An Informative Tour of Victorian English Women’s Struggles for Equality

Have you encountered an MRA spouting nonsense about how women lorded it over men in Victorian England, and need a rebuttal? Perhaps you’ve encountered Christian patriarchy advocates who are waxing lyrical about how good the ladies had it when they were under male authority, and wish to disabuse them of some ridiculous notions? Then you need to procure yourself a copy of Mary Lyndon Shanley’s Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England at once.

Cover of the book Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England.

This is a slender tome packed full of eye-popping information on how married women were treated by law in that romantic era, and their decades-long struggle to be treated as people, not property. She tells the story through a series of Acts of Parliament. If, like me, you’re a sucker for law drama, you’ll savor this method thoroughly. Even if that’s not your thing, you’ll encounter too many fascinating feminists in infuriating situations to care.

Shanley begins with Caroline Norton’s terrible marriage and her fight for her kids. The reason men wail about being soooo mistreated by family law courts is probably because they had absolute power to start with. Husbands could divorce their wives, but the poor wives seldom had such luck. He owned all the property, including hers. She had no legal or political identity outside of him. And he could do whatever he wanted with the kids. They belonged solely to him, no matter what kind of abusive asshole he turned out to be.

Caroline, not being the kind of woman to cede authority to custom, launched a political movement to demand fairer treatment, and women’s rights became a cause worth fighting for. Shanley explores the resulting legislation women struggled for decades to get passed. The first major piece of reform was the Divorce Act (or Matrimonial Causes Act) of 1857, which established a civil court for divorce, and opened the door a tiny crack to treating women as people in their own right. It didn’t give women much, but it did start the law inching toward greater equality.

We meet many fascinating women along the way. One of my favorites was Barbara Leigh Smith. Her parents never married, but had several children. When her mother died, her radical Member of Parliament dad took over all the child rearing duties, much to the chagrin of the good Victorian people who believed fathers were supposed to do no such thing. Her dad treated his daughters and sons equally, leaving them all independent means. Barbara took after him, used his political connections wisely, and threw herself into the efforts to reform the law as it pertained to married women.

This points up one of the delightful “flaws” of this book. It’s brief. We’re introduced to intriguing people. A bit of their writing is quoted. But then Shanley must move on. She keeps the pace brisk for those who wish to see the major sites without getting bogged down by details, but some of us want to dawdle, and so we’re off looking up those early feminists when we should be continuing the tour. You’ve seen one of the results of that. I have absolutely no complaints, but a warning: allot yourself far more time for finishing this book than you would expect from its low page count.

If you were already a fan of John Stuart Mill, you will be thrilled to see him and his wife Harriet Taylor Mill pulling together to improve women’s lot. They were both amazing people, and they’re showcased frequently within these pages.

We see proto-feminists engaged not only in the battle for fairer divorce laws and the struggle to secure property rights for married women, but involved in fights over contagious disease acts that penalized prostitutes, but not johns, who were infected with STDs. We see them try to gain women better employment opportunities, and wrestle for custody rights that would consider the best interests of the children rather than blindly assign them to their fathers. And we see women and their allies struggle to secure not only a wife’s property, but also her body, as they combat abuse and marital rape.

Fault lines are explored as different priorities, beliefs, and political realities cause fissures between some of the organizations and women within them. We’re shown the surprising splits that happened and strange stances assumed due to the political and social realities of the Victorian age.

You will spend most of these pages thanking your lucky stars that you’re not a Victorian-era wife. You’ll also spend plenty of time wanting a TARDIS so you can visit the incredible women and men who fought for equality despite the odds. Make sure you have plenty of pillows handy for punching and/or muffling your outraged screams. Prepare to be absolutely furious at how far we’ve yet to go compared to how far we’ve come. It seems an insult to these courageous and determined proto-feminists that we haven’t achieved the equality so many of them sought.

This was an outstanding read. For any Western feminist, it’s a clear, concise, and fascinating tour of some of our most important history. It will leave you with plenty of information to destroy the sad, silly yet dangerous ideas of the modern men-first-(and only) crowd.

An Informative Tour of Victorian English Women’s Struggles for Equality
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5 thoughts on “An Informative Tour of Victorian English Women’s Struggles for Equality

  1. rq

    You call them proto-feminists, but wouldn’t they just be plain feminists, if they’re working for the greater equality of women? 19th century or no, that seems pretty feminist, not proto-feminist… unless there’s a greater reason to add the ‘proto-‘.
    Also, this sounds like a good book for people with low blood pressure. ;)

  2. 2

    If they were working to eliminate specific abuses, they would have identified themselves with their specific issue (as the suffragettes did). I would expect that few of these activists saw themselves as working to actually make men and women equal: most of them were from the propertied end of society, and therefore would have been invested in it to some degree. Nobody bothers to argue for a right to control marital property if there isn’t any.

  3. 3

    Also, I found this in the last paragraph of Frances Power Cobbe’s essay “Criminals, idiots, women and minors”, linked above.

    ” “Granted,” she answers to all rebuffs; “let me be physically, intellectually, and morally your inferior. So long as you allow I possess moral responsibility and sufficient intelligence to know right from wrong (a point I conclude you will concede, else why hang me for murder?) I am quite content. It is only as a moral and intelligent being I claim my civil rights. ”

    This is as explicit a statement as you could wish that the author was not in any way advocating actual equality between the sexes.

  4. 4

    It was the same way in the US at the time. Women for example were not in general allowed to have wills (there were exceptions such as Abigail Adams however). I recall my grandmother telling me that after she married in 1920 my Grandfather took her bank account (this however did show up in the probate proceedings as her contribution, and would have been here entire estate had she died first). You can also see it by looking at land ownership maps My greatgrandfathers (other side than above) land was just in his name, but my grandparents land was in both names.

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