Married Women’s Property Act 1870

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Statutes of Law

Married Women’s Property Act 1870

Why was there a need for a Married Women’s Property Act at the end of the 19th century?

The stark and simple truth was that when a woman married she virtually became invisible as far as the law was concerned. A woman merely became an addition to the property owned by her husband. What that meant in reality, was that all a wife’s possessions, her wealth and her property were controlled by her husband. She could not dispose of any belongings without his consent.

‘the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during her marriage, or at least is incorporated or consolidated into that of her husband, under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.’
Sir William Blackstone

Many women were put in impossible situations, especially if they wanted to divorce their husbands, which was only available to the wealthiest people since it required an act of Parliament.  The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 however denied a husband his right to the earnings of a wife he had deserted. The woman in this instance would become a single woman again but as mentioned before, divorce was very difficult to achieve.

Married Women’s Property Act 1870 and the Kensington Society

The situation was unacceptable to many women, amongst them Millicent Fawcett, feminist and politician and other women who were trying to pursue careers in medicine, education and politics. They formed the Kensington Society primarily to debate Parliamentary reform and the right of women to vote but they also took up the cause of the property rights of married women and their hard work won over various members of Parliament to enable the act to reach the statute books.

The Married Woman’s Property Act 1870, allowed women to keep earnings or property acquired after marriage but it also highlighted other various significant aspects relating to women as well and was another act that paved the way towards equality, for example;

The legal identity of husband and wife. A wife was not equal in the eyes of the law, indeed they had the same legal status as a criminal or insane person did.

A woman could be sued by her husband but not vice versa, however he was liable for all her debts and breaches of law.

This is neatly illustrated for us by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist

It was all Mrs. Bumble. She would do it,” urged Mr. Bumble; first looking round, to ascertain that his partner had left the room.

That is no excuse,” returned Mr. Brownlow. “You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and, indeed, are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.”

Married women's property act 1870

The Married Women’s Property Act 1870, improved wives’ position to an extent by giving them possession of their own earnings, not yet of their property, that was to come later in the Act of 1882. 

The Act stated:

      • Wages and investments made by a wife could be held by a wife for her own separate use, independent from her husband
      • A wife could inherit up to £200 in her own right and keep the money
      • A wife was allowed to keep any property inherited from her next of kin as long as it was not bound in trust
      • They could hold and inherit rented property
      • The act also held that both parents could be made liable to support children

Find out about other acts of parliament and the impact they had on women in society by clicking here.

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