Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Jack Thacker, Lowell Harrison, Carol Crowe

Degree Program

Department of History

Degree Type

Master of Arts


The major purpose of this thesis was to analyze and evaluate the development of the Married Women's Property Act of 1882. This Act exemplified the effort to improve the rights of women in nineteenth century Britain. Similar to the series of Reform Acts, the series of Married Women's Property Acts (1870, 1874, 1882 and 1893) represented the gradual extension of the tenets of Victorian liberalism to a broader portion of the English population. The unique feature of these Acts was that they marked the transcendence of liberalism over sexual barriers.

In order to understand the significance of these Acts it was necessary to note the accepted image of a woman and a wife. The traditional Victorian ideal of womanhood guaranteed her subordination to the family and her husband. However, William Thompson and Mary Wollstonecraft were early advocates of the need for a reappraisal of a woman's social and economic role in society. A comparison between John Ruskin's "Of Queens' Gardens" and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women revealed the two approaches to the problem of a woman's true position in Victorian society.

The accepted social subordination of a woman and a wife was further substantiated by the law. Basically, upon marriage, a woman became a legal non -person. All of her possessions passed into her husband's hands. The degree of a husband's control varied with the specific type of property involved. In certain instance, owing to the provisions of restraint on anticipation developed through the laws of equity, a wife's property could be secured against possible encroachment by her husband. However, this provision did not establish a wife's financial independence. The main advantage of restraint on anticipation was to protect a family estate from an extravagant husband.

The problem of a wife's economic status was precisely what the provisions of the Married Women's Property Act sought to remedy. The issue was first debated in Parliament in 1857, however, fears of disturbing domestic harmony thwarted any successful passage until 1870. The 1870 Act merely guaranteed a wife separate use of her earnings and wages. It was not until 1882, that Parliament passed a sweeping reform guaranteeing a wife the full sanctity of private property, thereby releasing her from the economic bondage to her husband.

Although the debate over the merits of these Acts subsided within a very short time, their importance should not be minimized. They provided as important foundation for the blossoming debate for the eventual enfranchisement of women. More importantly, the Married Women's Property Acts signaled the beginning of the end of the Victorian view of the submissive wife.


Arts and Humanities | European History | History | Social History | Women's History