Saturday, August 8, 2009

Caroline Norton

Reformer for Married Women in Britain

Caroline married George Norton (1827), a parasite who depended on her income and political connections for his own advancement. George sued the British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (1836) for seducing her after Caroline had sought Melbourne's aid in having George made a judge. The action went against George Norton, who then did all in his power to see that the existing marriage laws in Britain were fully implemented to Caroline's disadvantage.

Caroline discovered that any money or property she possessed or acquired before or during her marriage, was her husbands. And that after the break-up of the marriage, every penny that she earned to keep herself could, by law, be taken from her by her husband. Also, by law, she could never enter into contracts in her own right nor sue anyone. And finally, by law, her husband could take her children and never allow her access to them. That spurred her into action.

Caroline met and collaborated with Mr Telfourd, MP (1837), who had already decided to introduce the Infant's Custody Bill. Together they decided to pursue the Bill further. The Bill reached the House of Lords (highest level of the British parliament) - and there it stayed (1838). Caroline wrote a pamphlet "A plain letter to the Lord Chancellor" under the name "Pierce Stevenson", hoping that under a male persona the letter would carry more weight. The pamphlet was delivered to every MP and Peer (from the House of Lords) and actually received favourable reaction. The Bill was passed (1839). It laid down that a judge might make an order allowing a mother, against whom adultery was not proven, to have custody of her children under the age of 7yo and for access to older children - the Act was amended (1925) to give full equal guardianship.

Then husband George stopped Caroline's allowance (1855). Caroline took up the fight for the Marriage and Divorce Act - it was passed (1857), despite strong opposition from Mr Gladstone. Caroline's pamphlets and work behind the scenes in support of the amendments were of fundamental importance. The amendments included:- the protection of the deserted wife from her husband's claims upon her earnings, the payment of a maintenance allowance, permitting the divorced or seperated wife to inherit or bequeath property acquired after seperation (but not during marriage), and the ability of the woman to enter into contracts in her own right and to give her the power to sue, or be sued. Divorcees could now legally remarry, and the wife might now be entitled to custody of the children and a maintenance allowance. But despite all this, only men could sue for divorce on the grounds of adultery.

Throughout her life, Caroline wrote books, articles, pamphlets, poetry and songs, and four novels. In the final two years of her life, Caroline did enter into a happy marriage.

1 comment:

Hels said...

I find it amazing that the Infant's Custody Bill was passed as early as 1839. That bill, in quite a modern way, asked judges to make orders allowing “respectable” mothers to have custody of their small children and to have access to older children.

We can see how early 1839 was in comparison to the much later amendment (1925), giving equal guardianship to mothers. Despite all the exceptions and limitations and ongoing lack of justice to married women, Caroline Norton must have been a remarkable woman. Anyone else would have given up in despair.