Should the Suffragettes gain all the credit?
When it comes to the subject of women’s legal rights, the first – and often only – representatives of the movement that come to mind are the Suffragettes. By all means, access to the vote was an overdue legal privilege that should have been granted to women a long time ago, and the Suffragettes deserve all the fame that they get for placing such an important landmark in British history. However, access to the vote was one thing, but what about access to keep your own money, rather than it being the husband’s possession? What about access to petition for custody of your own children who were still at an age of maternal dependency? What about access to a divorce from a spouse that had cruelly mistreated you? All these questions had been answered by one woman, and by one woman only. Caroline Norton did not burn down the churches that were responsible for the ecclesiastical courts that had the monopoly of granting divorce, nor did she loot the windows of the Parliament that originally refused to turn her proposition of the Custody of Infants Act into a legal statute.
There is so much to be said about Caroline’s crusade through legal history, yet half of us probably haven’t heard of her until now. Caroline Norton was mainly associated with reform of marital and child custody rights. It must be emphasised how brave and strong-headed she must have been to convince the House of Commons and the House of Lords – both being male dominated bodies – to bring forward not one, not two, but three legal Acts to ameliorate the legal restrictions imposed upon women. The following Acts were the Custody of Infants Act 1839, Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. This had all been achieved by her own merit and at a time where her reputation had been severely discredited by false accusations of infidelity that her husband had flooded the newspapers with. Caroline’s notorious marriage to her husband George Norton was the hot topic in Britain for decades due to both of them holding a high political status. Abducting their children and physically abusing his wife whilst pregnant are only a few examples of the myriad times George used the double-standards in the law present at the time to his advantage as a device to torture Caroline. Up until the prime of Caroline’s legal journey, coverture was still very much a major hindrance on women’s marital rights and it was Caroline who created the foundation for the women’s movement that later social reformers such as Josephine Butler and the Suffragettes would build on.
Individual social reformers such as Caroline Norton should not be left in the past purely because a group of women managed to achieve one legal right – regardless of how major it was. Over time, figures like Caroline have been cast away into the shadow of the Suffragettes and it is our responsibility to ensure that such influential figures do not fade away in legal history.