Criminal Conversation

Image result for free images of suffragettes Anyone would think criminal conversation means plotting to commit a crime or perhaps talking about it afterwards. Not so. It was an action brought by a husband for compensation for the infidelity of his wife and was common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with large sums of money involved. Only the wealthy could afford to take such action and it did not necessarily involve divorce.

At that time the only grounds for divorce which allowed remarriage was adultery and the law was different for men and women. A man could divorce his wife for a single act of infidelity, a woman could only sue for divorce if the adultery was accompanied by life-threatening cruelty. This at a time when a man was allowed to beat his wife!

Louisa Garret Anderson, daughter of Elizabeth Garret Anderson, writing about her mother’s day in the middle of the 19th century, said: ‘To remain single was thought a disgrace and at thirty an unmarried woman was called an old maid. After their parents died, what could they do, where could they go? If they had a brother, as unwanted and permanent guests, they might live in his house. Some had to maintain themselves and then, indeed, difficulty arose. The only paid occupation open to a gentlewoman was to become a governess under despised conditions and a miserable salary. None of the professions were open to women; there were no women in Government offices; no secretarial work was done by them. Even nursing was disorganized and disreputable until Florence Nightingale recreated it as a profession by founding the Nightingale School of Nursing in 1860.’

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, did little to alter this. It changed the proceedings from Parliament to a special court and allowed cruelty and desertion in addition to adultery asa valid reason for a woman to divorce a husband. Adultery alone was still not enough. Once divorced any children of the marriage became the property of the husband and the mother could be prevented from seeing her children, even when she was the innocent party.Image result for free images of suffragettes

Before 1882 and the passing of the Married Woman’s Property Act, everything a woman owned passed to her husband on marriage. He could do what he liked with it. The 1882 Act, drafted by Dr Richard Pankhurst, husband of the suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst allowed women to retain control of their property and earnings.

Women have had to fight all the way for their rights, which brings me to the struggle to obtain the vote, which is part of the research I'm doing for my next book. It didn’t start with Emmeline Pankhurst; it had been muted many years before, and though in 1869 the Municipal Franchise Act allowed women to vote in local elections and even stand for office, nothing was done about a parliamentary vote. There were dozens of women’s suffrage societies and associations, all working towards votes for women. Accustomed to being meek and ladylike, it was not until Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters came along things hotted up. Mrs Pankhurst argued that throughout history men have fought for what they wanted with protests and riots and often with injury and loss of life. When that happened Parliament bowed to the pressure and changed the law. She organised protests and petitions and marches in which thousands took part, but the government of the day, led by Mr Asquith, would have none of it.

One MP told the women. ‘Members of Parliament are not responsible to women, they are only responsible to voters.’. Women didn’t count. The escalation in damage to property was almost inevitable. Arrest and imprisonment followed. The hunger striking came about because they were not allowed the privileges of political prisoners but were classed as criminals. Hunger strikes led to force-feeding until the women were almost at death’s door. Afraid of the backlash, the government passed what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. The women were released to recover and when well enough were re-arrested and the whole process began again.  Image result for free images of suffragettes

The suffragists were no further forward when the first world war began and they called a truce in order to work for the war effort. This they did, taking on jobs previously done by men and doing them well. As a direct result in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed giving  the vote to women over thirty who fulfilled the minimum property qualifications. The same Act allowed all men of 21 and over to vote, so the women were still behind the men. Not until the Equal Franchise Act was passed in 1928 were women all owed to vote at 21 along with the men.

Incidentally, in 1911, many of these women avoided filling in the census forms by staying out all night on the grounds that they didn’t count. So if you are doing family history research and cannot find your female ancestor in 1911, that may be the reason.