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Women's Rights and Marriage

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 6 months ago

Punch Cartoon of 1878 



            This Punch cartoon was published on page 53 of Punch Magazine, on February 9th, 1878.   At this time, women were beginning to think of themselves as individuals and equal members of society, yet they unfairly lacked even the most basic rights of citizens. Legal rights would be rights toward property, the right to vote, the right to sit on a jury, hold a public office, etc. There were also social rights that women were lacking, such as the right to equal education, the right to work and earn wages and the like.

             This provides a critique on the roles of Victorian women and portrays life in the public sphere in a negative light.  The language used in the cartoon describes the day of a woman from the future as something forceful and chaotic, playing upon the domestic ideal that life in the home transcends the social, political and economic forces.  In the modern woman’s world she participates in the affairs that only males did at the time including jury, “Special Constable,” military service, coroner’s juryman, and even imprisonment.  Although the woman of the future exercises these rights, her freedom is ultimately responsible for her imprisonment.  Showing women in this unpleasant social sphere acts as a form of propaganda to uphold the angel in the house ideal.  The last line of the article ends with the woman wishing to return to the traditional gender roles of domesticity stating, “Oh, why did I give up the privileges of a real woman for the miseries of a mock man!”  This was one of the most interesting pieces is the last two sentences. This futuristic woman, in jail, reads a passage that told her “no one could obtain the privileges of a citizen without accepting a citizen’s duties and responsibilities.” She then bemoans her fate and wishes she had the “privileges of a real woman” instead of the “miseries of a mock man.”

            At first glance, this piece may seem to be on the side of the women’s movement, heading towards totally equal rights between the sexes. But this very last part is arresting of those thoughts. This cartoon is actually questioning the move towards total female freedom, and even titles the piece, “Rights or Wrongs.” It is saying that maybe women think they want total equality, but they perhaps don’t realize what being a full citizen means, and the duties it entails. So that possibly, even if women did get all the rights as equal citizens, they wouldn’t want the duties that go along with citizenship, and would enjoy a return to being a ‘real woman,’ presumably, one that doesn’t want the vote. This cartoon suggests that women who want equal rights, both legal and social, would just turn into ‘mock’ men of misery.

            If we take a look at the language of the piece, we could read these diary entries as more like complaining of the duties of citizenship. First, the woman was called away to Jury duty and was there until the evening, suggesting that she didn’t want to, but had to go. Next, she was forced to serve as Special Constable and paraded in the streets all day long in a state of constant alarm. It doesn’t exactly sound like she enjoyed it. She then learns that as citizens, are now liable to military service. So, now women can get drafted.  At the end of the week, she gets thrown into prison because of her husband, who doesn’t work, but just buys extravagant items. It seems like the roles have been reversed. Possibly, the author of this piece is implying that if women gain equal status with men, that they will dominate and men will become submissive.

            One of the “privileges” of a real Victorian woman was marriage.  The structure of the patriarchal family with the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the good wife and mother, upheld the division between the public and private spheres in terms of gender roles.  Upon entering into marriage the woman’s property became her husband’s resulting in less legal freedom for women.  The success and worth of women were defined by whether or not she was married, and to some extent viewed marriage as a liberating experience they were no longer dependent on parents who in old age would result in humiliation and allowed them the opportunity to create their own household.  Queen Victoria even supports that status quo of marriage and said that “Being married gives one one’s position, which nothing else can,” (Perkin, 75).  Like the Punch cartoon, popular sentimental fiction of the 1860s served as propaganda about unstable, turbulent family patterns that was driven by hatred, the image of marriage as a cage, women in opposition to their husbands, and domestic murder (Perkin, 104).


            The main rights that women were seeking included the right to custody of theirchildren, the right to vote, the right to divorce as easily as their male counterparts, and the right to their own property.  Here, we take a closer look at the issue of women's private property.





Married Women Bill – The Times, Tuesday, May 30, 1854, pg 12, col. 4


            The brief description given here in the May 30, 1854, installment of “The Times” openly portrays some of the aspirations of women suffragists of the period with respect to property laws.  Properly titled “The Married Women’s Property Act”, this bill, though introduced to the British Parliament’s House of Commons in 1854, was only passed in part in 1870 and finally culminated in 1882, when Parliament “recognized husbands and wives as separate legal entities” (1).  A final addition in 1893 made the property rights of married women the same as those of unmarried women.  The gain of these property rights became the forerunners to many other women’s rights, including the right to vote, and the right to hold a public office.


            At the time of this publication, English common law maintained that all a woman had before marriage, and all she might acquire after marriage, belonged to her husband, “the rationale of the law being that if husband and wife are "one body" before God, they are "one person" in the law, and that person is represented by the husband” (2).  Legally, a wife was named femme coverte or the “covered woman”.  This bill sought to give married women the same rights as unmarried women, legally named femme sole, such as the ability to keep any earned wages, inherit property in her own name, and make legally binding contracts including a will.  One of the rights specified in this news statement is a woman’s ability to “dispose of her future and reversionary interest, vested or contingent in any personal estate.  This means a married woman would be able to control the course, or make arrangement for, any property (land, money, items of value) she might acquire by inheritance upon someone’s death (like a parent), by the maturation of a policy or by the end of a grant; and she could make these arrangements based not only on properties she was guaranteed (such as those granted in a will) but on potential properties she might acquire in the future.  This brief summary also mentions that a married woman’s actions in these matters of property would be “acknowledged in the manner required by the Fines and Recoveries Act” (she could seek justice under the same laws that protected men’s property rights); and would be “concurred in by her husband” (he would agree with her actions - though in its final form, the bill does not make this stipulation).


