The Married Women’s Property Acts (UK, 1870, 1882 and 1893)
By Claire Jones
These acts were a milestone along women’s route to equality. The legal position of married women for most of the nineteenth century was little short of that of a slave. (This was the way in which philosopher John Stuart Mill described a married woman’s lot in his 1869 book The Subjection of Women.)
As soon as a woman married she disappeared as far as the law was concerned; now she was no longer a person in her own right but was merely an extension of her husband, unable to own property or even her own person (divorce was impossible for all but the most privileged women as it necessitated a special act of Parliament). A woman became essentially a chattel of her husband; her wealth and possessions were now all his. No wonder plot lines of so many early nineteenth century novels involve a poor and unscrupulous gentleman stalking a rich heiress! A woman could be forced, by law, to return to her abusive husband and if the marriage broke down she had no legal rights over her children who automatically stayed with their father.
The reality of this situation came home to Millicent Fawcett when she had her purse snatched by a youth in London. When the boy’s crime was read out in court Fawcett was shocked to hear him charged with stealing a purse which was ‘the property of Henry Fawcett’ (her husband). She later recalled that ‘I felt as if I had been charged with theft myself’. The women of the Kensington Society, such as Mrs Elizabeth Wolstenholm Elmy, and of the Langham Place Group, of which Fawcett was a member along with Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parks and others, campaigned for a change in the law to allow women to retain their own property and earnings after marriage. A Married Women’s Property Committee was formed to promote this cause.
In 1870 the first Act was passed which improved wives’ position to an extent by giving them possession of their own earnings; the Act of 1882 extended this to give married women the same rights over their property as unmarried women. At last, a woman would not see the goods and chattels that she owned prior to marriage (for elite women this could include land, houses and homes) pass into the ownership of her husband. The second 1893 Act completed this by giving married women control of any kind of property acquired during marriage, such as an inheritance. Now married and unmarried women were treated equally.
Traditionalists warned that these laws would make marriage less popular with men, but there is little evidence that this happened. In fact, some elite women from privileged families had always been able to retain some property after marriage, so long as their fathers had been enlightened and rich enough to make a special legal settlement to that effect. Nevertheless, the Married Women’s Property Acts were a highly significant landmark in the quest for women to have an independent legal existence.