Before 1839, women had no rights to their children if their marriage failed and led to separation or divorce. A husband, even if he was abusive, violent, or neglectful, had the right to keep the children if the marriage corroded, while the mother had few options to fight for custody. Children were seen as the legal property of the father. Married women could not own property, enter contracts in their own stead, keep their wages and earnings, and inherit property. All property, wages, and investment earnings went to their husbands. Married women, themselves, were property.
Then came Caroline Norton.
Caroline married George Chapple Norton, barrister, and M.P. for Guildford, in 1827, but the couple quickly floundered. George was an abusive prick prone to violent, alcohol-fueled fits. George was also unsuccessful in his career as a barrister, and the two frequently fought over money. Caroline left him in 1836, taking their three sons with her.
Before Caroline fled her cruel husband, she had found success as a poet and novelist with works like The Wife, and Woman’s Reward and The Undying One. Caroline continued to write after she left George, which gave her enough of an income to subsist, but George took her to court and argued he had a right to her earnings as her husband (even though they lived separate lives, they were still legally married). He was successful and the court sided with him. Caroline, penniless, decided to use the other side of the law by charging purchases to her husband’s credit. When creditors came knocking, she directed them to her husband.
There was also the issue of their sons. After Caroline left him, George kidnapped their sons and secreted them away to Scotland. At a later point, he also hid them in Yorkshire. George refused to let Caroline see her children, and aside from writing to her husband requesting knowledge of their whereabouts, there was little she could do.
Caroline turned to writing pamphlets on the rights of married and divorced women, custody of children, and child labor. Caroline gained sympathy with her pamphlets regarding child custody. She argued it was the natural right of the mother to raise her children. She also lobbied for friends and acquaintances in the English government to reform laws surrounding child custody. Her efforts helped lead to Parliament passing the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, which allowed legally separated and divorced women to appeal to the Court of Chancery for custody of children up to the age of seven and access to children up to the age of sixteen. The mother could not be guilty of criminal conduct when she brought her petition forward.
While the passage of this act was a step towards the rights of women, it was restrictive in that only women with some financial means could petition in the Court of Chancery for their children. This excluded working- and lower-class women from petitioning the court.
Caroline’s own husband maintained custody of their children. Tragedy struck when her youngest son, William, died in 1842. He fell from a horse while out riding and suffered an injury. William died from blood-poisoning seeping into the wounds. George sent for her when he realized their son was nearing his death, but before Caroline reached Scotland, her son passed away. Norton claimed the injuries had been minor and accused George of neglecting their son. After William died, George allowed Caroline access to their surviving two sons, but he maintained full custody.
Despite her personal tragedies, Caroline continued campaigning for women after the Custody of Infants Act of 1839. She played a role in the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which expanded the ability for men and women to divorce. Under this law, a husband or wife seeking divorce had to prove their spouse’s adultery. A wife could also seek divorce if she could prove her husband was excessively cruel, deserted her, or committed incest or bigamy. A deserted wife could protect her individual income from her husband. On the downside, a woman who had been proven to commit adultery had no legal rights to the custody of her children. Women’s property rights were also protected in this act, including a married woman maintaining her earnings, inheriting and bequeathing property, and entering a contract in her own stead. Caroline is also often credited for advocating many of the ideas behind the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which allowed a woman, single or married, to maintain the money they earned and to inherit property.
While advocating for many of the reforms included in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, Caroline wrote in a pamphlet to Queen Victoria: “The natural position of woman is inferiority to man. Amen! … I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality.” Caroline never advocated for women’s equality, but she still spent her life fighting for women’s rights. She helped advance English women towards a more equal society, whether she intended it or not.
A candle for Caroline by Natasha Walter
Caroline Norton on DangerousWomenProject.org
Caroline Norton (1808-1877) by Mary Mark Ockerbloom, Editor
Caroline Norton: A Biographical Sketch by Dr. Andrzej Diniejko, D. Litt.; Contributing Editor, Poland
‘Caroline Norton: England’s First Feminist Law-Maker’ by Diane Atkinson (YouTube Video, UK Parliament)
Eliza Carthy on Caroline Norton, Great Lives on BBC Radio 4
Matrimonial Causes Act – 1857 on BBC
Meet Caroline Norton: fighting for women’s rights before it was even cool by Francine Ryan
In the U.S., one twist to this situation occurred when a husband converted to the Shakers (a celibate group with communal property) taking his children with him, while his wife stayed outside. As her husband officially had no income, he could not provide for her, but anything she earned was by law his, which meant it in theory belonged to the Shaker commune. In the two most famous cases (that of Mary Marshal Dyer and Eunice Chapman), New Hampshire changed its divorce laws and New York granted a special divorce.