Monday, 5 January 2009

'Guide to the Unprotected': Victorian women and finance

Lee Jackson has just put a new e-text on his amazing Victorian London website. It's the 1874 Guide to the Unprotected in Every-day Matters Relating to Property and Income by 'a Banker's Daughter'.

Who were the 'unprotected'? The answer was 'widows and single ladies, and all young people'. There was a good reason to be so careful to exclude married women, since the legal doctrine of 'coverture' meant that before 1870, married women were not able to own their own property. Instead, they were subsumed under their husband's legal identity: in the words of jurist William Blackstone,
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.
Consequently, all the couple's property was legally the husband's, from the wife's inheritance and earnings to the clothes she wore. The Married Women's Property Act of 1870 had given wives limited rights to keep money earned or inherited after the marriage, but it was still assumed that any major financial dealings would be the responsibility of the husbands who 'protected' them.

The change in the law was the result of two pressures upon Parliament. First, there were feminist campaigns for such an Act, given the obvious unfairness of the law of coverture - especially where a marriage was unhappy or broke down. (Imagine being reduced to poverty by a husband who gambled and drank your wages away while living with another woman, for example). Second, local ratepayers objected to having to pay poor relief to women whose earnings had been taken by drunken or deserting husbands, leaving the parish to support them and their children. Letting those wives keep their wages seemed likely to save money, especially as the Act made women responsible along with their husbands for the upkeep of their children.

More significant change finally came in 1882, with the second Married Women's Property Act. Wives were now allowed to buy, sell and own property.

'Protection', then, could better be understood as a euphemism for male control over a woman's money. The 'unprotected' woman at whom the book was aimed was one who in reality enoyed a very fundamental protection denied to married women and those financially dependent upon fathers: the ability to control her own property and income so that she could feed and support herself rather than relying on a perhaps cruel, neglectful or feckless man. The infantilising effect of the legal and cultural barriers to female financial independence is apparent from these comments in the Preface:
Ladies rarely have any business to attend to before they attain the age of twenty-one. They are usually older, when, through their father's or their husband's death, they find themselves possessed of money of their own, and are then first called upon to act. They naturally feel shy and awkward, at that time of life, in asking such a simple question as, How am I to draw a Cheque? How should I write to my Banker to send me some money?

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