In Oliver Twist, the unhappily married Mr. Bumble, who puts a 9 year old Oliver to work at the main workhouse, is told by the Magistrate hearing a case against Mrs Bumble that
“the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”
to which Mr Bumble replies
“if the law supposes that … the law is an ass—an idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”
Until the Married Women’s property Acts were passed at the end of the nineteenth century married women were classed as Femes covert meaning a husband and wife are one person at law; therefore the very being or existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.
In 1720 William Tipping died intestate, and questions arose as to his widow’s entitlement to the recipe, (and whether it formed part of his estate) for a Patent medicine known as Tipping’s Liquor which was advertised to be “good against” various ailments.
The Court held that whether it was part of the estate or not depended on whether the widow had found the recipe on a piece of paper or it had been communicated to her during the deceased’s lifetime.
The system of feme covert developed in England in the Middle Ages preventing a married woman from having her own separate property during marriage. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children, had rights to any property they brought into the marriage & to life usage of one-third of their husbands’ estate.
Apart from such generally applicable laws, many women were in a position of legal dependence as a result of their particular situation, therefore wealthy fathers and husbands often left their daughters’ estates in a trust.
The Married Women’s Property Acts allowed a married woman to acquire, hold, and dispose of separate property within a marriage, as well as gaining the right to sue and be sued.. This gave married women the freedom to deal with her property as if she were a single woman.
It was not the Parliament’s intent to give married women the same public rights as men. It was a means of protecting a married women’s property from her husband allowing inheritance to be passed through her Will. In fact one enlightened member of parliament claimed ‘If we are going to give women power over property, and make them into women of business, politicians and doctors, we should in a very short time alter the entire course of family life’.
Essentially the Act established a separate property regime for married women during marriage.