The Economic History Review

Assessing female accountability in the long eighteenth century through debt imprisonment

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Authors: Alexander Wakelam
Published online: September 9, 2022DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13193

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This article measures the relationship between marital rates and female economic independence in eighteenth-century England and Wales through an assessment of their confinement in debtors’ prisons. While an array of scholarship has emphasised the enduring agency of women who were able to continue managing enterprises after marriage, this has arguably too severely diminished the significance of coverture which eradicated the legal identity of wives. By insisting agency requires the ability to be held accountable not merely in terms of the capacity to act, this research emphasises that, until it was abolished, coverture continued to matter in a practical economic sense and not merely in legal theory. As marriage rates increased, the rate at which women were held accountable for their debts declined, suggesting a proportional limitation of their independence, functioning essentially as their husband’s employee. Industrialisation had little impact upon female accountability, suggesting that demography rather than capitalism governed how women engaged with the market. Furthermore, this research highlights a striking shift in how women understood their own identity, increasingly adopting occupational rather than marital descriptions of themselves possibly owing to the increased marginality of singlewomen.