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Victorian Women's Legal Status


Social Myths and Legal Reality

  • Parents, clergymen, and patriarchal culture taught that marriage was the purpose of life, but law (= patriarchal law) regarded it as the end of a woman's autonomous existence.
  • Conduct manuals encouraged the wife to transform her home into a sacred shelter from the world's cares, but courts allowed the home to become a prison where she could be forcibly confined by her husband.
  • Poets and painters celebrated the young mother's beauty, but judges could not give her custody of her children.
  • Moralists praised a woman's ennobling influence on others, but politicians who denied her a vote made certain she had no power over legislation affecting her own life.

Single vs. Married Women

Single Women: Held the same rights as a man. She could acquire property, assume responsibilities for her debts, enter into a contract, make a will, sue and be sued.

Married Women: Could not sign a lease, initiate a lawsuit, or make a will. The husband had complete control of the family finances and her personal property, her earnings, and even her children belonged entirely to her husband. If he mistreated her, separation and divorce were extremely difficult to obtain. Even when a husband abandoned his wife, he retained control of her property.

The most famous definition of a married woman's legal status was provided in 1765 by the English jurist William Blackstone:

  • By marriage, the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended, or at least incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, or cover she performs everything, and she is therefore called in our law a feme covert.

American women also experienced the practical and psychological consequences of coverture because much of their legal system was based on English common law.


The Main Issues



Major player: Caroline Norton, poet and novelist, championed the effort to regain custody of children.

The Infants and Child Custody Bill of 1839

  • The first step toward eliminating the oppression of English legislation in relation to women.
  • Gave women only the right to ask for custody of children under age 7 if the woman had not been convicted of adultery, but judges continued to favor the fathers.

The Custody Act of 1873

  • Empowered the court to give mothers custody of children up to age 16.
  • Removed restrictions which barred women convicted of adultery from seeking custody.

The Custody of Infants Act of 1886

  • Gave mothers guardianship in the event of a father's death, but as long as the husband lived he retained authority to decide upon religion, education and upbringing of the children.

The Guardianship of Infants Act of 1925

  • Established equal rights for both parents.

Property Rights

Major players: Caroline Norton continued to lead this effort (Letter to the Queen, 1855); Barbara Bodichon influenced the Parliament debates in 1857; Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the New York legislature in 1854 and 1860.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857

  • Only assisted women who were separated, divorced or deserted without cause.
  • Recovered rights of divorced or separated women to inherit or bequest their own property, enter into contracts, and to sue or be sued as if she were single.
  • The Act did not change the status of women within marriage.

The Married Woman's Property Act of 1870

  • Allowed women to keep possession only of their earnings and to inherit personal property and small sums of money.
  • Everything else, whether acquired before or after marriage, belonged to the husband.

The Married Women's Property Act of 1882

  • Ended the old doctrine of legal unity of husband and wife.
  • Allowed women to keep all real and personal property that was hers at the time of marriage or acquired later.
  • The greatest legal advance in their increased rights to own and control property.


The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857

  • Still permitted the husband to divorce his wife for adultery, but required a wife suing for divorce to prove adultery and an additional offense, such as incest, cruelty, bigamy, rape, bestiality, or desertion for more than two years.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1884

  • Provided that a wife deserted by an adulterous husband could petition for divorce immediately instead of waiting for two years.


Major players: John Stuart Mill stated the case for suffrage in the House of Commons; Harriet Martineau, actively campaigned for the right to vote; Barbara Bodichon and Emily Davies initiated the petition. Following several years of debate, English women finally won the right to vote and to stand before Parliament in 1918. American women did not win the right to vote until 1920.

Useful sources to begin work on "The Woman Question":

Helsinger, Elisabeth K. and Robin Lautenbacher Sheets and William Veeder, The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883.  3 vols., Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983 (handout excerpted from volume 2: social issues)
The Victorian Web, "Victorian Legislation,"and related sites

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