Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England

Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England

Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England

Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England


The 'bonds of matrimony' describes with cruel precision the social and political status of married women in the nineteenth century. Women of all classes had only the most limited rights of possession in their own bodies and property yet, as this remarkable book shows, women of all classes found room to manoeuvre within the narrow limits imposed on them. Upper-class women frequently circumvented the onerous limitations of the law, while middle-class women sought through reform to change their legal status. For working-class women, such legal changes were irrelevant, but they too found ways to ameliorate their position. Joan Perkin demonstrates clearly in this outstanding book, full of human insights, that women were not content to remain inferior or subservient to men.


The subjection of women was enshrined in English law and custom for nine hundred years. Common Law reflected rather than caused that subjection, which was based on the physical and political reality that, after the Norman Conquest even more than before, men controlled the resources of society. Things had not always been so starkly inequitable. In Anglo-Saxon England women had rights to property, to a share in control of domestic affairs and of children, and even in the last resort to divorce or legal separation, departing with the children and half the marital goods (Stenton, 1957, ch. 1). It was the full imposition of feudalism by the Normans, based on military service by male barons and knights, which destroyed the legal rights of women.

Down to the eighteenth century and beyond women were subjected to the domination of the unfair sex. The law undoubtedly regarded almost every woman as under tutelage to some man, usually father or husband. Being physically and economically the weaker sex their dependence, the theory went, was for their own good. In the much quoted phrase of the highest legal luminary of the day, Sir William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England, (1765-9), the law was ‘for her protection and benefit, so great a favourite is the female sex in the laws of England.’ A woman normally passed, either before or soon after the age of majority, from the protection of her father to that of her husband. ‘By marriage,’ wrote Blackstone,

the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being, or legal existence of a woman is suspended during

Notes in parenthesis refer to entries in the Bibliography at the end of the book.

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