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Lecture 14


The Married Women's Property Acts
1. Poovey

1857 Matrimonial Causes Act - the first major piece of British legislation to focus attention on the anomalous position of married women under the law - anomaly in the common-law principle of coverture

Divorce - divorce a mensa - was initiated by petition from either husband or wife to ecclesiastical courts - had jurisdiction under canon law - 3 grounds recognized - adultery, sodomy and physical cruelty - procedure cost £300 - £500 when uncontested - if granted relieved the parties from the obligation to cohabit but forbade remarriage by either party - did not end the husband's rights to his wife's property

In the seventeenth century, another form of divorce developed to sidestep Church's ban on remarriage - divorce a vinculo - absolute divorce

When divorce a mensa had been achieved - the man would then bring suit in an ecclesiastical court or a common-law court to bring damages against a correspondent in his wife's adultery. Then he presented a private bill to the House of Lords - this went to the Commons - if successful he would be free to marry again - this also ended the husband's property rights over his wife & his responsibility for her debts. - cost c. £1000

Differences between Scottish & English law - divorce much simpler & less costly in Scotland & men & women could both petition on grounds of infidelity.

2. Carolyn Norton

Upper middle class Caroline Sheridan - granddaughter of Whig playwright Richard Sheridan - married in 1826 to George Norton - a Tory aristocrat younger son - they barely knew each other

He didn't have the fortune her family thought - he became dep. on her literary earnings & her family's Whig connections - he lost his seat in Parliament & she asked Lord Melbourne home secretary to appoint George justice of a magistrate's court at £1,000 a year

A stormy marriage - in 1836 he removed their three children from their London home because Caroline had refused to let George raise money against a trust settled upon her at the time of their marriage - she turned to her family for protection from his physical brutality

She could not get access to her children - she set out to change the law & induced an MP to introduce a bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the Court of Chancery for the custody of their children under seven - she drafted A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill - Par. passed the Infant Custody Act of 1839 - gave mothers custody of their children under age of seven and access to their children under sixteen.

Before it was passed her youngest son was killed in a riding accident & died before she could reach him - after this she was allowed regular access to her other sons.

Lawsuit then brought by George against Lord Melbourne for criminal conversation - Melbourne then prime minister - asked for £10,000 in damages - the jury returned a verdict against George

1854 - more than a decade of wrangling over custody of children & allowance George had agreed to provide her - Caroline by this time a renowned poet and novelist - her mother died in 1851 leaving her an inheritance of £480 per annum - George then reduced the £500 allowance he had agreed to pay her in a deed of separation they had signed in 1848

Had agreed this in exchange for her willingness to exonerate him from responsibility for her debts & to allow him to raise money against her trust - he broke the agreement claiming he was not legally bound because a man could not contract with the wife who was legally part of him - she then reasoned that if he was not bound to give her an allowance, she was not bound to pay her own debts.

She then allowed a carriage repairman to sue him for non-payment of a bill - led to a trial in Westminster Court in 1853 - he again insinuated indiscretion with Lord Melbourne - the jury found for George on a technicality

Caroline then resorted to the Press - published in the Times, then in two pamphlets on divorce

Wrote English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century and Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill - in both pamphlets argued that neither Cranworth's bill nor most of the legislators who debated it would acknowledge that men's legal and economic tyranny over women lay at the heart of their idealization of the domestic sphere

But she endorsed the existence of a natural difference between men and women & the natural difference of rights that follows from this.

One of Caroline's most adamant complaints against Lord Cranworth's married women's property bill - that it did now allow separated women to keep whatever money they earned

It looked like there were two laws - one for working class women & one for the wealthier - i.e. separate property

By the mid-nineteenth century, it was seen that with increasing numbers of women in waged work - not right that working class women had no legal protection under common law against their husbands' appropriating their earnings & spending them as they pleased

For middle class men - separate property tied up resource of 'female capital' into cumbersome legal machinery

Great agitation for property reform - one petition with 26,000 signatures - more than 70 petitions in 1856 about women and property - Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon convinced Law Amendment Society to take up the issue of married women's property

The bill presented to the Commons in 1857 by Sir Erskine Perry - proposed: it did not abolish marriage settlements in equity - but provided that women married without such settlements would be femmes sole in regard to property

Purpose of the bill to make married women as capable as unmarried women of acquiring, holding and disposing of property, both real and personal

A lot of resistance to the bill from those making reference to 'strong-minded women'.

Nineteenth-century opposition between property owners and representatives of property - legitimized and explained by what seemed to be its physiological basis - diff. between the sexes

The property bill would have pointed out the artificial nature of the alignment between sex and economic privilege

Threat posed by Caroline Norton threefold

a. In claiming the right to represent herself in this form, Caroline Norton violated the separation of spheres within representation-articulated her emotional plea in legal rhetoric and levied political charges to defend her cause

b. She exposed the extent to which politics and money matters underwrote and undercut her domestic life - & exploded the stable barrier between the public and private spheres - made clear that women were not necessarily protected in exchange for their dependence

c. She raised issue of voluntary separation agreements and independent contracts

Norton could influence Parliament because much of what she said was what lawmakers expected and wanted to hear - i.e. there should be separate spheres & that the sexual double standard was natural and just - she represented a contrast to the 3,000 women who signed the Married Women's Property petition who appeared to legislators to rep. the army of 'strong minded women'

Norton's plea that separated women be granted protection did not violate the principle of female dependence

The divorce legislation addressed the injustice of the separated woman forbidden to keep her own earnings - but it foreclosed discovery of the more subversive issue of married women's autonomy regarding property

Matrimonial Causes Act - did not disturb women's relationship to property or sexual double standard - the act treated the separated wife as an anomalous case as long as she remained separated from her husband she became legally a femme sole - the act preserved the inequality of grounds by which men and women could sue for absolute divorce - men could sue for simple adultery - women only for aggravated adultery i.e. combined with incest, bigamy, or cruelty

Failure of the Married Women's Property bill - idea of married women's property rights posed a greater threat to notion of family unity than did the provisions for divorce itself

A married woman's property law recognized the existence of two separate wills within an ongoing marriage

Some MPs perceived link between the demand for legal rights for married women and the notion that women take part in public life

Fears among some MPs that the bill would give a wife all the distinct rights of citizenship

At the time no organized group was advocating women's suffrage - though see Harriet Taylor's 'Enfranchisement of Women'

By 1860s and 1870s as movement for improving legal status of married women grew - reformers started to emphasise the connection between women's legal subordination to their husbands in marriage and their lack of the vote

Married Women’s Property Act

Not until 1870 - now married women to have as their own separate property - 1. Earnings and property they acquired by their own work after the passage of the Act; money invested; property coming from estates of persons deceased.

Act of 1882 - gave married women the same property rights as unmarried.

Referred to married women’s separate property - bestowed on all unmarried women an equitable marriage settlement

Gave married women rights to enter contracts, sue and be sued and to dispose of her property freely