The woman who fought for – and won – rights for married women in England

Francine Ryan qualified as a solicitor in 1996 and worked in practice before moving to academia. She is a law lecturer at The Open University. Her research interests include inspiring women who have made a contribution to law, criminal justice and gender perspectives surrounding the law of rape. Francine is co-lead editor of the Journal of Commonwealth Law and Legal Education (the Journal of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association).

Victorian society labelled Caroline Norton a ‘scandalous woman’ but was she also a ‘dangerous woman’?

There is no doubt she was a remarkable woman. She had the audacity to challenge the power of men and highlight the suffering of women. What is fascinating about Caroline’s story is although she campaigned to change the law and ultimately secured a landmark victory for women- she was not a feminist and she did not believe in equality for women.

Caroline’s story demonstrates the plight and vulnerability of Victorian married women trapped in unhappy and often violent marriages because they had no legal status.

Caroline was born in 1808 into a genteel but impoverished family. In 1827, at the age of 19, she married Tory MP, George Norton. They had three sons. It was a turbulent marriage and Caroline was subjected to physical and emotional abuse. George wanted to control his wife but she resisted. She openly mocked him and flirted with other men. Caroline’s family was associated with the rival Whig party, and she was greatly admired by Whig men and influential in political circles. It was rare for a woman to have such political influence but Caroline was fortunate that she had friends in Parliament and was renowned as a political hostess, she held intimate gatherings of well-connected men, which allowed her to press her cause. Caroline could rely on her Whig heritage, her grandfather was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a famous playwright and politician who had a reputation for campaigning for social justice.

George was a failed lawyer and an unsuccessful politician. Despite his abhorrence of Caroline’s connections to the Whig party he demanded she use her influence to secure him a number of judicial positions. George openly encouraged Caroline’s friendship with Lord Melbourne and yet felt humiliated by the gossip that ensued, which fuelled his misery and rage.

The Norton marriage collapsed and in June 1836, George Norton sued Lord Melbourne- the- then Whig Prime Minister claiming he had an affair with Caroline. His motive was not only to destroy the government but also the first step towards obtaining a divorce. Women were deemed the property of their husbands so despite the fact Caroline’s actions were the subject of the trial she was not represented and could play no part in trying to defend her reputation. Although, George failed to prove his case and Caroline and Melbourne were exonerated, Caroline’s reputation was still ruined.

The Norton’s were now separated but Caroline remained the legal property of George- she was unable to divorce him and had no legal rights.   George was a vindictive man and refused Caroline access to her children and her own property. Caroline learnt the perilous position of married women. The law offered no legal protection because they had no legal existence. Sir William Blackstone defined the position of married women:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband…

(William Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Vol, 1 (1765), pages 442-445)

Caroline was a fighter and she came to understand the only way to remedy her situation was to start a campaign to change the law. She was already an accomplished and established writer with political allies. She produced a series of political pamphlets to educate the public about the plight of mothers and to influence MPs to support a change in the law.

In 1837, she published her first pamphlet entitled ‘Observations on the Natural Claims of a Mother to the custody of her Children as Affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father’. She campaigned for all children under the age of seven to remain in the custody of their mother and the decision of where older children should live to be decided by the court not the father. Caroline was able to enlist the support of the MP for Reading, Mr Talfourd to introduce a bill into Parliament to give judges the power to allow either parent to have access to their children under the age of 12.

She published a second pamphlet ‘The Separation of Mother and Child By the Law of Custody of Infants Considered’, in which she wrote:

 The fact of the wife being innocent and the husband guilty, or of the separation being an unwilling one on her part, does not alter his claim: the law has no power to order that a woman shall have even occasional access to her children, though she could prove that she was driven by violence from her husband’s house and that he had deserted her for a mistress. The father’s right is absolute and paramount, and can be no more be affected by the mother’s claim, than if she had no existence.

She followed this with ‘A plain letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill’ written under a pseudonym. It was a struggle but the bill eventually became law in August 1839, it provided that if a wife was legally separated or divorced from her husband and had not been found guilty of adultery she was allowed custody of her children up to the age of seven and access thereafter. Caroline’s campaign had brought the issue into the public domain and worn away opposition to the bill.

The significance of her achievement cannot be underestimated but the great sadness for Caroline was that despite her efforts it still did not restore her children to her. George moved the children to Scotland where the Act did not apply and it was not until one of her boys tragically died that she was able to see her remaining children.

Caroline recognized the campaign was not finished. To protect married women they needed to secure their property rights. To that end, she published, English Law for Women in the Nineteenth Century in 1854 and in June 1855 wrote A Letter to Queen Victoria on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill. In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act was finally passed. It contained 68 clauses, four of which came from Caroline’s pamphlets. These included a woman’s right to form a contract, to receive maintenance as directed by the court, to inherit and bequeath property and to keep possession of her own earnings.

Caroline was not seeking female equality in her pamphlet to the Queen, she wrote:

The natural position of woman is inferiority to man. Amen! … I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality.

The fight for equality would come later by other women. Her battle was forced upon her by personal tragedy, where so many women felt they had no choice – Caroline would not accept that and for the first time a woman challenged the status quo. By Victorian standards that made her a dangerous woman she defied the role of subservient wife, mother and woman. She would not accept the injustice of her situation and so became a catalyst for change. To Victorian society it was shocking that a woman would publish details of their own situation but by highlighting the tragedy of her own story and the case histories included in the pamphlets, it contextualized the suffering of married women.

Caroline secured a significant victory for women. The passage of the Infant Custody Act gave legal rights for women for the first time and made them visible before the law. Women owe a huge debt of gratitude to Caroline Norton. Her determination began the process of legislative change without this, women could not start the fight for the vote. We need the bravery of women to share their stories to engender change, Caroline Norton may inspire other women to follow bravely in her footsteps.

Caroline Norton is largely a forgotten figure but her story is timeless. It reflects the injustice women endured in Victorian society and continue to suffer today. So many elements of Caroline’s story will resonate with women – women who have escaped violence, fought for custody of their children – their struggle was her struggle. Even today, women in many cultures are still fighting for the kind of freedom she championed.