Thursday, July 28, 2011

August 9, 1870 --- To Have and To Hold

The Married Women's Property Act receives the Royal Assent, a halting first step toward ensuring a woman's right to control her own finances.

English law and, to many, God's as well, had ever held that upon marriage, a husband might tell his wife, "What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine, too." In 1869, in his book "The Subjection of Women," the reformer John Stuart Mill had written: "The wife is the actual bondservant of her husband ... She can acquire no property but for him; the instant it becomes hers, even if by inheritance, it becomes ipso facto his."

Previous reform efforts - despite petitions bearing as many as 25,000 signatures - had failed. The new law allows a woman to retain as hers any earnings acquired after her wedding day, including earnings through literary efforts, real estate, and inheritances up to £200. The House of Lords had a jolly time gutting the bill. Lord Westbury drew cheers suggesting a wife with her own income would only squander it on "any number of bracelets." Even a supporter of the legislation predicted it would be no hardship as the husband could still maintain control of his wife's money through "kicks or kisses." Lord Penzance, Chief Justice of the Divorce Court, warned that a wife with her own means might enter business with a partner "who need not be a woman."

Ironically, it wasn't the average Lord who had anything to fret about; his estate and likely that of his wife too, being strictly entailed and jealously guarded by the family solicitor. Lord Cairns, who sponsored the bill in the Lords, conceded it was for the benefit of the "humbler classes," women who needed protection from the designs of "intemperate, idle or dissolute husbands."

The Times hailed the new act as benefiting "one half the human race." Still, many were disappointed in the law's limited application, among them Wilkie Collins, whose novel "The Woman in White" sensationalized the plight of the wife of an unscrupulous husband: "Being an act mainly intended for the benefit of the poor, it was, of course, opposed by the House of Commons at the first reading, and largely altered by the House of Lords—it is, so far, better than no law at all."

In 1882, the law was amended to add a woman's right to any property she brought to the marriage at the time of her wedding.

A cartoon by the artist Martin Anderson, from

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