Earning and (even more importantly) keeping your own money

Caroline Norton

and The Married Women’s Property Act 1870

(Or how to keep your husband from getting his hands on your earnings, even if you’d managed to divorce him for beating you senseless)

Devon and Exeter Gazette may 19 1899 Screen shot 2015-08-06 at 21.04.19

So, you finally get rid of husband who has humiliated you, beaten you black and blue, nearly strangled you, and tried (unsuccessfully) to brand you as an adultress in the courts. You are skilled, talented, famous in your own right and able to earn an income to support you and your children. Finally, you are free, can settle down, and raise your sons in peace.

So believed Caroline Norton, beautiful, fiery, talented, granddaughter of the playwright Sheridan and a well-known author in her own right. But this was 1836. To her shock and horror, Caroline discovered just how many rights she had.

None.

Her husband was given legal custody of her three boys, allowing her only the briefest of contact, until her youngest son died following an accident – quite possibly due to her husband’s lack of care. And as for earning a living – being talented and hardworking, she could still do that, very well, but all her earnings went to her husband (even after they were divorced), with his only legal obligation being to keep her from the poorhouse (as in, the financial responsibility of the state).

Elin's rose

This was the fate of a married woman at this time. Choose (or have chosen for you) the wrong man, and there was no way out. Women had no legal existence, no voice, no control. They were the property first of their fathers, then of their husbands. When a woman’s purse was stolen, it was her husband’s property that was stolen. Of course, many men wouldn’t dream of abusing such a position. In fact, after the First World War, when couples split apart after their separate experiences changed them beyond recognition, it was usually the man who volunteered to be the ‘cad’ and be ‘caught’ (you bribed a maid) in adultery (no hanky panky necessary, everyone, including the judge, knew it was a farce) to obtain a divorce. But the trouble is, that the law offered women no protection against a real nasty piece of work, who maybe even the judge (as a father and husband) might quite like to have thrown off a cliff. But the law is the law, and it left women trapped in abusive marriages, with no possibility of escape.

Caroline Norton, however, was not a woman to give up without a fight. She battled ceaselessly against this injustice, and, with the support of the suffragists, she changed the world, gradually putting in place the legislation that would finally mean women could keep their babies after divorce without (if they had the resources) fleeing abroad, and women would keep their property, and their own earnings, both as a married woman and following a divorce. In doing so, Caroline Norton and the suffragists finally gave women a legal existence, a voice, and the beginnings of protection under the law.

If you would like to know more about Caroline Norton, there is an excellent chapter in Margaret Forster’s ‘Significant Sisters’ , and ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’ by Diane Atkinson

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So much more than a vote

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For both the suffragists and the suffragettes, the struggle for the vote was about so much more than the vote.

The trouble is, if you are seen as not having the intelligence or moral fibre to have a say on the way your society is run, then that means you’re also seen as incapable of running your own life and making decisions.

For the suffragists and the suffragettes, the vote also meant having the dignity of being seen as a full human being, not first a sweet little virgin, in need of guidance, then a self-sacrificing mother, in need of protection, or the alternative of a rampaging floozy set on bringing down civilisation (if not the world).

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And the fight was not just about the women. Until 1884, the only people in Britain to have the vote were a very small proportion of (very rich) men. With most men, as well as all women, having no say in the running of their country, or indeed of their lives, women and men of the suffrage movement fought alongside each other.

In 1884, the suffragists negotiated for women to have some voting rights as well as more men. Which might have saved an awful lot of trouble in the long run. But at the last minute, the government decided that that women couldn’t be trusted to vote for the right side (as in, them) in the next election. So, in the true spirit of self-interest, gave 60% of men voting rights instead.

The suffragists picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and went back to the drawing board and the tearooms. But the first stone to go through that first window was just that little bit closer … Men continued to support women’s suffrage even after the majority of men had been given the vote, including going to prison in support of the suffragettes – along with going on hunger strike and enduring the torture of force feeding.

In the end, it wasn’t until 1928 that both all men and all women over the age of 21 achieved the vote.

The newspapers of the time were suitably patronising and dismissive, as in this article in the Dundee Courier and Argus of June 1884. I particularly like the bit about students of natural history being ‘aware that timid creatures (lady suffragists) are apt to do rash, and apparently bold things at times…’ Charming.

It was not to be expected that the ladies who are promoting woman suffrage, and the male enthusiasts who in that matter are supporting them, would rest content, even for the present, with the decision which was given against them in the House of Commons last week, although the majority of 136 which rejected Mr. Woodall’s clause was a pretty strong rebuff. The ladies, it seems, are going to try what more they can make of the matter in the House of Lords. … Students of Natural History are aware that timid creature are apt to do rash and apparently bold things at times, and perhaps thus it happens that the lady suffragists have no difficulty in courting the attentions of Lord Salisbury, even though the end of it should be that his Lordship becomes Prime Minister. Their one aim is to obtain votes for women householder and ratepayers. Provided that they succeed in that, they do not seen to care much what might happen.

 

Suffragists Dundee Courier and Argus June 18 1884Screen shot 2015-08-06 at 18.59.03

Dundee Courier and Argus June 18th 1884 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)