{see also cuttings; obedience; age of marriage; married women's property law; divorce}

Removing the Legal Disabilities of Wives 1855-1900

'The law as it now exists in many cases oppresses instead of protecting the weaker sex.' (Male) editor of the Daily News, 1865.

'By the old English law a wife was almost as much the property of her husband as the American slave of his master.' (Female) editor of the Englishwoman's Review, 1871.

Marriage was extremely unequal between men and women because:

• A bride had to promise to obey as part of her vows before God read more...

• Property:everything a woman owned at the time of the marriage, or subsequently earned or inherited, belonged absolutely to the husband to dispose of however he pleased. She didn't even get it back when he died. There were some exceptions (1) her paraphernalia was still hers and (2) rich families could put a woman's wealth into a trust that her husband could not spend read more...

• Brutality: a husband's ownership of and legal dominance over his wife, which led to the belief that he could beat her with impunity. The law also allowed rape within marriage read more...

• Unequal divorce: adultery was grounds for the man but not for the woman read more...

• Children: married mothers had no rights. All children born within a marriage belonged solely to the husband and the wife had no rights over them. If the couple parted (even when the split was caused by the husband's bad behaviour) the father automatically had custody and could if he chose prevent his ex from ever seeing her children again read more ...

• Legal disability: A husband could be held legally responsible for his wife's actions, and was responsible for her debts.

For as far back as written history began. wives were by law the property of their husbands. Their possessions - even their children - were his. Despite all their sophistication and centuries of progress and philosophy, Victorians still strongly believed and enforced this. People were indoctrinated from birth to believe that it was ordained by nature that men must command and women must obey. To reinforce wives' complete obedience to husbands it is written into the marriage vows that she must obey. If she later disobeyed him, the law turned a blind eye to a certain amount of physical chastisement, that is to say, a man could use violence to his wife in order to bring about her compliance to his wishes, whatever his wishes might be. It was widely believed that a man could legally beat his wife. During the Victorian period it was frequently said that women were much more religious than men, and this led to their being exposed to sermons and tracts and the Bible, which reinforced the subjection of children to parents, women to men and wives to husbands. The ideal of the 'Angel in the House' (the title of a poem by a man, Coventry Patmore) - woman as self-sacrificing, virtuous, gentle, sexless, quiet, meek, self-effacing, unassuming, softly-spoken, submissive, and above all eager to do anything to please her man - was a heavily promoted stereotype which men cited to instruct wives how they were expected to act.

The notion that a woman's property must all pass to her husband upon marriage stemmed from the idea that a man had to support his wife, so if she had any resources they should be thrown into the common pot as it were. But it didn't work like that. Real cases were heard in court wherein a husband's funds were derived entirely from his wife. Having taken all of her resources he then behaved as he pleased, spending her money on mistresses and prostituted women, using her money to support his illegitimate offspring, gambling and drinking her fortune away. None of this was considered grounds for divorce. If he deserted his wife, then she had grounds. Even if she was 100% without blame, and he 100% a rogue, he stil got to keep almost all of the money she brought into the marrriage. She was legally entitled to a small amount for her own maintenance and that of any children (if he allowed her to have custody of them). But if he'd drunk, gambled and given it all away then she didn't even get that read more ...

Physical and emotional abuse by husbands was extremely common, perhaps proving the truth of the proverb 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely'. The law seems to have acted as some kind of invitation to men to do whatever they liked with their wives, and if women had happy and loving marriages they were considered lucky. It was almost impossible for a woman to leave her husband: he owned all her property and her earnings; he had the legal right to enforce her return if she left; worst of all, leaving meant losing her children forever. For these reasons only the most extreme circumstances would make a wife leave her husband.

Among the working classes there was so much brutality to wives during the first half of the c19th that the newspapers were filled with reports of it and it was often mentioned in the House of Commmons. Working class wives were slapped, punched, pushed and kicked as a matter of course by many husbands, and she could take no action against him. It was common within her neighbourhood and for many women it was just a part of life; they would not have thought of going to the police. In any case, the courts would not deal with such cases unless the assault caused lasting physical damage such as loss of sight or hearing. Even then the magistrates merely bound the man over to keep the peace for six months. From 1853 they had to power to impose six-month sentences for 'aggravated assaults'. Women received little justice though, as the very judges that heard their cases were themselves men with wives over whom by law and custom they had total control and ownership. One magistrate, the Hon. George Norton, was himself a wife beater. If a brutal husband said that he'd assaulted his wife because she had been drinking, mixing with immoral women, or merely suspected of adultery, a blind eye would be turned, because they felt that she had 'deserved it'. Of course, middle and upper class men also abused the power they had over their wives, but their breeding and education meant that were more given to psychological threats and torture. It would have been quite contrary to genteel manners to have his wife walking about with a black eye.