            As a background to the period, the following is a list of key dates concerning women’s rights during the 19th century in England (3):



1792“A Vindication of the Rights of Women” by Mary Wolstonecraft (1759-97, novelist) published; a milestone in the history of feminism.


1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act granted property rights to wives who were separated from their husbands.


1870 Married Women's Property Act gave wives possession of any money they earned.


1877 Married Women’s Property (Scotland) Act made wages, earnings and property acquired by a wife her own and not her husband’s property.


1882 Married Women's Property Act consolidated and extended previous acts; gave married women the right to separate ownership of property of all kinds; and made married women having separate property liable to the parish for the maintenance of her husband and children.


1893 Married Women’s Property Act assimilated the rights of married women to ownership of property to that of unmarried women.


1897 National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies formed by the amalgamation of local societies, with Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929, nee Garrett, sister of Elizabeth, see 1865) as president.



               Notes on the Text



(1)   - Property Rights of Women http://www.umd.umich.edu/casl/hum/eng/classes/434/geweb/PROPERTY.htm

(2)    - Property Rights of Women http://www.umd.umich.edu/casl/hum/eng/classes/434/geweb/PROPERTY.htm

(3)   - Key dates in Votes, Rights and Justice: Great Britain 1200-1899





Additional Comments


 SKhan - March 21, 2008


The status of women in the Victorian Era is a most intriguing one.  For a country like England, which was known as a global power, the social conditions for women were no better than the people it colonized.  The year 1878 in which this Punch cartoon is published follows a succession of laws/acts that started to change the status of women.  The cartoon is fascinating for it provides an insight into the concerns stemming from the changes.  In specific, it very well could be a reaction to the amendment that was made the same year to the Matrimonial Causes Act, which stated that a woman could secure a separation on the grounds of cruelty and claim custody of the children.  Interestingly, to the reader of the 21st century, the diary of a female of the future is not out of the ordinary but for the Victorian Era it probably appeared no different than flying cars for us - that is to say fantastical.  Not withstanding the excellent commentary of the editors, the cartoon is blatant propaganda against the rights and privileges slowly being gained by the women.  It depicts the society’s patriarchal notion that a woman was best suited for the domestic sphere and for her to gain access to the public sphere was undesirable and of concern. The editors provide a detail look at the language of the cartoon, which is essential in understanding the depth of the propaganda.  The cartoon essentially creates fear in its male readers and even those exceptional female readers that consider these changes too liberal by giving them a glimpse of what the future might hold.  Thereby having its readers contemplate the changes the society is gradually undergoing.  The brief description of the Married Women Bill of course alludes to the implementation (or eventual) of the rights women were seeking, in particular property rights for married women.  As indicated by the editors, it is interesting to note that though this Bill is introduced in 1854; it is not passed until 1870.  It takes some 16 years to get implemented and goes through various amendments.  In addition, by giving a list of all the key dates concerning women’s rights during the 19th century in England, the editors provide a good understanding of how the Bill fits into the ongoing struggle on the part of the women to gain some basic rights.  Interesting is the fact that the women were able to get property rights before the right to vote.  According to the editors, English common law at the time of the above bill maintained that all a woman had before marriage, and all she might acquire after marriage, belonged to her husband, which brings to mind Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield.  When Mr. Murdstone takes over the property after marrying David’s mother, the rationale is the common law itself.  It appears that no one does anything on behalf of David to retrieve the property from Mr. Murdstone and he never sees a dime from it.  As such it was not because they neglected to but that it was acceptable that Mr. Murdstone keep it under the common law. 




                Works Cited



Perkin, Joan.  Victorian Women.  New YorkL New York University Press, 1993.


Property Rights of Women.  Accessed 2/13/08.  http://www.umd.umich.edu/casl/hum/eng/classes/434/geweb/PROPERTY.htm


Key dates in Votes, Rights and Justice: Great Britain 1200-1899.  Accessed 2/13/08.



Oxford English Dictionary Online.  Accessed 2/13/08







                For Additional Reading



Erickson, Amy Louise. Women and Property in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1993.


Hecker, Eugene A. A Short History of Women's Rights. New York, NY: The Knickerbocker Press, 1910.


Hudson, Kenneth. The Place of Women in Society. Bath, Great Britain: The Pitman Press, 1970.


Helsinger, Elizabeth, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder. The Woman Question: Social Issues 1837-1883. New York: Garland, 1983. 


Peterson, M. Jeanne.  Family, Love, and Work in the Lives of Victorian Gentleman.  Bloomington   & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.


Power Cobbe, Frances. "Why Women Desire the Franchise." In Women's Writing of the Victorian Period 1837-1901, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, 217-221. New York: St Martin's Press, 1999.


Shanley, Mary Lyndon. Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England, 1850-1895. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.


Staves, Susan. Married Women's Separate Property in England, 1660-1833. London: Harvard UP, 1990.





                Project Group Members


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 Kristin Hung  Western Washington University  ENG 310
 Jaina Gemin  Western Washington University  ENG 310
 Meredith Jenks  Western Washington University  ENG 310






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