Moaning Men of the Victorian Age: Breach of Promise Whine Needs Cheese

In our first installment, we saw how Mr. William Austin, Victorian MRA Esq., was being terribly oppressed by all those women with their miniscule hard-won rights. But he didn’t give us actual examples. He spoke in sweeping generalities that were, on the whole, pretty meaningless, especially when you contrast his problems with the actual conditions women in the 19th century faced.

Here’s the first time he stops mouthing mushy nonsense and mentions something specific:

I will not confine myself to a diatribe against the silliness of juries, judges, and every body else in breach of promise cases, where sentimental damages are sometimes assessed so heavily that the man is ruined; but will go into the matter of pro-feminine prejudice which has become transmuted into positive rules of law and legal administration, actually crystallised into statutory enactments.

Image is a Victorian-era postcard showing a portly constable delivering a summons to an upset young man whose hair is standing on end and has dropped his pipe. Caption says, "He that courts and runs away, in another court will have to pay!"

Let’s confine ourselves to breach of promise for a moment. It’s the one case in which we might have some sympathy for the poor, pitiful men. Since the Elizabethan era, when Mr. Palmer sued Ms. Wilder for reneging on her promise to marry him, men and women had been able to drag their former lover into court for breaking an engagement. That’s right! Jilted men could sue, too! And they could win!

At first, the church was the driving force behind these cases: getting betrothed was serious stuff, and they loved compelling people to honor promises to marry. As breach of promise evolved, it came to be seen as something rather like a civil contract. The person who broke that contract without a compelling reason was to be held liable for costs, such as gifts, wedding-related expenses, and so forth. But as the sexual double-standard evolved, and with women’s options outside of marriage severely restricted, the action began to be one overwhelmingly brought by women. Men were supposed to suck it up if their beloved broke it off.

Since women were severely limited in their social and economic options, marriage was critical to their well-being in a way it wasn’t for men. Women’s wages were low, career choices few and poorly-paid, and all of society measured a woman’s worth by the marriage she made. Getting dumped had the potential to ruin her life. It was serious business.

When a woman became engaged to be married, she became totally dependent on the man. She might have to give up work and thus lose any source of income, and possibly career prospects. As long engagements were the norm, if she were jilted then her chances of attracting another man were greatly diminished…. If she became pregnant, then the social and financial consequences could be even greater.

And if a man abandoned her after a long engagement, society gave her the serious side-eye. Sometimes, a breach of promise suit was the only way for her to clear her good name.

Men weren’t completely defenseless, no matter what Mr. Austin believes. Some men even brought breach of promise suits of their own, and won substantial damages despite prevailing sentiment. A man could successfully defend a suit if he could show that the lady had procured his promise by fraud or deceit. This included discovering her to be unchaste or of bad character. Women were expected to be angels, after all, and a man could not be blamed for breaking an engagement in horror at finding out his beloved was merely an imperfect human.

A man could also break the engagement if the lady wished to “settle her property to her separate use contrary to the defendant’s wish.” That’s right: a woman couldn’t protect what little she had in the world. Her future husband had the right to demand it all. If she refused, he could break the engagement, and society would settle the blame on her.

If a man wanted to avoid court, he could settle with the woman he jilted. Once she accepted compensation, she wouldn’t be allowed to sue him.

And a man could pressure a woman for sex in exchange for a promise to marry, then break his promise, because the courts considered that prostitution. Woe to him if he made the promise, then pressured her into screwing him before screwing her over, though. The jury would award damages for that hit to her future marriageability.

Victorian postcard of a courtroom scene. A woman sits at the bench, her face in her hand. A barrister is reading from some papers with an abashed-looking man beside him. Caption says, "Don't write poetry to the girl the next time. It sounds very silly in court.

Men lived in fear of fraudulent actions against them for breach of promise, thinking any woman with a good sob story and a few perjuring witnesses could fleece an innocent dude. But that opportunity could only arise because of the terrible inequality between women and men. Once women could stand on equal footing, earn their own keep, have their own property and careers, actions for breach of promise went away.

So, Mr. Austin should have become a feminist if breach of promise upset him so. This shall become a recurring theme…

Moaning Men of the Victorian Age: Breach of Promise Whine Needs Cheese

5 thoughts on “Moaning Men of the Victorian Age: Breach of Promise Whine Needs Cheese

  1. 1

    Once women could stand on equal footing, earn their own keep, have their own property and careers, actions for breach of promise went away.

    With apologies for the digression, I couldn’t help thinking … if we ever succeed in doing away with rape culture and creating a society in which all its members are equally valued and respected, the already vanishingly, infinitesimally tiny number of unfounded rape accusations will go away too. If the MRAs were genuinely concerned about that, as they claim to be (and about a multitude of ways patriarchy hurts men too) they should become feminists.

  2. 2

    The link to the first piece (which I think I missed) returns a 404 error. I assume it has something to do with the date part of the link, becasue that’s dated 2015/03/10, which is in the future.

  3. 4

    Thank you for another interesting history lesson.

    Speaking of broken promises and litigation, does anyone know a good resource for a Feminist take on divorce laws? I have a friend who is in the middle of a bad one and is veering dangerously close to MRA talking points about how unfair divorce laws (in particular, CA’s No-Fault option) are towards men. I want to read up on the subject but most of what I find online are MRA/anti-feminist perspectives.

  4. rq

    It all sounds so complicated and precarious for women.
    And for men.
    Trying to apply two different relationship standards to legal cases – whew, what a parallel track to run!
    Though I have to agree on the poetry bit in your last little picture, I’m sure (most likely bad, overly rosy and saccharine) poetry sounds silly in court. Not everyone is meant to be Cyrano.

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