A husband's right to sexual intercourse was assured by law in several ways. Firstly, by the law and custom of marriage. Sir Matthew Hale commented in 1736 that it was impossible for a husband to be tried for rape, because by marrying the wife had 'given herself up' sexually to her husband and could never retract that consent. Secondly, an ancient right under canon law allowed either party to claim restoration of 'conjugal rights' (i.e. cohabitation). Under the 1857 Divorce Act, refusal to cohabit after being ordered to do so by a judge was contempt of court and could entail a prison sentence. Once a woman was cohabiting with her husband he could rape her with impunity. As Oswald Dawson put it in 1895, a wife was 'at the mercy of the carnal appetite of the man ... at all times and without regard to the state of her health, or any other considerations', he continued, 'This slavery of compulsory cohabitation is surely chattel-like'. He concluded, 'until a woman who is a wife can say, at least at certain times, either "I wish to sleep alone" ... she can never consider herself free'.[1]

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1884 reformed the law so that a refusal to restore conjugal rights no longer led to imprisonment but was deemed to be desertion, which was then grounds for divorce. From then, wives are found applying to court for 'the restitution of conjugal rights', not because they wanted their husbands to move back in, but as the first step towards getting a divorce.

A woman was not allowed to have any sexuality of her own. She was expected to be a virgin until marriage, then to submit completely to her husband's sexual needs. Her pleasure was supposed to be derived purely and entirely from making him happy and her only sex-related desire was for motherhood. Any women who went outside of this rigid boundary (e.g. those who admitted to sexual desires, had sex with men outside of marriage, became unmarried mothers or lesbians) were labelled 'immoral', 'impure', 'scandalous', 'fallen' or 'mentally ill'. A woman who left her husband or was divorced would find herself outcast from respectable society, although she did nothing wrong. Even the parents and relatives of a divorced woman were shunned by some people.

While everything to do with women and sexuality was scrutinised and punished, men had a lot of sexual freedom and privacy. They used prostituted women on a gigantic scale; some financially supported long-term mistresses. These categories of women were labelled by men as 'impure' but used by them anyway. Most importantly, men had written into the marriage laws that they could have sex with other women while their wives had to remain faithful to them.

Wife selling

Although never legal in Britain it was accepted in ancient times that a man could, with his wife's approval, sell her to another man. This is a form of public separation. It was normally done on market day, usually with pre-arranged bidding. Reports of wife sales may occasionally be found in Quarter Sessions records and local newspapers. As it was not legal there were no documents, so sales were conducted in public in front of witnesses read more....


Children born in wedlock belonged absolutely to their father. He could legally remove them from his wife's care, even if they were still suckling, without having to give a reason. If the marriage broke up, for any reason, every man automatically retained sole custody of his children and could prevent his ex from ever seeing her children again, even if he was the guilty party, or a drunkard, a brute, or living in adultery with his mistress. A wife or ex-wife had no right to appeal in law. Many women, therefore, tolerated any amount of unfaithfulness, abuse, violence and cruelty rather than be parted from their children forever. Even after a man's death, his rights remained: his appointed guardian (which might be his mistress) could keep his children.

Changing the laws

Caroline Norton and the Custody of Infants Act 1839

The struggles of Caroline Norton after her marriage broke up had a direct bearing on laws regarding the custody of infants and divorce, and so had repercussions for all married women.

During the House of Commons debate about the custody of children, Mr Nicholas Philpot Leader, MP for Kilkenny, made an impassioned speech defending women.

In 1855 Barbara Leigh Smith (from 1857 Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon ) called together some likeminded, middle-class, educated ladies of her acquaintance and created the first ever committee devoted to the rights of women: the Married Women's Property Committee. It comprised Bessie Rayner Parkes , Mary Howitt , Anna Jameson, Adelaide Anne Procter and Eliza Bridell Fox, with Maria Rye 1829-1903 (as secretary). It is not known whether any of the members were in personal contact with Caroline Norton, but they most certainly knew of her case through the newspapers. The initial purpose of the committee was to collect signatures on a petition to support a Married Women's Property Bill that was presently coming before parliament. If passed, the Bill would give married women the legal right to keep their own earnings, instead of giving everything to their husbands. They collected an astonishing 26,000 signatures, including those of some eminent women, such as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Martineau, Geraldine Jewsbury, and the novelists Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot).

In 1856 the petition was presented to the House of Commons by Lord Brougham, who made a speech on behalf of suffering wives read it here...

The Married Women's Property Act 1870

The Act meant that wages and property earned through a wife's own work, and investments made with that earned money would henceforth be regarded as her own. She could hold rented property in her own name. She could keep any property she inherited and any money inherited up to £200. She was also make legally liable to maintain her children.

The Act did not cover property held in her own name before marriage (this still passed to her husband), nor any property that had been put into trust. It was also not retrospective.

Most importantly, perhaps, although a woman now had the right to her own professional earnings, her husband could forbid her from following any profession. Within a year of the Act being passed, two cases came into public view that proved that loophole was being utilised: one in which a music teacher's husband demanded she hand over all her earnings or he would withdraw his consent to her teaching; the other in which a husband made the same demand or else he would get an injunction to prevent her working as an actress.

In the 1890s there was a Society for the Abolition of Marriage, based in Leeds.


[1] The Bar Sinister and Licit Love : the first biennial proceedings of the Legitimation League (1895).

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009. Corrections and additions are warmly welcomed. Email me