Women and Divorce in the Victorian Era

by Rachael Hurvitz

“There's a sanctity in this relation of life," said Mr. Bounderby, "and - and - it must be kept up."

--Hard Times, 73

Once married, only one in ten women divorced.

--“Life for Women”

For Victorians, divorce was not only extremely expensive, it was very hard to do. Women and men stayed in unhappy marriages for numerous reasons. Many stayed away from divorce because of the stigma attached to divorced women. It was also considered a societal taboo. “Prior to 1857 England was the only Protestant country in Europe that did not have provisions for civil divorce. Divorce could only be obtained through private Acts of Parliament” (“Divorce”). Divorces were very hard to attain because there was no civil divorce. Private Acts were inconvenient and extremely costly. The poor had no way to attempt divorce under these circumstances. Just 322 divorces were approved prior to the passing of the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act. Subsequent to this Act passing, divorce rates rose to about 369 in 1890, and 560 in 1900. (“Divorce”).

Divorce laws highlighted the unequal status of women to men through the unequal circumstances which divorce was granted. A man could divorce a woman merely on the grounds of adultery. Yet a woman had to prove her husband guilty of adultery “…combined with cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality” (“Marriage”). The unequal status of women to men was also evident through how the courts classified married and single females. When a Victorian man and woman married, the rights of the woman were legally given over to her spouse. “This suspension of the married woman’s legal personality was known as “coverture”. An unmarried woman was known in the law as a feme sole (a “single” woman), a married woman as a feme couvert (a “covered” woman)” (“Divorce”).

Under the law the married couple was seen as one entity, and naturally the husband represented this ‘entity’. Once married all of the woman’s property, earnings, and money were given over to her spouse. The husband subsequently becomes the manager and is entitled to all the earnings of these properties. The exception to this custom was that he could not put his wife’s property in his will, nor could he sell it. “Other consequences of coverture were that a married woman could not sue or be sued, and could not make a valid will unless her husband joined her in these actions” (“Marriage”). Interestingly, rich women had a legal loophole through which the provisions of coverture could be avoided. This was to establish trusts before marriage. The trust allowed her to manage her own money, property, and earnings. She could also sue and be sued, and dictate whom her property was left to in her will. This allowed the married women to manage her estate as if she were a feme sole. (“Marriage”). In theory this is a wonderful option for women to maintain legal autonomy, yet not many people had enough money to do this. “In nineteenth century, only about one in ten English wives had separate estates” (“Marriage”).

Being poor Victorian couple, divorce just was not an option. Yet being a poor Victorian wife, you also had no individual rights under the law until the passing of the 1870 and 1883 Married Women’s Property Acts. These acts gave the right to own property to all married women. Even though the Property Acts helped forge women’s legal equality, there was still legal inequality. For example, “A husband was obligated to support his wife, but this obligation was only enforceable of the wife entered the workhouse” (“Marriage”). The law still showed superiority and favor to men over women. It is not until the 1880s that women were able to gain custody of their children and control their own properties.

Between 1889 and 1906, state legislatures, seeking to tighten their laws, greatly reduced the statutory grounds for divorce.

Today's Divorce Rates: 40%- 50%


Time Line of Divorce Laws

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times
. Pearson Education. 2004.

“Divorce.” The 1890’s, An Encyclopedia of British Literature, Art, and Culture. New York. Garland Publishing, INC. 1993.

“Interesting Facts.” 5 November 2004. <http://www.tealdragon.net/humor/facts/facts.htm>.

“Life for Women.” 2004. 7 November 2004. <http://www.victoriaspast.com/LifeofVictorianWoman/LifeofVictorianWoman.html>.

“Marriage and Divorce.” Victorian Britain, An Encyclopedia. New York. Garland Publishing, INC. 1988.

Moore, Melissa. “Women’s Issues Now & Then, A Feminist Overview of the Past 2 Centuries.” 2004. 6 November 2004. <http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/femhist/marriage.shtml#Why%20Victorian%20women%20Married>.