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).

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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)

 

 

How to walk down a street without getting arrested (and assaulted legally, and nastily)

Josephine Butler and the Contagious Diseases Act

Or

How to walk down a street without getting arrested

(and assaulted legally, and nastily)

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Imagine walking down a street, any street, just minding your own business. Along comes a policeman who decides that you might be a prostitute, on the grounds that you are walking in the wrong place, are wearing the wrong kind of hat – or, in some cases, just because he can.

Once arrested, you are tricked, bullied or simply forced to submit to an internal examination to see if you are carrying a contagious sexual disease. And, ladies, if you ever winced at a cervical smear, you can forget a female doctor telling you relax. This was with a male doctor, with your legs held apart by stirrups, strapped down if you fought, and a metal spatula that was thrust into boiling water first.

This was the hated ‘Contagious Diseases’ Act’, first put in place by an act of the UK Parliament in 1864 as a means of controlling prostitution. Hardened prostitutes said they could only face this ‘steel rape’ by getting blind drunk. Women miscarried as a result. Oh, and if you were so not a prostitute as to be a virgin, you were awarded the price of a hot meal. Which presumably means someone somewhere had considered the possibility. Nice.

Initially set up around ports, in 1869, there was a proposal that this should be rolled out across the country, and would have theoretically affected every woman, had not Josephine Butler, supported by the suffragist movement, sprung into action.

Despite suffering from ill health all her life, Josephine Butler was a woman of incredible energy  and compassion, who, with the full support of her husband, fought tirelessly not only to force the repeal of the act, but to highlight the plight of the women – and children – branded as lascivious parasites, tempting men to give in to their natural urges, and living a life of ease, as the wages of sin.

The reality was, of course, very different. Maybe a few ‘fallen women’ led the life of Riley, but most were the most wretched, beaten and abused, scraping a pittance, controlled by pimps and madams who made the real money. Remember the fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist? Dickens was one of those worked to campaigned and offered practical help to prostitutes. http://dickens.port.ac.uk/the-woman-question/

In a world where there was little paid work for women, they were the poorest paid, such as milliners, whose long, hard working hours could never bring in enough to stave off starvation, and who slipped in and out of prostitution for survival. They were also the maids, or governesses, who had been seduced, or raped by their employers (remember Tess of the D’Urbervilles?), who had no other choice. Any single woman with a child – even as a result of rape – had few options, with few families prepared to share social annihilation, no daycare and no benefits to turn to before the welfare state. Remember Jane Eyre returning to Mr Rochester before she knew he was a widower? – but only after she had inherited money that would mean she would never end up on the streets, and, in an age before contraception, her children in Lowood, subject to another Mr Brocklehurst. If you ever thought Jane was a prude or uptight, think again.

Then there were, as there are today, the trafficked – young girls promised marriage or a well-paid job (or even sometimes simply sold by their parents) only to find themselves trapped in a brothel, raped (and therefore ‘ruined’) with no way out. There was a constant trade in fresh, untouched girls for wealthy clients with a taste for virgins. Alongside these, there were also the children. How, as Josephine pointed out, can you call a five-year-old girl (or boy) a coquettish temptress out to snare a grown man against his will?

Josephine Butler and the suffragists, with the support of campaigners, journalists and social reformers such as Florence Nightingale, fought tooth and nail to finally have the act repealed in 1886, while the age of consent was raised from twelve to sixteen.

Josephine Butler herself faced insults and threats (including at least one close escape from possible rape when trapped by a furious crowd), to fight for understanding, justice, and dignity for all women and children.

She was a truly amazing woman, who should have a statue at every street corner as a reminder of what it took to ensure that women of all ages and walks of life, could visit a friend or carry out an errand, without facing any possibility of the physical agony, humiliation and trauma of perfectly legal steel rape, and to point out, once and for all, that sex workers were overwhelmingly the victims, not the cause, of the social ills related to prostitution. And that children are always the victims.

If you would like to know more about Josephine Butler and her many campaigns, there is an excellent section in Margaret Forster’s ‘Significant Sisters’ , and Helen Mather’s ‘Josephine Butler, Patron Saint of Prostitutes’ is a riveting history of her life and work.

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Beginnings

Suffragists and Suffragettes

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The Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser October 7th 1913. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

Whenever I’ve thought of women’s fight to have the vote in the UK, this is the image I’ve had in my mind. Women  throwing stones. Being arrested, imprisoned, force fed. Throwing themselves under horses.

It was only when I began researching the suffrage movement when I was writing ‘The White Camellia’ that I discovered a very different image. The suffragettes were incredibly brave and resilient, continuing their fight for the vote in the face of physical and sexual abuse, and even death. But their story is only that of the final few years, between around 1905 to 1914, of a very long battle.

For fifty years or more before this photograph of Annie Kenney being arrested in 1913 was taken, the suffragist movement fought peacefully to improve the lives of women, and for the right of women to have a say in the laws that governed them. They might have been peaceful and used the democratic process, but they were no less daring, and resourceful, and prepared to take risks. They did not just write letters or pamphlets, but flouted convention, and the law, to fight injustice every step of the way.

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These were women who had no legal existence of their own. They belonged first to their fathers, then their husbands. Whatever their experiences or achievements throughout their lives, they remained children. They couldn’t study, follow a profession, or even earn their own money. They had almost no control over their lives. They existed to bear children, and to stay in the background, quietly, and uncritically, providing their husbands with all the necessary home comforts after his long day at the office, ruling the Empire.

Then in 1866, the newly formed ‘Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women’, presented a petition to the House of Commons with 1,500 signatures. It was supported by the renowned British philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, who added an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act that would have given women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73.

Which, since it was voted on exclusively by men, who had been elected entirely by men, in a world in which any other way of doing things was utterly unthinkable, wasn’t exactly surprising.

But, of course, that was not the end of the story.

The tearooms were about to start buzzing …

Devon and Exeter Gazette May 19 1899 Screen shot 2015-08-06 at 21.04.53

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette May 19th 1899 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)