When Married Women in Britain and Ireland Had No Rights to Their Children
Family Law in England and Ireland
Men made all the laws for England and Ireland in the 19th century and the 1900s. This included Family Law so the women and children suffered. Women had no rights at all at this time in history. Until a woman got married she was dependent on her father for lodgings, food and money.
Once the woman did marry she legally became the property of her husband. Any money or property she inherited from her parents if they were wealthy also became the property of the husband. The woman had no rights to her children. They were at the mercy of their father.
The Children Suffered
Children and Their Rights
Any children born in the marriage also became the legal property of the husband and father. If the woman divorced the husband she was destitute as nothing she brought in to the marriage was now her property. He could do what he liked with the children. If he so wished he could put them in a residential school or have them adopted. The mother and children had no say in the matter.
Many women stayed in the marriage because of these Laws. Middle and Upper class women were not allowed to work if they wanted to stay respectable and therefore suitable for marriage. Those who didn't marry usually became the unpaid carers of their parents. They and the parent were ‘pitied’ for their situation. When the parents died the daughter did not inherit the house or money belonging to the parents even though she may have looked after them for years.
No Entitlement in the Will
The property was always left to the sons. Women were not entitled to any inheritance except at the discretion of the father. If an unmarried middle class woman was left destitute with nowhere to live and no money she usually had to become a live in governess. Therefore swapping one carers role for another, she was in effect a servant in someone else’s home again.
Trapped in the Marriage
The only way the young women were able to escape from this fate was to get married. Once a woman was married she became the property of her husband. This was the law. It was known as the 'Coverture System' Any children she had did not belong to her. They only had one parent under the Law, the father.
She had no right to even see them. She had no rights at all. The house and any money were his. She had to find work to survive. There was no freedom for the married woman in Ireland. The women of the lower classes did work, but this was accepted as a necessity and not frowned upon. They became servants, worked in factories, pubs and as prostitutes.
The jobs we see most women working in today, which were only done by men then, were secretaries, sales assistants, civil servants, etc. This was because it was felt that women were either too stupid or delicate to do these jobs. There were exceptions but very few.
Britain in 1900
Sole Custody of the Children
If a woman left the marriage and was separated or divorced it was deemed her fault. It didn't matter if he had a hundred affairs or beat her black and blue. The husband had sole custody of the children. He could put the children in an orphanage or send them away to God knows where, she had no rights to see them.
This was the same for any property she may have inherited from her parents. He got to keep it all. Not only that but when and if she did get a job after the divorce all her earnings were his by law. The husband could take all her earnings from her so she would become destitute and at his mercy.
She was trapped into a dull and unfulfilling life if she did not marry. If she did and the marriage was a bad one she was trapped in a violent and unhappy life. If she was lucky enough to marry and find love then she still by law was worthless and the ‘property’ of her husband.
Anna Haslam and the Quakers
There were one group of people who recognised the value of their women, which was the Quakers. This was a religious organisation that felt it was just as important for the girls to be educated as the boys. The women could go to work or set up their own businesses. In Ireland in 1876 Anna Haslam with her husband, Tom set up the first Irish organisation to try to get votes for women. This was called The Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association.
They did not believe in violence and sent letters to Parliament and the politicians. But most Irish women at that time did not support them. Nearly all were Catholics and they believed the teachings of the Catholic Church. This was that the woman was there to obey her husband and look after the children and bring them up as good Catholics.
Allowed Limited Access to the Children
There was a very small change in the law for the better in 1838 for the women.If they were separated they were allowed limited access to the children. But it wasn't until 1870 when the Married Women's Property Act came into Law that they were allowed to keep any money that they earned themselves. This gave them some independence.
Guardianship of Infants Act
In 1886 the Guardianship of Infants Act allowed women to become the guardians of their own children but only if the husband died. Attitudes towards Women Changed in Ireland when in 1880 the Women of Ireland were asked for the first time to help out the men with a Political Situation. The men had no idea what they had let themselves in for.
The women did a better job and it made them realise that what the men, their fathers, brothers, husbands and their priests had been telling them all their lives was not true. They were not stupid, they could think for themselves. And unfortunately for the men they did just that.
Irish Women Become Politically Active
It all started in 1881 in Ireland when Michael Davitt asked the women to take over the Land league while the men were in jail. The Irish Ladies Land League was established.
The rich English landlords owned the land and charged rents that were too high. At this time thousands of families were being evicted from their homes. They were thrown out of their homes and left to starve to death. Many of them did.
The Land League with Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Davitt as its leaders were making so much trouble for the British Government that they were arresting thousands of the men involved.
Michael Davitt knew that soon there would be no men left to carry on. So he asked Charles Stuart Parnell's sisters Anna and Fanny to come home from America and set up the Ladies Land League in its place.
Parnell was Arrested in 1881
Where as the men tried to stop the evictions but once it failed they left the families to fend for themselves, the women did what women do. They helped in a practical way. They got food and clothes for the evicted families and built a hut at each house so the evicted family was able to stay on the land.
At first the papers made a laugh of them and could not understand how they had the cheek to think they were equal and would be able to run a political organisation like the men. The churches, both Catholic and Protestant were even more hostile to the idea. They stated that the women had no right to be away from their homes and their domestic duties.
They were told to go home and look after their husbands and children and not to stand up and make speeches and protests. The papers soon changed their mind when they saw all the help the people were getting from these ' silly ' women. This was the first time Irish women got involved in politics and from then on many more were to follow.
Women Could Not Vote in Ireland until 1918
In Ireland women were not allowed to become doctors, solicitors, accountants, civil servants, etc in the 1800’s. The Victoria College in Belfast was the first to allow women to study there in 1859. The first in Dublin was the Alexandra College in 1866. Trinity College still did not allow any women in there to study until 1904
Most of the women who did graduate became teachers because they could still not practice their professions. Women could not vote in England and Ireland until 1918 but then only if they were over thirty years old and owned property.
It was not until 1923 in the Irish Free State that all Irish women over the age of twenty one years old were allowed to vote in Ireland. It was 1928 before all British Women over Twenty One Years old were allowed to Vote.
Family Law in 19th Century England and Ireland
Women and Children suffered in England and Ireland in the 19th Century. The men made all the laws including Family Law. So they Made the Woman and Children the Legal Property of the Man within Marriage. He also had the full rights to any money or property of the wife.
Change in the Family Law and all other discriminatory laws against women and children did finally come about but very slowly. It took a lot of guts and hard work by women and men who supported Women's rights to make this change.