The long road to equality: The Married Women's Property Act 1882

The Married Women's Property Act 1882 was a defining moment in the struggle for women's rights. It recognised women as separate citizens in law from their husband for the first time, and many of those who fought for it went on to found and drive the movements that won the vote for women 36 years later.

For that reason the key connections here are around the English Women's Journal and the Langham Place group (the Journal had its offices in Langham Place). This is by no means comprehensive and I will update it, but even so every connection is a discovery of a key figure in liberating half the population. It is unfair to pick out individuals because so much was collaborative, as an example, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, one of the founders of the Journal, wrote arguably the first pamphlet denouncing the oppressive law of Coverture in 1854. Together with Emily Davies (the Journal's editor in 1863), another pioneering feminist and suffragist, they campaigned for women's access to university education and co-founded Girton College, Cambridge University, the first university college in England to educate women.

The inspiration for this was Dr Sharon Thompson speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Battles That Won Our Freedoms: 8. The Married Women's Property Act.

It starts with an interview with Julie Sharp, a modern example of the Act, a case recommended by Thompson to the producer of the series, Phil Tinline. It's all worth a listen, as is the whole series - a really valuable way in to the rights that are often taken for granted. I've only transcribed Thompson's narrative Tinline's questions are in brackets.

Dr Sharon Thompson:

"Women haven’t always been able to hold property independently of their husbands and it has a long and important history that goes back all the way to 19th century and the Married Woman’s Property Acts."

(Before the Act what happened to women and their right to own)

"The status of married women before was described the term Coverture - a doctrine in common law and it meant which just meant that when a woman got married everything she owned became her husband’s and he could spend that property and do whatever he wanted with it. So, wives had no economic responsibility, they had no economic independence either and were basically invisible in the eyes of the law.

“But this was justified traditionally as beings to the benefit of married women, it was seen as protecting married women and English jurist, William Blackstone, said this was the point of coverture, because English women would be under the cover, under the protection of their husbands. But during the 19th century the Victorian women’s movement started to challenge this and say, “no, this doesn’t protect women actually, rather than needing the protection of their husbands, Victorian women often need protection from men.

"One of the really prominent cases of the time was a woman named Caroline Norton and she was a playwright, a novelist, a writer, she was bringing in her own income, but she was married to a very abusive husband and when she left him she thought she would be ok, she could use the money she was brining in with her writing to support herself but her husband was able to go to court and say, “well, no, under converter everything she earns is mine.” So, she used her own personal experience to then argue for legal reform."

(What happened if wives were deserted by their husbands?)

"If they were still married then it doesn’t matter where he is, he can still control all of her property So there were lots of examples where women were being deserted by their drunken husbands and they were having all of their earnings confiscated by their husbands and as a result they would have to rely on public assistance.

(And how did women begin to organise to push back against it?)

"The first group, I think, to instigate a challenge against these harsh legal rules was the a group called the Langham Place Circle, and they petition parliament in the 1850s to argue women’s property should be treated in the same way as men’s property and one of the leaders of that group was a woman called Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. She had quite a radical background, she was the granddaughter of William Smith, the English abolitionist. She was also the cousin of Florence Nightingale.

"She spent a year of her life looking into what the legal consequences of marriage were for women. And she wrote all of this research down into a pamphlet, so that other women could then educate themselves on how the law affected them. She published this pamphlet anonymously in 1854 - it was quite widely circulated, and historians like Rosemary Auchmuty would argue that it is the first important feminist statement on the issue of married women’s property because she was saying in very plain, clear language Coverture does not protect women, it is oppressive of women and what Bodichon says is, “even if a man doesn’t marry you for your money, he can still get his hands on everything you own", so being able to all of a sudden frame the law in that way was actually very important. One of the reasons Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was able to do all of this work was that she did have her own financial independence, her father gave her, I think, £300 a year, which was the same amount he gave her brothers too, so her father was quite a radical person as well, recognising that women and men should be treated the same.”

(Does this provoke any kind of reaction?)

“People were arguing if wives could own their own property they would just squander it. One MP said it would nullify and destroy the law of marriage. Because what it’s doing is arguably more radical than divorce reform because it’s moving away from the idea of marriage as being the family unit, towards the idea of husband and wife as being separate individuals."

(Given this resistance, how does this eventually push through and become law?)

"In the lead up to the 1882 Act, there was another Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, which allowed married women to have control over their own earnings, which at the time was hugely disappointing to then feminist campaigners, because it fell far short of what they had been fighting for, they wanted separate property.

"Then around that time John Stuart Mill was elected as a liberal MP in the 1860s and he could be a spokesperson in the Commons and he wrote the Subjection of Women, where he argued that men and women should be seen as equal partners in marriage. And the tide really started to turn when Gladstone was re-elected as Prime Minister in 1880 and there was a liberal government, because they were then able to find someone to sponsor their bill."

(So, when the Act is passed in 1882, after this much weaker one in 1870), does this finally solve the problem?)

"It doesn’t get rid of Coverture completely, so, for example, married women are still, at that time, aren’t liable under contracts in the same way as a single woman would be. But it does introduce this idea of separate property, which is important. We can’t obviously expect one Act to solve everything and resolve all of the structural inequalities within marriage, but at the time it was seen as being an important victory, so for example the Married Women’s Property Committee, of which Millicent Fawcett was one of the founders, said that this is the first great victory of the principle of human equality over the unjust privilege of sex."

(Were there any broader political consequences of this outrageous idea that married women were independent legal citizens? (ironic))

"I think one of the most important consequences was that it marked such an important moment in the Women’s movement, women organising and campaigning and fighting for things to change. And a lot of women who were involved in the Married Women’s Property campaigns went on to campaign for women’s suffrage and actually it became more difficult to deny women the vote following the Married Women’s Property Acts and that’s because under the idea of Coverture it was easier to say that they shouldn’t to have been able to vote because they’re their husband’s responsibility so their husband votes for them as well. But once women are able to own their own separate property - and of course, at that time voting depended on property ownership too, men instead had to argue women shouldn’t be able to vote because they were the weaker sex and that argument was being increasingly challenged."

BBC Programme notes:

The Battles That Won Our Freedoms

8. The Married Women's Property Act

Dr Sharon Thompson tells the story of the struggle of Victorian women, led by a largely forgotten figure called Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, to win wives a crucial freedom: the right to own their property, keep their own earnings, and to be counted under the law as citizens in their own right.

Energy trader Julie Arnold finds out how the 1882 law that resulted from this struggle shaped the result of her 2017 divorce case.

And Dr Thompson also explores how the struggle for separate property rights helped to pave the way for women winning the vote in the early 20th century.

First broadcast in 2019.

Producer: Phil Tinline