The changing position of women and the suffrage question. Revision notes

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Women’s personal Lives 1860-1891

Custody of Children Act 1839

  • Caroline Norton, wife of Tory MP George Norton
  • Wrote a pamphlet - ‘The Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as Affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father’ when George Norton lost his case against Melbourne and she realised that she had ‘lost her children’
  • In the pamphlet Caroline Norton argued the unfairness of a system which dictated that a father had absolute rights in law, no matter what his behaviour, and a mother had no rights at all.
  • Beginning in 1838 she started a campaign to change the law, convincing MP for Reading, Sir Thomas Talfourd to support her cause, and he introduced a bill into Parliament that would allow custody of children to a mother whom adultery had not been proved against. The bill was passed by the HoC but rejected by the HoL.
  • In response Norton wrote another pamphlet which was sent to every MP.
  • In 1839 Taulford reintroduced the previous bill and on this occasion it passed both Houses of Parliament.
  • The Custody of Children Act of 1839 gave women the right to custody of their children under seven, but only if the Lord Chancellor agreed to it and if the mother was of good character.

Matrimonial Causes Act 1857

  • Campaigned for by Caroline Norton, although she did not act alone in her campaigns. She received a great deal of support from women who had been similarly affected as well as those who were beginning to feel that the ‘angel in the house’ concept and ‘separate spheres’ philosophies should be challenged.
  • Caroline Norton, most importantly understood the necessity of gaining the support of MPs as so of impacting the HoP. Changing attitudes in the country at large was vitally important, but in the end it was the HoP that needed to be convinced.
  • Before the Act was passed divorces had to happen through a private Act of Parliament, which was a slow and expensive process.
  • After the act, divorces could happen through the law courts. However, the grounds for divorcee were on a unequal basis. If a husband wanted to divorcee his wife he had to prove adultery. However, if a wife wanted to divorce her husband she had to prove not only his adultery, but either bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, cruelty or long term desertion.
  • Caroline Norton was able to include other causes in the act...
  • A wife deserted by her husband could keep her own income
  • The courts could order the payment of maintenance to a wife
  • A wife was able to inherit and bequeath property in the same manner as a single woman
  • A wife separated from her husband could sue, and be sued, in a civil court.

The Jackson Case 1891

  • The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1884 denied a husband the right to lock up his wife if he refused to have sex with him.  This went some way to lesson wife-battering and marital rape by beginning to indicate that a husband’s physical control over his wife was not absolute.
  • In 1891, the Jackson case was the appeal court judge’s decision that reinforced and provided case law on which other judges later relied.
  • Mr. Jackson returned from a business trip to New Zealand to find that his wife refused to see him. Mr Jackson kidnapped his wife as she left for church and locked her up in his house. Fortunately Jackson’s wife had some good friends who campaigned for her release and after a long legal struggle the judges decided that Mr Jackson had no right to force his wife to live with him.

The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882

Key points of the Married Women’s Property Act

  • The first act stated that women could keep up to £200 in earnings and personal property.
  • The second act gave married women control over all the property and money they brought with them into the marriage and also allowed them to carry on with whatever trade or business they were working in before they were married, using their own property and money.

The Campaign

  • In 1854, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Barbara Bodichon) began a campaign to change the laws regarding property.
  • She wrote articles, organised petitions and set up an all-woman committee to work on the issue. A petition containing 26,000 signatures was presented to Parliament.
  • The Law Amendment Society adopted the cause and drew up a bill that proposed giving women certain property rights.
  • However, at the last minute the bill was withdrawn in order to allow the Matrimonial Causes Act to go through Parliament as there was a fear that to present two bills at the same time regarding the changing status o f women would frighten MPs and neither bill would be passed.  
  • After the failure of the 1867 reform act to include women in the extended franchise, it was deemed suitable to once again introduce the bill into Parliament. This time the bill was successful and the first Married Women’s property act was passed in 1870, followed by a second in 1882.  

Why were the Acts passed?

  • Cases such as Caroline Norton had highlighted the unfairness of the law in respect to married women and this had led to general support for change.
  • Women’s groups (and their male supporters) were learning various different strategies that enabled them to exert effective pressure on Parliament.
  • Many liberal MPs supported the Married Women’s Property Acts, as they believed that women only wanted the vote in order to gain control over their own money and property. They believed that granting women this control would mean that pressure for the vote would begin to subside.

How significant were the acts?

  • They were significant in two ways: firstly, because of the concessions they made to women’s rights over what was to all intents and purposes, their property. Secondly, because of the fact that women organised themselves into a fairly effective pressure group.

The Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts

  • The acts were brought passed in an attempt to control the spread of venereal diseases. Compulsory medical examinations of soldiers were stopped due to their hostility to such intimate examinations. The acts were seen by the Government as a means of ensuring military efficiency, the medical profession as a way of stamping out a debilitating and prolific illness and many ordinary people saw them as a moral duty and even an act of kindness to the prostitutes.
  • The 1864 Contagious Diseases Act allowed the police to arrest prostitutes in specific named naval ports, order them to undergo an internal examination and if they were found to be infected they were detained until they were cured. If a woman refused to undergo an examination she could be imprisoned after a trial in which she had to prove she was virtuous.
  • The 1866 Contagious Diseases Act augmented the 1864 act, as prostitutes in naval ports and garrison towns were subject to compulsory three-monthly internal examinations. In addition, regular examinations of suspected prostitutes within ten miles of the named ports and garrison towns were introduced.
  • The 1869 Contagious Diseases Act extended the 1866 Act to all garrison towns and allowed suspected prostitutes to be locked up for five days before they were examined.
  • The execution of the Acts was cruel and degrading, it was difficult in borderline cases for the police to distinguish who was or was not a prostitute and thus many innocent young women were arrested and forced to undergo a medical examination and many lost their jobs, or even committed suicide as a result.
  • The attempt to extend the provisions of the acts to all prostitutes in the land in 1869 by the Home Secretary – Henry Austin Bruce caused uproar.

The Campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts  

  • Within months of the mooted extension, middle and upper-class women began to mobilise for its prevention. On January 1st 1870, 140 women, many of whom were known for their literacy, religious and charitable works, signed a manifesto protesting against the Contagious Diseases Acts. Amongst those signatures were those of Florence Nightingale, Lydia Becker and significantly, Josephine Butler.
  • The Ladies National Association was formed in 1869 with Josephine Butler at its head. It was the nucleus of a nationwide campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. The majority of the LNAs leaders were experienced in national politics, many of whom had come from families that had been involved in the political agitations in the 1830s and 1840s, when pressure to reform Parliament and abolish the Corn Laws was at its peak.
  • The idea that the Contagious Diseases Acts were barbaric and insensitive quickly gained momentum and before long every major city had a repeal committee containing both men and women, and many had ‘women only’ sub committees.
  • This organised protest, led by women on such a subject was completely unprecedented and was to be the shape of things to come.
  • Josephine Butler and her supporters wrote letters, formulated petitions, held mass-meetings and organised protest marches. They found an effective method was to target specific parliamentary candidates who supported the Contagious Diseases Acts. One such candidate was the liberal Sir Henry Storks who had been selected for the seat of Newark. A poster and placard campaign against him was so intense that he withdrew his candidature. A pro-repeal candidate was selected in his place. Storks then applied for the relatively safe seat of Colchester, again an intense poster and placard campaign was launched against him, it split the Liberal vote and allowed the Tories to take the seat. This made it politically dangerous for Parliamentary candidates to be seen as a supporter of the Contagious Diseases Acts. The suffragettes were to learn from this and in fact the strategy and tactics used by Butler and her supporters were to from the template for all future protest groups.
  • Following a highly successful campaign that did not lose momentum, the Contagious Diseases Acts were suspended in 1883 and finally repealed in 1886.

The Suffrage Campaign: 1860-1903

The origins of the Women’s suffrage Movement

  • 1865: Election of John Stuart Mill as MP
  • 1866: Manchester Suffrage Committee founded in London. Manchester National Society for Women’s suffrage founded with Lydia Becker as its secretary
  • 1867: Second Reform Act
  • 1868: Leeds Express publishes Sarah Ann Jackson’s poem. Lily Maxwell and 9 other Manchester women vote in the general election.
  • 1870: Punch publishes ‘An ugly rush’. Richard Pankhurst drafts and introduces the first Women’s suffrage Bill
  • 1872: National Society for Women’s suffrage combines local women’s suffrage groups
  • 1889: Formation of Women’s Franchise League with Emmeline Pankhurst as its leader. An appeal against female suffrage signed by over 100 mostly titled women
  • 1894: Local Government Act
  • 1897:  Faithful Beg MP presents a Women’s suffrage Bill to parliament. Formation of National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies with Millicent Fawcett as its President

  • In 1860 there was no women’s suffrage societies, by 1914 there were 56 suffrage societies.
  • It is difficult to trace the origins of the suffrage movement. The suffrage movement began slowly, with several people in different towns thinking and agitating around similar issues, in this case the vote. Some historians date the movement from 1832, when Mary Smith presented the first women’s suffrage petition to Parliament. The letters and leaflets distributed by Anne Knight in 1847 in support of women’s suffrage was the beginning of the movement for others, whilst some historians argue that the formation of the Sheffield Female Political Association in 1851 as the origins of the movement. Others date the origins of the movement to 1867 when J.S.Mill moved an amendment to the Second Reform Bill asking that the word ‘man’ be replaced by ‘person’.
  • The publication of texts such as ‘Vindication of the rights of women’ (1792) established the intellectual argument for votes for women.
  • London and Manchester were the major suffragist centres and the year 1866 was a significant landmark in suffragist history. In that year some of the most notable feminist campaigners of the 19th century – Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garret etc. drafted a petition to Parliament demanding the enfranchisement of all householders regardless of sex. Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garret carried the petition, signed by almost 1,500 women to the HoC where two of the handful of sympathetic MPs – J.S.Mill and Henry Fawcett, presented it. Furthermore suffrage committees were formed in both London and Manchester (see timeline)
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The Suffrage Debate

The Case for Votes for Women

  • Rights for Women
  • Early suffragists claimed they wanted a restoration of old rights rather than new privileges. Women had owned vast amounts of land in the medieval period as well as participating in the Parliamentary process. Women freeholders were also able to vote in the 16th century.
  • Women attempted this approach in 1867 when large numbers of women registered to vote. However they were unable to vote and following an appeal in the Court of Commons, the women represented by Richard Pankhurst the judges ruled that ‘every woman ...

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