From Coverture to Contract: Engendering Insurance on Lives

50 Pages Posted: 26 Dec 2011 Last revised: 27 Jan 2012

See all articles by Mary L. Heen

Mary L. Heen

University of Richmond - School of Law

Date Written: December 19, 2011


In the 1840s, state legislatures began modifying the law of marital status to ease the economic distress of widows and children at the family breadwinner’s death. Insurance-related exceptions to the common law doctrine of “marital unity” under coverture permitted married women to enter into insurance contracts and protected life insurance proceeds from their husbands’ creditors.

These early insurance-related statutory exceptions to coverture introduced an important theoretical question that persisted for the rest of the nineteenth century — and into the next — as broader legal and social reforms took hold. How could equality of contract for married women be reconciled with the traditional dependencies of the home? Equality of contract also introduced the practical economic problem of how the lives of women could be valued apart from their husbands when the law otherwise enforced their economic dependency.

The theoretical and practical issues were resolved for life insurance and annuity contracts, the Article argues, by an increased emphasis on “natural” differences between men and women when those differences comported with traditional gender status hierarchies and dependencies. Gender-distinct mortality tables and higher rates for coverage of women first appeared in annuity contracts used to fund lifetime financial support independent of or as a substitute for marital rights. Gender-merged tables and unisex rates generally prevailed, however, in life insurance contracts used to protect wives and children from the family breadwinner’s death, a more traditional pattern of household dependency. Gender-distinct rates thus tempered, in both symbolic and practical/economic terms, the equality of contract recognized by the statutory exceptions to coverture. The selective adoption of gender-distinct insurance rates during the first wave of woman’s rights activism illustrates the role played by marketplace contracts in reinforcing the traditional status relationships and dependencies of the home.

Keywords: gender discrimination and life insurance, statutory exceptions to coverture, life annuities, marital unity, gender-distinct mortality tables, life contingencies, unisex insurance rates, nineteenth century women's history

Suggested Citation

Heen, Mary L., From Coverture to Contract: Engendering Insurance on Lives (December 19, 2011). Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 23, No. 2, p. 335, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Mary L. Heen (Contact Author)

University of Richmond - School of Law ( email )

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