Married Women's Property Campaign: the 1856 Petition

In 1856 Lord Brougham said he had the 'distinguished honour of being entrusted with a petition from above 2,000 of our fellow countrywomen in respect of the property of wives.' He said:

They complain of the state of the law respecting women, of inconsistencies so gross, of defects so glaring, of iniquities so grievous, that I cannot suffer them to be called anomalies, and wrapt up in the convenient obscurity of the term not unfrequently used without any definite meaning. The petitioners complain of the law, and I denounce its state as a disgrace to a civilised, not to say a Christian community. The load, too, which the cruel, the scandalous injustice of our system imposes, the sufferings which it inflicts, fall upon the most deserving classes of the people, those in humble condition and of the middle ranks somewhat above them, who earn by their honest industry the means of their subsistence.

I claim your attention to their case, because it can never be your own, because your wives and your children are, happily for you, exempt from feeling the most grievous of the evils whereof the petitioners complain [by which he meant rich men's wives had their inherited money placed in trust and did not work for wages]. But remember, I pray you, the lot of a woman toiling through days - not seldom nights too - of hard labour to support her own and her children's existence, whom an idle or a profligate husband has deserted, and doomed to see the little store which her exertions have gathered together swept away by that idler or good-for-nothing, in the exercise of his legal - I blush for our jurisprudence when I am compelled to admit his strictly legal rights as a husband, the character to which his conduct has forfeited all claims, but with whose privileges the iniquity of our law has clothed him.

Nor is it only our humbler countrywomen who have this cause of complaint; there are those to think of whose position is yet more painful - women of skill, and of accomplishments most admirable, as well as of industry above all praise - artists and authors, fitted to delight and instruct us by their works, and who are exposed to the hazards which I have faintly endeavoured to describe. From the tyranny of the law, and of him whom the law arms with the power of oppressing, they have no means of escape, unless they would pass the line that separates duty from guilt, and, even then, if thus defied, the husband cannot loosen the bond that ties them [i.e. get a divorce], unless he has a fortune sufficient to undergo the costs of the Consistorial Court, and afterwards of both Houses of Parliament [each divorce needed a separate Act of Parliament]. But for the wife there is no such remedy, even if she had the means of paying its expenses; while the husband may pass the bounds of the line I have referred to [i.e. commit adultery] as freely as he may do any perfectly indifferent and innocent act, and the wife has no power of obtaining redress, much less of dissolving the tie, become now an intolerable burden.

My noble and learned Friend (Lord Lyndhurst) last Session gave me a kind of pledge that he would apply his practised skill, his experienced understanding, to provide a remedy for evils so universally confessed. If I thought that he might after the recess redeem this pledge, it would be an unspeakable comfort to me; and if my present appeal to him is attended with this result, I shall feel satisfied that the petition of our countrywomen has not been intrusted to me in vain.'Source: Hansard

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