3 March 2022

What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine

By Miranda Marshall, Director, Hayes + Storr.

My daughter and her contemporaries now take the right to vote for granted. On 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave women over thirty the vote, but only if they were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or more, or graduates of British universities. This gave the vote to fewer than nine million women, but at least it was a start. It took another ten years for women to win the right to vote on the same terms as men. In 1979 Britain had its first woman Prime Minister.

Less well-known are the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870, 1882 and 1893 which were an equally important milestone along women’s route to legal equality. In Victorian England, as soon as a woman married, she disappeared as far as the law was concerned. In the eyes of the law, she was treated as a child, and was no longer a person in her own right. She 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” (possession) of her husband; her wealth and possessions were all his.

No wonder plot lines of so many early nineteenth century novels involve a poor and unscrupulous man seeking marriage to a rich heiress! A wife 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. Women were often declared ‘insane’ by their husband if they became ‘inconvenient’.

The reality of this situation came home to Millicent Fawcett when she was pickpocketed. Mrs Fawcett later became a well-known suffragist who campaigned by non-militant means for the women’s right to vote. She went to court to hear the case and when the boy’s crime was read out she 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’ (Millicent Fawcett statue pictured below, Parliament Square, London).

The women of the Kensington Society, of which Fawcett was a member, 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 was a first step to improving the position of married women by giving them possession of their own earnings. The Act of 1882 extended this to give a wife the same rights over their property as an unmarried woman. At last, a woman would not see everything she owned transfer on marriage to her husband. For women from wealthy families this might mean substantial property, including land, houses and investments. In 1893 married women gained control of any kind of property acquired during marriage, including an inheritance. Now married and unmarried women were treated equally in terms of property.

There was a fear 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 set up a special trust called a ‘marriage settlement’. Even so, the Married Women’s Property Acts were a major step towards female legal independence.