On International Women’s Day, I’m reminded of the research I undertook while writing ‘For Their Country’s Good’, an historical series about a young poacher exiled for life for killing one of Lord Northampton’s gamekeepers. He left behind a common-law wife pregnant and penniless who was determined not to be left behind. It was researching her plight more than his that uncovered shocking truths about the lives of women in Victorian England.
I hadn’t intended to write a book that highlighted the lack of women’s rights, but that lack was such an inescapable and integral part of the story that it became inevitable. Once given in marriage, often as a political or social pawn, a woman legally owned nothing – everything she may have owned before marriage became the property of her husband. Even her children belonged to her husband, and she had no rights over them. She could be legally imprisoned, beaten, and raped – indeed rape in marriage was legal until 1991.
While a man was socially applauded for the number of his mistresses, and his wife was expected to accept it, if a woman strayed just once, she could be set aside with no means of support, denied access to her children, and refused permission to remarry. A husband’s revenge for being deserted or cuckolded was such that many women stayed in violent and loveless marriages rather than lose everything, including her children. Divorce was unheard of for all but the peerage, and was seen as a crime against God. Indeed, it was the church that actually promoted this inequality between the sexes, church courts having the say rather than civil courts in marital issues. The laws of marriage and property rights were made by men for men. A man could be looked down on for beating a horse but was virtually encouraged to beat godliness into his wife.
Women’s rights have come a long way since the 1840s, which is when ‘For Their Country’s Good’ is set, but women still have to fight for equality in the workplace and for acceptance as equals. Even when I was a young woman, men were expected to sow their wild oats, but girls were expected to be virgins. I was never quite sure how that hypocrisy was supposed to work! And I was paid half of my male counterparts for doing the same job in banking, and yes, it did rankle.
Men and women are not the same, not equals in every respect: I’d be the first to say that. We have different strengths and weaknesses, different temperaments, and mindsets, and our lives dance to different hormones and rhythms, but we complement one another, help and support one another, sometimes frustrate the hell out of one another, and are two sides of the same coin. It is important that we value one another.
Whether you’re a women’s libber or a woman hater, bear in mind the deprivations that spawned woman’s fight for equality and the courage that fight has taken. There are cultures where women are still treated as chattels and barely human. We must be ever wary that human rights, rights and freedoms for both men and women, are not eroded while we sleep.