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“The most striking feature of the debates on the Married Women’s Property Bills is how little time was spent discussing the principle of sexual equality, and how much time was spent discussing the idea that giving married women property rights would cause discord in the home.” –  Historian Ben Griffin

During the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, married British women lived under the conditions of coverture. This made a husband and wife one under the law and gave husbands financial and legal control over their wives. Under coverture, women lost all control of their property once married, unable to buy, sell, own, or inherit anything they possessed before. The pursuit of a career was almost impossible for women because under coverture they had no ability to sign contracts, have legal control over incomes, or other processes that are essential to earning income. These conditions were not applied to unmarried (single and widowed) women, who had marginal autonomy under the law for owning property.

In 1868, a Married Women’s Property Bill was presented to the British Parliament that offered married women the same rights as unmarried women. After two years of revisions, the Parliament finally passed the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. It allowed for married women to keep their wages and investments independent of their husbands, inherit small sums, hold property either rented or inherited from close family, and made both parents liable for children. Although this was as step in the direction of women’s rights, married women still did not have full financial independence; most of their finances and property were still by law controlled by their husbands. Moreover, it only applied to future marriages, keeping women who were already married from regaining their property rights.

The passing of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 did not satisfy women’s rights activists, and women like Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) advocated for women’s financial autonomy. Their continued campaigning eventually resulted in the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. This law actually gave women independence under the law regarding finances and property. The law allowed women to own, buy, and sell property, keep any income from the property or an occupation, and keep any inheritance. Additionally, the law made both parents equally responsible for their children. These changes in legislature gave women much greater legal autonomy and cleared the British system of coverture.

Though these laws did not make women equal to men under the civil law, they provided the necessary foundation for women to progress closer to equality. By gaining a legal identity through these two laws, women were then able to advocate for more rights as autonomous beings. The laws may not have changed societal beliefs of gendered labor or separate spheres, but they did end the invisibility of married women in the law. Women were no longer completely linked with their husbands financially. These laws gave them at least some level of independence that had not yet been obtained and placed them at a point where they could continue to gain independence and advocate for more rights.

Shana Loudermelk, History and Psychology double major, Class of 2019


Literature and Websites

  • Christensen, V. r. “English Historical Fiction Authors: Women’s Rights and the Battle for Identity.” English Historical Fiction Authors (blog), at: (Accessed April 23, 2018.)
  • Felluga. “Rachel Ablow, “‘One Flesh,’ One Person, and the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act.” BRANCH, at: (Accessed April 23, 2018).
  • HLB. “Intriguing History – Married Women’s Property Act 1870.” Intriguing History (blog), January 4, 2012.  (Accessed April 23, 2018).
  • “Married Women’s Property Act 1870.” Wikipedia, at:  (Accessed April 23, 2018).
  • “Married Women’s Property Act 1882.” Wikipedia, at:  (Accessed April 23, 2018).
  • Griffin, Ben. “Class, Gender, and Liberalism in Parliament, 1868-1882: The Case of the Married Women’s Property Acts.” The Historical Journal 46, no.1 (2003).): 59–87 


Nineteenth century political cartoon on conditions under coverture.