At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the rights of women were severely circumscribed, in almost every aspect, by male dominated society. Double standards were common practice in almost every level towards women, throughout Britain, as at the same time male counterparts from wealthy backgrounds were generally, allowed more political and individual rights, which were far greater than any women’s rights. The basis of these unfair and unjust policies was patriarchal society’s claim that women were simply ‘incapable of rational thought’. Following this, women from all backgrounds were subject to laws that put them on a par with criminals, lunatics and minors. This essay discusses the legal status of women in terms of property, marriage, and family.
The legal status for women was strictly adverse, in 1815. In legal understanding, the position of women was defined by the ‘doctrine of coverture’. This doctrine stated that once married women lost their legal status and that they had no identity other than that of their husbands. Women were constrained by two branches of property law, which were common law and lastly equity law.
Under common law women had very little rights. Women were merely seen as property of their husband. The legal tag claimed that ‘husband and wife are one person, and that one person was the husband. The notation of this tag essentially meant not only she, the wife, became a legal property but also the ‘package’ that came along with her. This included any belongings and inheritance that she may receive during marriage, though the law distinguished between ‘real property which the husband could control, rather than sell without the wife’s consent, and in the case of any inheritance the husband could exercise absolute power.
On the other hand, under the same law married women had their advantage. Married women cannot be sued for debts; rather it was the husband who was liable to pay for such acts. A vengeful wife can also burn down or damage every property belonging to her husband and yet, by law, she will not have to worry about being charged or put through a trail.
Equity law was quite different. Under the equity law solicitors drew up marriage agreements. This was primarily done to protect any property belonging to a family, against spendthrift son-in-laws. Capital was transferred over to the children of the marriage rather than their husband. This also gave married women considerable financial autonomy from their husband, as they could gain any profit such as rent from these trusts, and then spend it in
whatsoever they like. If the wife died, the husband could not sell these trusts, but was entitled to withdraw any interest to pay for the upbringing of the children. When the children had reached the age of maturity the trust became theirs.
However only one in ten families made advantage of the equity law, as only the rich could to pay for the expensive fees, thus leaving majority of the people stranded with the common law.
At the same time the rights that a husband had over his wife’s property was also paralleled with the fact that he was also allowed unrestricted and absolute rights over any children belonging to the married. In one incident a husband deserted his wife, after taking all of the children, only to find out about her death in the newspapers
Divorces were extremely rare in1815, and only possible for the very rich, as they had to secure an act from parliament, which was very expensive. It was also time consuming, as a person would have to go through three different stages of lawsuits. For women it was almost made impossible for them to obtain a divorce in contrast with men. Men had to prove just adultery whereas a woman would also have to prove cruelty, bigamy or incest. This reflected to the fact that out of the 276 divorces granted between 1765 and 1857 only four of them were to women. Because of the difficulty in obtaining a divorce via the method above, wealthy people resorted to other legal means of divorce. There were three main ways on going about this. The wealthy people mainly used the first two, as these were expensive compared to the third one.
In the first two cases a women would have to obtain judicial separation by the ecclesiastical, after proving sodomy and cruelty. In such cases the wife was granted legal separation and often maintenance. If, however, the wife was found guilty of adultery they were left penniless. Alternatively a husband could sue other men for ‘criminal conversation’. Wife were a seen a property of a husband so if someone committed adultery with their wife they could literally sue for damage against property, since the body of the women had been tampered with. An infamous example of this case was when some one unsuccessfully tried to sue Lord Melbourne (then the Prime Minister). This was a very lucrative act, since if the defendant was found guilty he could be liable to pay up to £20000, which could leave him in financial ruins. Lastly, a separation my private deed enabled the marriage to be terminated.
Finally working class people used the third method of ‘wife selling’, as they could not afford other expensive alternative. Although this was not legally binding a husband could literally sell his wife and transfer all responsibility to the purchaser. This was a rare means of divorce, and between 1780-1880 only 294 recorded cases of wife selling in England. The following abstract was an eyewitness account of a wife bought to Walsall market to be sold:
They came into the market between ten and eleven o’clock in the morning, the woman being led by a halter, which was fastened round her neck and the middle of her body. In a few minutes after their arrival she was sold to a man of the name Thomas Snape, a nailer, also of Burntwood. There were not many people in the market at the time. The purchase money was 2s 6d and all the parties seemed satisfied with the bargain.
By 1928 women’s rights in relation to property of married women, children’s custody and divorce had been reformed to a large extent. Women by now benefited from much new and imperative legislation’s, something that they didn’t have back in 1815.
Through the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, women were now allowed to control of all money and property they had acquired before and during marriage and allowed them to continue their trade and business using their property. This was followed by the Married Women’s Property Act of 1925 where husband and wife were to be treated as separate individuals in any property transactions.
For the first time in legal history women gained limited access to divorce through the Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857. Women were given rights to their property after a legal separation or a protection order given as a result of husband’s desertion. This was followed by further improvements in the coming years. By 1923 women were allowed to obtain divorce on grounds of adultery alone.
Before 1839 mother’s had no rights to keep their children after separation. This was changed through the Infant Custody Act and now for the first time ‘innocent’ mothers were given custody of children under the age of 7, and access to their children up to 16. This was superseded by the Infant’s Custody Act of 1873 were the custody of children was raised to 16.
From mid 19th century up to 1928 there was substantial amount of reforms in law, which affected the lives of women. Out of all these reforms I personally think that the first Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 was the most significant.
Until this law came into existence women were perceived incapable of rational thought, thus were seen as minors. It is for this reason why the husband was seen as the guardian, just like how children belong to their parent. Because of this notation society literally prescribed married women as property of their husband.
Due to this reason many family and women suffered due to spendthrift husband or son-in-laws, because after marriage the husband legally became the owner of any current and future property/ inheritance belonging to the wife.
The introduction of the Married Women’s Protection Act removed the notation that women were simply property of their husband, for the first time, thus opening questions and further demands by various pressure groups, which led to improvements in women’s rights and legal status.