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A Victorian Guide to Oppressing Women: Part 1


A portion of this post first appeared on the CrimeReads, a blog dedicated to books about crime true and fictional, in conjunction with the publication of MARIAN HALCOMBE. As you can see, I did a great deal of research for that series!

In Victorian Britain women teetered on the verge of a vast change in the laws that had constrained them since medieval times. This article is a quick summary of some of the major legislative gains of that period. The clever author can select the period when the laws would make for maximal fictional excitement, and I made a concerted effort to do just that.

Votes for women were not attained until the 20th century, but the great early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft had pointed out how foolish it was for women to lose all identity upon marriage. When she was alive (she died in 1797) not only did a wife take her husband’s name, she lost her entire legal identity. It was in the marriage service—the couple was one flesh, and as one legal wit pointed out, that flesh was his. The husband owned his wife’s property. She could sign legal documents until she got her Mrs., and then suddenly she was incapable, and only he had the signature. A wife could not write her own will, retain the copyright of materials she had written herself, or even witness against her husband in court.

An entire separate legal industry grew up to allow prudent fathers to protect their daughters’ financial interests. A dowry ensured that she had some money of her own, and setting up the documents properly would allow her, and possibly even her children, to retain that money no matter how profligate or foolish her husband became. For us, the ramifications of these developments are now most easily viewed in fiction. The classic example of the father’s failure to ensure his daughter got a proper marriage settlement might be The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. His heroine Laura got into trouble when a ramshackle marriage settlement allowed her wicked husband to steal everything after the wedding.

If you could contrive to survive your husband, however, your luck was in. Victorian widows were in the catbird seat. The widow suddenly regained all her financial power, and could control her own business and affairs. Read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope and notice how the widowed Lady Carbury has control of the family money—what there was of it. Lady Carbury has to write bad books to keep afloat, but at least she retains the copyrights. She doesn’t have any control over the antics of her spendthrift son Sir Felix, but she’s the one who pays his bills and, at the end of the book (with the help of a stern new husband, because once she marries him he has hold of the purse strings), she can cut her son off and send him to Germany to rusticate.

After years of complaint and protest the Married Women’s Property Act passed in 1882, allowing women to own their own property even after marrying their husbands. With a separate legal identity, they could sign documents and leases, manage their own businesses, even contract debts. If a wicked husband wanted to steal his wife’s money after that year, he would have to persuade her to sign it over. He couldn’t just take it the moment she said ‘I do.’

Another major legal renovation of the period was in the area of divorce. Until the divorce laws were renovated in 1858, marriage really was for life. You could only get shed of your unsatisfactory spouse by spending several thousand pounds for an act of Parliament, which meant essentially that no one could afford a divorce—only 325 had been granted since 1670. But in 1857 the Matrimonial Causes Act shifted the jurisdiction of divorces to a separate secular court that allowed ordinary people to petition. It was still difficult to undo the knot—you couldn’t just say you were incompatible, but you had to provide evidence of adultery or non-consummation. And the law was still weighted heavily against the woman, who had to prove not only adultery but some other extenuating circumstance like brutality. But at least the chance was there, and people seized it — the court had a full docket. Further refinements even allowed the mother to retain the younger children. Since there already were laws on the books compelling a father to support his offspring, she might not even starve.

But this can of worms still has many wrigglers in it. Let me continue this in Part 2!



1 thought on “A Victorian Guide to Oppressing Women: Part 1”

  1. Unmarried women were controlled by their fathers until they reached majority which (I think) was 25. If a woman married before she reached majority–as most did–she went directly from one “cover” or authority to another (the legal term for a woman under age and a married woman was feme couvert). A woman who had aged out of her father’s control (although her property might still be hedged round with guardianships and trustees and the like, on the theory that women had no idea how to manage money or property) was feme seul.

    It was possible–though done more in the lower-middle classes–for a woman to change her status: to go to court and have herself declared feme seul. I suspect, but have never found any commentary on it, that in the upper classes this wasn’t done because it signaled the wholesale failure of a contract and was an embarrassment. But going back well prior to the Victorians, there are records of women who had businesses and were married to wastrels who took the legal step of having themselves declared emancipated…at least as far as property was concerned, to stop their Husbands from trashing the business or drinking or gambling up the proceeds.

    Failing going to court, pretty much all a woman in an ugly situation could hope for was for her husband to die–or to make her escape, like Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, hiding out until his poisonous lifestyle caught up with him and he finally died, releasing her.

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