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)
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.
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).
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