1882 saw an important breakthrough in women’s rights. Not quite as important as the vote perhaps, but more practical, at least for women who worked for a living (as most working-class women did). The Married Women’s Property Act (45 & 46 Vict. c.75) fundamentally changed the prevailing principle under which women who married became subservient to their husbands in law. The legal term of ‘feme covert’ effectively removed the rights of married women to any property they owned, including those they brought into the marriage or those they acquired afterwards, even if those goods were purchased with money they had earned themselves.
It was a disgraceful state of affairs that the 1882 act swept away. Women now had a legal identity; they could buy, sell and own property, and could sue and be sued in law. They were also now liable for any debts they ran up (so the new legal status has some drawbacks!)
However, while the act was passed in 1882 it was not applied retrospectively. This meant that women who married before the act became law were not protected by it. This led to the following situation at Westminster Police court in September 1888.
Two women came to see Mr Biron to ask for his help. Neither were named by the court reporter who seems to have been using their examples to highlight the limitations of the law in this area. The first applicant was a ‘decently dressed’ if poor woman whose husband had left her six months previously. She came to beg the magistrate for a separation order because he’d come back suddenly and had started to sell the contents of her home.
He didn’t work, she said, and chose instead to sell the things she’d bought with her own money. He had a history of violence towards her and she was now afraid that as well as stripping the family home of furniture and clothes he would start hitting her again.
‘You could have brought him here for the assault’, Mr Biron told her.
‘I did’, she said, breaking down in the witness box, ‘but, like a fool, I did did not go against him’.
She had brought him to court before for his violence but when asked to testify had, like so many women before and since, refused to give evidence against her abusive partner.
‘Can he take my bit of furniture?’
Having ascertained that she had married 18 years ago (in 1870) Mr Biron told her:
‘Your husband can take everything you have and sell it’.
‘It cannot be so cruel’, the woman exclaimed, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
The magistrate assured her that he would put a stop to any violence but there was nothing else he could do for her. ‘That is the law, madam’.
The second woman had a similar tale to tell. Her husband had lost a good job and didn’t seem inclined to look for another one. Instead he had started to sell their marital property, much of which she had scrimped and saved to acquire. He had even removed the children’s bed while they had been sleeping in it!
She too had been married since 1870 and so she too was unable to benefit form the 1882 legislation. Through her tears this woman told the magistrate that she could see no future for her and her children but the workhouse. ‘She bought the furniture, and if her husband could sell it, that was a bad law’.
Mr Biron agreed, ‘that is possible’ he said. The law had been altered he added, ‘but it doesn’t affect you’. This was little comfort to the poor woman who shuffled out of the box and made her way out of court.
It was ‘bad law’ and now I believe we wouldn’t legislate in such a way that only protected women after a certain point. There is an acceptance that retrospective legislation is sometimes necessary to redress long-standing grievances and legal wrongs. I cant imagine why this wasn’t done in the 1880s unless we are to understand that the male dominated political system didn’t think that women mattered that much, especially the wives of working-class men. Which is why, of course, women needed the vote. Once women had the vote men could no longer ignore their voices and their rights.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 10, 1888]