Saturday, 9 February 2008

Legally emancipating Women: 1


Both feminist campaigners and the ideologues of Victorian respectability placed much emphasis on the value and importance of rigorous and well-defined moral standards as a means of ordering society[1]. It was not, however, until the later years of the nineteenth century that the state felt confidence enough to intervene in the more ‘private’ areas of morality. Marriage and divorce, venereal disease, prostitution, male homosexuality, contraception and incest all became areas of judicial attention[2].

The state and sexuality

The legal process was clearly a powerful mechanism whereby men and women could be written into their separate spheres. The values of respectability, of social and sexual purity that were deemed the ‘natural’ preferences of women were upheld stringently in legislation affecting the areas of personal and indeed of public morality. This point was not lost on contemporary feminists who were tireless in voicing the opinion that a male parliament would inevitably articulate the needs and desire of men in every sphere.

Victorian perceptions of sexuality[3] were built round a fundamental belief in sexual difference. Women and men were categorised by their biology and that biology was seen as central in determining their social roles. Separate sphere ideology, with its division of public and private, had its sexual connotations and ramifications. Nineteenth century feminists drew parallels between men’s political and sexual power. The timing of the new approach to female sexuality corresponds largely to the period in which fundamental economic changes were also occurring. The separation of home and workplace was the physical expression of the separate spheres. In moral terms, the public world of work was dirty, brutal and often immoral while the home signified peace and purity. This constant and potent overlap between moral economy and political economic made the area of morality a crucial site for feminist attack. Their intrusion into public spheres -- employment, political recognition and government -- had been shocking enough in itself. This sphere, which involved their transgressing the private and bringing it into the public arena, was in itself a radical statement.

A chronology of change

A number of events improved the legal status of women:



Caroline Norton[4] campaigned to get the Custody of Infants’ Act 1839 which stated that if the parents separated, the wife should legally be able to claim custody if the children were under seven. Furthermore, if older children were taken by the husband, the mother could claim access


Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act abolished the need for a private Act of Parliament in order to obtain a divorce. Now there would be Divorce Courts and women were allowed to sue for divorce if they could prove two of the following charges: cruelty, desertion or adultery. The husband could divorce if she was to prove one of these offences. The number of divorces slowly increased but still carried a social stigma

1861 Abolition of the death penalty for sodomy


Contagious Diseases Act passed


Contagious Diseases Act passed. This extended the 1864 Act


Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts formed


Married Woman’s Property Act


Bastardy Law Amendment Act passed


Social Purity Alliance founded [by men!]


Matrimonial Causes Act passed making it possible for a wife to separate from her husband on the grounds of cruelty; furthermore she was legally entitled to claim maintenance and custody of the children


Association for the Improvement of Public Morals founded


Moral Reform Union founded


Married Woman’s Property Act which, combined with the 1870 Act, made it legal for women to keep their money and property when they married

Married Woman’s Act enabled the wife to claim maintenance on the grounds of desertion. This granting of maintenance payments saved many ‘injured’ wives from the union workhouse or even prostitution


Matrimonial Causes Act passed


Criminal Law Amendment Act passed

Scandal over W.T. Stead and the ‘Maiden Tribute’ affair


Guardianship of Infants Act passed

Maintenance of Wives Act passed

Contagious Diseases Acts repealed


Incest Bill


Clitheroe case: Regina v Jackson


Matrimonial Causes Act passed


[1] Kathyrn Gleadle The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women’s Rights Movement 1831-51, Macmillan, 1995 argues that the origins of Victorian feminism can be found in the 1830s and 1840s rather than in the 1850s. This is a major challenge to the established historical position.

[2] Colin Gibson Dissolving Wedlock, Routledge, 1994 provides valuable insight into this area of women’s experience looking at divorce over a long period. Allen Horstman Victorian Divorce, St Martin’s Press, 1985 and Lawrence Stone Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987, OUP, 1990 are more specific. Lee Holcombe Wives and Property: Reform of the Married Women’s Property Law in nineteenth-century England, Toronto University Press, 1983 and Mary Lyndon Shanley Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England 1850-1895, Princeton University Press, 1989 provide an entree into how the law was changed. Maeve Doggett Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law in Victorian England, University of South Carolina, 1993 looks at a neglected subject. Frank Mort Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830, Routledge 1987 is good on the Contagious Diseases Acts and three papers in Mary Langan and Bill Schwarz (eds.) Crises in the British State 1880-1930, Hutchinson, 1985 deal with the role of women.

[3] On this subject J. Weeks Sex, Politics and Society, Longman, 2nd ed., 1991 is the best introductory work. It should now be supplemented with M. Mason The Making of Victorian Sexuality, OUP, 1994.

[4] See Alan Chedzoy A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton, Allison & Bushby, 1992.

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