woman"). A feme sole had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. A feme covert was not recognized as having legal rights and obligations distinct from those of her husband in most respects. Instead, through marriage a woman's existence was incorporated into that of her husband, so that she had very few recognized individual rights of her own. As it has been pithily expressed, husband and wife were one person as far as the law was concerned, and that person was the husband. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband's wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If a wife was permitted to work, under the laws of coverture she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. In certain cases, a woman did not have individual legal liability for her misdeeds, since it was legally assumed that she was acting under the orders of her husband, and generally a husband and wife were not allowed to testify either for or against each other. Judges and lawyers referred to the overall principle as "coverture". The United States Supreme Court upheld the idea of coverture in the case of Bradwell v. Illinois, 1873. Even before that time, though, many states had begun reforming marriage laws to eliminate or reduce the effects of coverture.
The system of feme sole and feme covert existed through much of early history in parts of Europe and the European colonies. This situation persisted until the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when married women's property acts started to be passed in many English-speaking legal jurisdictions, setting the stage for further reforms.
Early feminist historian Mary Beard held the view that much of the severity of the doctrine of coverture was actually due to Blackstone and other late systematizers, rather than due to a genuine old common-law tradition.
The phrase "The law is an ass" originates in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, when the character Mr. Bumble is informed that "the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction". Mr. Bumble replies "If the law supposes that… the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience."