“…a woman, on marrying, relinquished her personal property—moveable property such as money, stocks, furniture, and livestock— to her husband’s ownership; by law he was permitted to dispose of it at will at any time in the marriage and could even will it away at death.”1
The Married Women’s Property Act was the building block in establishing equal legal and political rights for women.2 24 years later the Local Government Act enfranchised women for local elections.3 Full enfranchisement came in 1928 58 years after the initial breakthrough.4 The Married Women’s Property Act is a vivid illustration of the institutional disabilities women have overcome.
Anthony Trollope satirised the marriage ‘market’ in numerous novels. Socially elite women knew prospective husbands analysed their wealth before considering marriage. And if men made a ‘mistake’ they felt cheated of their rights.
In The Small House at Allington (1864) Trollope writes,
“I say, Dale, – your uncle has never said a word to me as yet as to Lily’s fortune.”
“As to Lily’s fortune! The question is whether Lily has got a fortune.”
“He can hardly expect that I am to take her without something. Your uncle is a man of the world and he knows -”
“….Lily as you have always known, has nothing of her own.” (p61)
Dale jilted Lily for a wealthy women.
The suffering of women wasn’t limited to the social elite but parliamentarians had examples within their personal circles. The injustices and humiliations women suffered at the hands of predatory men were commonplace. The legislation was, therefore, driven by socially specific factors but effected all women. Importantly working-class women, in theory, no longer had to hand over their pay to their husbands. This gave them legal protection from financial abuse.5
The legal identity of women was established by this legislation. In a parliamentary debate in 1873, J S Mill said losing control of property was a punishment for, “…felons...”6 Ironically a counter argument was elite women could rely on family and friends for protection from predatory men and it was only important for lower-class women.
There was a necessity for the protection of the earnings of married women among the lower orders; but it was a very different thing when they sought to deal with the case of married women of the higher classes, who could either protect themselves or would be protected by their friends.7
All of which meant predation was sort-of alright if rich women could call on male support. Women qua women had no identity in this speakers eyes.
This act was, in many ways, a failure. It had virtually no impact on working-class women for whom the act was a closed book. Nonetheless as a first step it’s in the pantheon of feminist legislation. The glacial speed8 in establishing political and legal identity demonstrates the depth of institutional opposition. It should be noted this legislation was patriarchal. It didn’t emerge from a campaign by women but was righting a wrong like other social legislation.
Addendum One: Principal clauses of the Act
1 The wages and earning made by a wife were to be held by her for her own separate use, independently from her husband. The meaning of wages included money made from any employment, occupation, or trade, or the use of any skill such as a literary, scientific, or artistic skill that resulted in money being made. This section also covered investments made with the money earned.
2 A wife was allowed to keep any property she inherited from her next of kin as her own, subject to that property not being bound in a trust. She could also inherit money up to £200.
3This section allowed a married woman to continue to hold rented property in her own name and to inherit rented property.
4 This section made married women liable to maintain her children from the profits earned from her personal property. It also continued the liability of the husband to maintain his children. In effect, this section made both parents legally liable while each spouse held separate property. (slightly altered)
Addendum Two: Jane Austen on eligible men
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. Pride and Prejudice
2 Combs, Mary Beth. “‘A Measure of Legal Independence’: The 1870 Married Women’s Property Act and the Portfolio Allocations of British Wives.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 65, no. 4, 2005, pp. 1028–1057. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3874913. Accessed 22 June 2021. p1031
5 Coombs p1034 footnote 22 says married working-class women had few employment opportunities after 1870 and so the legislation was irrelevant.
8 It took a further 58 years for there to be equality in the franchise.