Tuesday, 26 April 2005

The Legal Status of Women in Restoration London

Women in the Restoration period did not have an enviable legal status. At the age of seven a girl was considered old-enough to be betrothed, while at twelve it was legal for her to be married. Until the "happy" day of her marriage, a girl was almost quite literally owned by her father. If he should have happened to die at some point while she was unmarried, the next head of the family would take her on, (typically the oldest son or the uncle). Of course, marriage did not give her any more independence as she was then the "property" of her husband and legally her status had changed from feme sole to feme covert, while he was called her "baron". A feme covert was thus not allowed to enter into any contracts or even make a will, without the permission of her husband. The law of the time specified: "That which the husband has is his own" and "that which the wife has is the husband's". (How convenient all this was for the husband...).

Reference: "Restoration London: Everyday Life in London 1660 - 1670", by Lisa Picard, published by Phoenix.

6 comments:

Claire said...

Oh I love Liza Picard's work!

Alterior said...

Yes, it is lovely isn't it! :-)))

Light said...

This all sounds remarkably similar to the treatment of women by the Taliban...

Alterior said...

Taliban a l'Anglais

Sharon said...

Actually, not really. A single woman (or widow) who had reached the age of majority (21, I think) was legally a free agent. What's being discussed mostly relates to landed heiresses (a small proportion of the female population!). And not all women were married off at 12 - far from it. The rich tended to marry younger than everyone else and to have matches made for them (although in theory no one could be forced to marry against their will), but ordinary people on average got married in their mid-20s, and chose their own partners. The part about all property in a marriage belonging to the husband is correct, though - mind you, most people had so little property that the idea of coverture was virtually irrelevant to them anyway. Yes, women were legally disadvantaged in a host of ways, but it really wasn't like being under the Taliban.

(An excellent recent survey is _Women in early modern England_ by Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford.)

Alterior said...

No, you're right, not like the Taliban. My comment a l'Anglais, was really meant to be taken lightly as the similarity lies in the fact that women (whether privilidged or not) really did not have any rights at all (not in the sense we know them) and a husband could pretty much treat his wife any way that pleased him best. Of course you are right, this applied mainly to the people in the upper classes and not to the average person. As usual, history focuses alot on the privilidged classes so we don't get to hear much about the rest of the people, who were and still are the majority. Thanks for the corrections, I appreciate it. :-)