Because the man has been traditionally regarded as the head of the family, exercising marital and parental authority over the person and over the property of his wife and of his children, the married woman, in many countries, is deprived of a number of personal and property rights. Discrimination against women in private law lies in the subordinate status of married women. The fact that the role and work carried out for the family by the wife is unrecognized and undervalued by society reinforces the economic basis for her submission: women are thus treated as unproductive, second-rate citizens.
Even within countries that provide a legal basis for women to have personal and property rights, they frequently are deprived of sufficient income. In a recent study of poverty within marriage in the UK suggests that married women and their children are frequently far poorer than realized even if their husbands earn a good wage.
The status of women is most seriously affected in a great number of countries in respect to her nationality, her right to choose or maintain a residence or domicile, her rights and duties with regard to her children, and her property rights and civil capacity. Under many legal systems there is an automatic change of nationality if the woman marries a man of a different nationality: a woman national of such a country who marries an alien automatically loses her own nationality and acquires the nationality of her husband. In most countries the selection of marital residence is, in practice, one of mutual agreement; but in countries where the man is the head of the family, if agreement is not reached he makes the final decision. Parental authority under most legal systems belongs primarily to the father when both parents live together in the family home, although usually both parents are obliged to support their children according to their means. When the father dies, in most countries provision is made for the mother's right to succeed to the father's authority, although her rights as the surviving parent are not always equal to those of a father; and in some countries, the mother does not succeed to parental power. Under a community property regime, all or part of the property of the spouses is jointly owned, administered by the husband and divided equally by the spouses at the end of marriage; but in countries applying Hindu or Moslem law, distinction is made between the right of a surviving wife and the right of the surviving husband to take share of the deceased spouse's estate.
Marriage restricts the independent exercise of a women's right to prosecute and defend in court in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti, some states in the USA, Quebec (Canada), Belgium and the Philippines. In other countries, a woman may be specially restricted with respect to certain types of contracts, particularly those involving trusts, guarantees and pledges of future incomes. Where the right of the wife to engage in independent work is unconditionally subject to her husband's authority, the wife requires his full consent before undertaking outside work or starting in business; if consent is refused, the wife has no recourse in court and the husband need not state his reasons. Consent may be withdrawn at any time. When the husband has limited authority, the wife has recourse to the courts.