Property Rights of Women in Nineteenth-Century England

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Property Rights of Women in Nineteenth-Century England

The property rights of women during most of the nineteenth century were dependent upon their marital status. Once women married, their property rights were governed by English common law, which required that the property women took into a marriage, or acquired subsequently, be legally absorbed by their husbands. Furthermore, married women could not make wills or dispose of any property without their husbands' consent. Marital separation, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the women economically destitute, as the law offered them no rights to marital property. Once married, the only legal avenue through which women could reclaim property was widowhood. Women who never married maintained control over all their property, including their inheritance. These women could own freehold land and had complete control of property disposal. The notoriety of the 1836 Caroline Norton Case highlighted the injustice of women's property rights and influenced parliamentary debates to reform property laws. The women's movement generated the support which eventually resulted in the passage of the Married Women's Property Law in 1882. England's mid-nineteenth century focus on married women's property rights culminated in the transformation of the subordinate legal status of married women.

The property owned by women in Victorian England was usually inherited from fathers. To protect the status of their daughters, most fathers included them in the distribution of the patrimony, however, the type of property inherited by sons and daughters differed. Amy Louise Erickson notes that "Fathers normally gave their daughters shares comparable in value with those of their brothers, although girls usually inherited personal property and boys more often inherited real property" (19). The more valuable real property inherited by the sons refers to freehold land, which is the actual land. Personal property referred to copyhold land, which was usually a mansion and its land held by a lord at will, and leasehold land, which was leased to individuals for life. Therefore, copyhold and leasehold land were legally secured for the life of the tenant or longer, depending on the agreement. Real property also included clothing, jewelry, household furniture, food, and all moveable goods. However, social customs held that household property and equipment belonged to the women. According to Susan Staves, the personal property inherited by women was more vulnerable to loss in contrast to the more secure land holdings inherited by men (219).

In the absence of a will or specification of land distribution, the rules of primogeniture were invoked, giving the oldest son the rights to all real property. Erickson explains that "primogeniture was applied more harshly in England" than elsewhere in Europe and was "objected to more frequently by younger sons rather than daughters" (71). Daughters inherited real property only in the absence of a son, and it was held jointly between sisters. In the absence of a son, "the law preferred a daughter to a collateral male" in England, unlike most of Europe, according to Erickson (27). England's primogeniture laws remained intact until 1925. Although sons were entitled to a more substantial inheritance, daughters were beneficiaries of minimal or limited property distribution.

Unmarried women, legally identified as feme sole, had complete legal control of their own property. They had the right to dispose of their property and only used the assistance of a legal guardian if they chose. The distribution of property in unmarried women's wills differed from men's in that that these women gave preferences to their female relatives in dividing their property (Erickson 19). This allowed female members of the family to live more comfortably, as women were more susceptible to a life of poverty. Unmarried women maintained control of their...
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