Bloody Brilliant Women (2018) shines a light on some of British history’s most remarkable women, who, for years, were conveniently left out of history books mainly written by men. Newman rights this wrong, providing an exhaustive history of the multitude of women responsible for shaping Britain from the 1880s to the present day.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1798 novel The Wrongs of Woman tells the tale of Maria – a woman who loses custody of her infant daughter and is unjustly imprisoned in a mental asylum by her husband. Though a work of gothic fiction, Maria’s fate was a sad reality for many women in Britain’s Georgian and Victorian eras. At the time, marriage for a woman meant being robbed of her fortune and freedom.
Only in the late nineteenth century did the law begin to change, and women gradually gained protection from domestic offenses.
One of the foundations of marriage law in Victorian England was coverture. Coverture dictated that a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by the legal rights of her husband. That meant she could not sue, be sued, or make a will. Her property became her husband’s property – even if she owned it prior to marriage – and she had no custody of the couple’s children. However, married women eventually gained legal inheritance rights and the right to own any money they earned with the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870.
In 1884, the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, forbidding a husband from keeping his wife locked up at home as punishment for refusing his sexual advances. It wasn’t until 1891 that the law was first interpreted and enforced in a court case referred to as the Jackson Abduction.
Edmund Jackson married Emily Hall in 1887 and shortly thereafter left for New Zealand without his wife, seeking a better life as a farmer. Four years later, Edmund returned to England, determined to reunite with his wife. When Emily resisted, Edmund filed for a “restitution of conjugal rights” without her knowledge. This would require her by law to live with her husband and finally consummate the marriage.
One day out of impatience, he ambushed Emily and then held her against her will in his house. Emily’s family turned to the law, filing a writ of habeas corpus. This order demanded that Edmund deliver his imprisoned wife to the court, so he could be forced to give a valid reason for Emily’s confinement.
Though the High Court refused to issue the habeas corpus, the Court of Appeals delivered a decision that was unprecedented for the time, rejecting the notion that a husband should have complete control over his wife.
Despite gradual progress, wives were still considered the rightful property of their husbands in the early 1900s. In the next blink, you’ll find out how women used their work during World War I to their advantage and advanced their suffrage agenda.