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Women, Marriage and the Law in Victorian Society
School of English, University of St Andrews, UK
When Victoria came to the throne in 1837, two main factors shaped the lives of her female subjects: on the one hand, the rhetorical claim that marriage and family life were the necessary and sufficient conditions of a woman’s fulfilment; on the other, the reality that under the common law principles of coverture a married woman’s property, children, and body belonged to her husband, and her legal existence was wholly subsumed in his. The task facing Victorian feminists was to challenge the laws governing property rights, the custody of infants, divorce, prostitution, and the power of the courts to enforce a woman to live with her husband against her will (the doctrine of ‘conjugal rights’). In varying degrees they were able to amend each of these laws, but not to achieve their core aims: to abolish the fiction of spousal unity, and to establish co-equal legal and political rights for men and women. That task remained for a later generation of feminists.